As the city looks to put more art in its roundabouts, a discussion arises on scale and public input

 The City Commission considers means of providing more public response in the future before settling on designs

City Commissioner Susan Chapman. News Leader archive
City Commissioner Susan Chapman. News Leader archive

One week after the City of Sarasota announced the roundabout at Orange Avenue and Main Street was fully open to traffic, the city commissioners revisited the topic of the height of the sculpture chosen for display in the roundabout’s center.

In what might be called typical Sarasota fashion — where public art often equates to public debate — disagreement among commissioners and residents arose over whether the Embracing Our Differences sculpture, by Arizona artist S. Blessing Hancock, was too tall.

Ultimately, the city commissioners decided to take no action on the matter during their special meeting on Oct. 27, thus reaffirming their Oct. 19 vote to make Hancock’s sculpture the first to be placed in a downtown Sarasota roundabout.

The subjective topic of art often comes down to style and aesthetics, but commissioners mainly focused this week on questions of scale: Would the sculpture look too large for the space? Is it proportionate to other public art in the city? Would it work with the planned landscaping in the roundabout?

The commissioners also wrangled with how best to make certain they encourage sufficient public participation before selecting future sculptures, as city staff works toward installing more art in roundabouts as the latter structures are built.

The topic was added to the agenda for the Oct. 27 special City Commission meeting, which was scheduled to discuss the Housing First approach to homelessness. Commissioner Susan Chapman requested the item be added to the agenda.

The sculpture approved during the Oct. 19 City Commission meeting was a public art donation by the developer of the One Palm hotel and condominium tower, which is under construction in downtown Sarasota. The One Palm project team had worked with the Embracing Our Differences organization on the donation. The piece, an abstraction of an infinity loop, is meant to celebrate cultural diversity and advance the city’s focus on diversity and inclusion, according to paperwork filed with the city by One Palm and Embracing our Differences.

After that Oct. 19 vote, however, Chapman had second thoughts about the size of the sculpture and went to look at the site. “Given the size of the roundabout, is it too large?” she asked at Tuesday’s meeting.

The sculpture approved for the Orange Avenue?Main Street roundabout will be 20 feet tall. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
The sculpture approved for the Orange Avenue/Main Street roundabout will be 20 feet tall. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“I didn’t want to rescind the gift, but the only way I could bring it back up was under a rescind motion to discuss the size of the sculpture,” Chapman said. “I just wanted to have a discussion about the size of this, because I want it to work out. I want our first sculpture in a roundabout to be a success. That’s why I brought it back up. I am a little concerned that the scale is too large for the space.”

She noted that most sculptures in the 20-foot height range typically are placed in large plazas.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown showed the board one computer-generated rendering of the sculpture at a height of 20 feet and another with the piece at 15 feet. Brown pointed out that the Unconditional Surrender sculpture on the bayfront is 26 feet tall.

Opinions on scale

During the Oct. 27 discussion, Commissioner Liz Alpert voiced concerns about a reversal of the earlier vote on the roundabout sculpture. “I don’t think it is a precedent we want to set: We vote for things and then the next meeting, we are going to change our mind and rescind our vote,” she said. “I just think it is the wrong thing to do.”

The 20-foot-tall sculpture “looked fine” in the computer-generated image the deputy city manager showed the board, she pointed out. “It actually makes it look great,” Alpert said of the rendering.

But at least one other commissioner shared Chapman’s concerns. Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie also questioned the scale, even though a juried committee felt the height of the sculpture was proportionate and did not interfere with the overhead power lines. “I said, ‘It looks big to me,’” Eddie told her colleagues on Tuesday.

Hoffman said she was pleased with the selection of Hancock as an artist, but she was worried about the sculpture towering over the roundabout.

The Orange Avenue roundabout opened last week in downtown Sarasota. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota
The Orange Avenue/Main Street roundabout opened last week in downtown Sarasota. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

“In my opinion, this piece has to be reduced in size,” Hoffman told the commissioners. “Just imagine a 20-foot-tall column there.” Hoffman added, “I’m sure this is something simple to work out.” She noted that several years ago a different proposed public art piece was reduced in size, and the artist was grateful for the suggestion because the final result looked better in the space.

Vicki Randall, a sculptor and a faculty member at the Ringling College of Art & Design, said she believes the Embracing Our Differences sculpture is the right size.

“This piece is very linear, and you can see through all the elements of it,” Randall told the commissioners. “Twenty feet is a perfect scale, for the tall building to the north [of the roundabout] and the restaurant to the south.”

Randall added that the reflective colors of the sculpture will show up against the green backdrop of the nearby trees, in part, because the artwork’s top point will be just below the tree line.

The plan is to install landscaping around the base of the sculpture.

More art, more input

In the future, Chapman suggested, members of the public should have ample opportunity to offer their thoughts as the city considers public art for future downtown roundabouts.

“I’m not an arbitrator of the aesthetics,” Chapman said, “but I would say when we are going to start to do these sculptures in the roundabouts, we should have more consideration of public input and more than one meeting, so we [commissioners] can go back and look [at the sites], based upon information we receive at the meeting.”

City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini pointed out that, although the action is not required by law, the City Commission could schedule a public hearing when the next roundabout art piece comes up for consideration. Nadalini noted that public art, at times, can be controversial. “Art is something beautiful, but it can be forever,” she added.

A public hearing would enable residents, business leaders, artists and art critics to present their views.

Virginia Hoffman, an artist and fine art photographer who served on the city’s Public Art Committee advisory board for 10 years, suggested the commission hold a workshop with the Public Art Committee to develop a “set of best practices” regarding how to handle art in roundabouts in the future.