Public Art Committee’s future in jeopardy

‘Sharing’ by Bruno Lucchesi stands outside Selby Public Library. Photo by Stan Zimmerman

The City of Sarasota’s Public Art Committee is going under a political microscope to determine whether it lives or dies. The last item on the Sept. 4 City Commission agenda was a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the current chairman of the committee.

“Now we have advisory board members suing the city,” said Commissioner Terry Turner. “We should decommission this standing committee and rely on ad hoc committees instead. How do we do that?”

Commissioner Shannon Snyder quickly backed Turner’s idea. “I’d be receptive to studying it,” he said. “The [public art] fund is less than $150,000. For what it is, we’re not seeing any great amount of money coming into the fund anytime soon.”

The city requires all major developments to apportion one-half of 1% of any project’s costs to providing public art for the project. Such art is often a sculpture outside the resulting building, but the work can be located in a public space inside the building.

The Public Art Committee has had the role of passing judgment on the proposed art, taking the “artistic decision” out of the hands of elected officials who sometimes lack any aesthetic sensibility, committee members have said. The committee also is responsible for public art in or near public buildings.

Probably the most extreme examples of taste are at the downtown Selby Library. Inside is an ultra-modernist mobile in perpetual motion. It was designed by Tim Prentice. Outside, at the western end of the parking lot, is a retro-American figurative in bronze called “Sharing” by Bruno Lucchesi. It depicts a family reading a book.

The suit

The lawsuit triggering Turner’s fire-the-committee comment was filed on July 11 by George Haborak and Citizens for Sunshine. Haborak is the chairman of the Public Art Committee. Citizens for Sunshine is a group advocating transparency in government.

The issue revolved around a “steering committee” established after Mayor Suzanne Atwell returned from Ashville, N.C., where a public art program called “Mice on Main” was a big hit. Children would look for small statues of mice in the downtown area.

Atwell wanted something similar in Sarasota, and the steering committee came up with something called “Diversity in the Arts: A Child’s Journey.” Eight small bronze sculptures would be created with $55,000 from the public art budget. The plan went through the Public Art Committee, and with staff’s recommendation, the city commissioners voted unanimously for its approval.

There was only one catch. The “steering committee” met “out of the sunshine” five times and took formal minutes only once. Florida has a strict open-meetings law that requires advance meeting notices to the public, and it further requires that meetings be held in public spaces.

When City Attorney Bob Fournier was apprised of the steering committee’s actions, he alerted the City Commission and offered to resolve the problem. But before he could get started, Haborak and Citizens for Sunshine filed suit, asking that the project and associated funding be voided and that Haborak’s and the organization’s legal expenses be reimbursed.

Fournier immediately tried to settle the case, but that took weeks. On Monday, the City Commission agreed to pay about $5,000 in legal fees to Haborak and Citizens for Sunshine, and wiped out the project.

“We will make mistakes,” said Turner. “It’s disturbing when we admit a mistake and still get sued. That costs the taxpayer money.”

Stepping forward

Nothing in the agreement prevents the Public Art Committee from taking up the same project with the same dollars. Except now there are fewer dollars. Turner made a motion to pay the legal fees from the Public Art Fund. “It is a legitimate expense for the art fund,” he said. Snyder seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

“It is sad to see this happening,” said Atwell. “I want to see this project, and any others that may come our way. I’m hoping we can continue to work with public art. We need to move forward.”

When Turner suggested the Public Art Committee be abolished, Fourier reminded him of the requirement for new developments to fund public art projects. Speaking of the role the committee has in that effort, Fournier said, “You could redirect that responsibility.” He said he would be willing to research the matter and bring back the results.

Turner then made a motion calling for the city attorney to look at the options to eliminate the Public Art Committee and report back to the City Commission. The motion was approved unanimously.