Public art big and small gets boost at City Commission meeting

The Sarasota City Commission has accepted the donation of John Henry's 'Complexus,' located just east of the U.S. 41/Gulfstream Avenue intersection. Photo by Norman Schimmel

The Sarasota City commissioners agreed to accept the donation of a gigantic piece of sculpture at their Monday evening session, June 18. “Complexus” by John Henry (a different kind of steel-drivin’ man) is on its way to becoming part of the city’s public art collection.

If you’re waiting at the traffic light at John Ringling Causeway and U.S. 41, “Complexus” is the huge scarlet steel sculpture coming out of the ground to the east. The Sarasota Public Arts Fund is negotiating with the artist and the Season of Sculpture to purchase the piece.

The Public Arts Fund will cover the details – copyright, 10-year guarantee on maintenance, two-year guarantee on structural integrity, insurance – and make the formal donation to the city after a deal is struck. The deal needed commission approval for the sculpture to remain on its current public site; the commissioners unanimously approved an extension of the lease to allow completion of the deal.

‘A walk through time’

Earlier in the afternoon, the commissioners were also supportive of a permanent display of historical photographs in the City Commission chambers. Sherry Svekis, chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Board, asked for money to make that happen. She had $1,0000 already from the Downtown Improvement District to display more than 30 photographs ranging from images of the homesteading days of the late 1800s to a 1966 shot of Cub Scouts marching down Main Street.

Most of the photos feature downtown; in Svekis’ words, “The built environment is an artifact. It reflects changing values and tastes.”

Some of the photos will come from the collection of Pete Esthus, the city’s amateur historian and archivist who died recently. Jetson Grimes, president of the Greater Newtown Community Redevelopment Corp., had been consulted, and Jeff LaHurd at the Sarasota County History Center, too, she said. City Historian Clifford Smith says it will be a museum-quality exhibition, with the potential to change as more images become available.

Commissioners will have to live with this exhibit, but it may give them a sense of perspective as they make challenging decisions in a room where challenging decisions are meant to be made.

‘A Child’s Journey’

Things were not nearly as smooth in the afternoon when Public Art Committee Chairman George Haborak reported an impasse with a “steering committee” working on another commission. “There is a disconnect,” he said. “The steering committee doesn’t understand why the Public Art Committee won’t support their proposal. They have no details, only generalizations.”

However, there was also ambiguity in the Public Art Committee’s votes. On May 9, the steering committee presented a plan for an interactive series of nine small bronze sculptures around downtown with the narrative theme of “Diverity of the Arts: A Child’s Journey.”

After the presentation, Haborak passed the gavel and moved to reject the concept; his motion passed 5-1. Andrew Maass then moved “to support the inclusion of a sculptural aspect of the interactive art project.” After more discussion, member Trulee Jameson amended the motion “to support the concept of a visual component to be approved by the Public Art Committee.” That passed 5-1, with Haborak in the minority. The quotes are from a city summary of the action.

What has led to the art committee’s flip-flopping? “The project will consist of a children’s book, scavenger hunt where participants search for the art objects, and other marketing tools as part of an integrated marketing campaign to be developed by the Downtown Improvement District, Downtown Sarasota Alliance, [Greater] Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Sarasota County Arts Alliance as a collaborative partnership with the city public art program,” according to a steering committee document.

The city has budgeted $55,000 for the project, which will cover the sculptures. The rest – the children’s book, marketing campaign, merchandise, interactive components – would come from the partners listed above.

The nine sculptures proposed would be small renditions – a foot high or less – of a ballet dancer, opera singer, visual artist, theater actor, circus performer, orchestra musician, marine scientist, filmmaker and writer. But nothing’s final.

Sprinkled around downtown, perhaps swapping positions, the figurines would provide excellent scavenger hunt targets.

Staff urged the City Commission to move forward. Smith, the staff member assigned to the Public Art Committee, said, “Staff is requesting to go forward with the project as directed, working with the partners on the selection committee that have approved and bought into this project.”

It’s been tough going for the project since its inception on Aug. 10, 2011, when the Public Art Committee voted 3-2 to proceed. However, Mayor Suzanne Atwell was not willing to delay the initiative. “I’m not prepared to wait any longer; we need to get this project moving,” she said.

At that point, a member of the steering committee came to the dais. Virginia Hoffman-Meketon said, “The steering committee has been enthusiastic and ready to get working on it,” she said. “If you have any fears about the success of this project, you will still have the opportunity to see who the artist is, and what the art may look like.”

Discussion was proceeding under a motion by City Commissioner Shannon Snyder to table the mess for a month. But after Hoffman-Meketon spoke, that was defeated 5-0, with both the maker of the motion and the second voting it down. A second motion by Snyder to accept the Public Art Committee’s report was also unanimous. And a third motion by Snyder to tell the steering committee to move forward was a trifecta – three 5-0 votes on the issue.

There’s much more work to be done before we see nine wee statutes peering out around downtown. But the fundamental decision is done. From the dominating “Complexus” to elf-sized bronze artists to our vanished sepia past, Sarasota keeps adding to its public collection of art that keeps us on the map.