Commissioner Alpert had sought approval for community residents to work with city staff on language that the board members would have to approve before installation
On Dec. 6, the three male Sarasota city commissioners prevailed over the two women commissioners in voting against proposed signage that would provide more details about the 1945 incident in New York City that the city’s Unconditional Surrenderstatute depicts.
Commissioner Liz Alpert had requested that a discussion about the signage be placed on the agenda. She reminded her colleagues that when they agreed last year to relocate the statue to an area of Bayfront Park, they also talked about providing alternate interpretative signage at the site, to explain different viewpoints about the artwork. The sculpture shows a sailor kissing a nurse to celebrate the end of World War II.
In an August email to city staff and commissioners, Kafi Benz of Sarasota, president of Friends of Seagate Inc., pointed out that, in July 2020, the city’s Public Art Committee recommended “that the sculpture be donated to the Shriners and displayed at their private facility [on North Beneva Road] along with an explanation of the now well-documented fact that [the kiss] was not a consensual act.”
Benz added that when the City Commission decided in November 2020 to retain ownership of the statue and to display it on the bayfront, “Alpert explicitly invited those concerned with the social implications of the display of this imagery to contribute a sign explaining the circumstances and controversy, a recommendation endorsed by the four other commissioners as well.”
Benz then explained, “Friends of Seagate, the historical preservation and conservation organization I head, has stepped forward in answer to those public invitations.”
On Dec. 6, Alpert told her colleagues that her goal with the agenda request was to gain their support “to move this forward,” allowing a group of city residents “to work with city staff” to come up with the language for the alternative interpretative sign. The commissioners would have final approval of the language, she pointed out.
As The Sarasota News Leader reported in November 2020, more women had come forward over the months leading up the board’s discussion about relocating the statue, urging the commissioners not to return Unconditional Surrender to its bayfront site after the completion of the Gulfstream Avenue roundabout at U.S. 41. The construction of that project necessitated removing Unconditional Surrender from its highly visible spot next to U.S. 41.
In June 2020, Friends of Seagate had provided details to city leaders about the reality behind the famous photograph on which Unconditional Surrender is based.
In correspondence with members of the city’s Public Art Committee, Benz attached a document titled Ignorance is no excuse. That explained the background of the Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, shot in Times Square on V-J Day.
“Four exposures were taken of the original assault,” the document says. “The first of them even shows the woman socking the sailor in the face. Another shows her attempt to keep her dress from being dragged up her body by the man holding her in a headlock with one arm and pushing up her skirt as he exerts his tight grip with the other [emphasis in the document]. He has forced her backward, off balance, on one foot. Her right arm is fending him off even though it is wedged between their bodies. Her one free arm is the only futile defense she has. It is an assault that could be grounds for courts marshal [sic] or arrest in any age, even the 1940s.”
During the Dec. 6 City Commission meeting, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch also voiced support for allowing the private individuals to work with city staff on alternative interpretative signage.
However, Commissioner Hagen Brody urged his colleagues not to support Alpert’s request.
“Some people are trying to make a ‘Me Too’ issue out of Unconditional Surrender,” he said — “the same group of people that have been, you know, complaining about it since it was installed. The community really loves that piece.”
Providing alternative interpretative signage about the statute would “improperly undermine the importance of the piece to a lot of people in this community,” Brody added. “It’s a controversy that we just don’t need to put ourselves into and create for no reason.”
The signage pays homage to the veterans of World War II, he stressed.
Mayor Erik Arroyo and Vice Mayor Kyle Battie ended up siding with Brody,
Asked for comments following the Dec. 6 vote, Benz of Friends of Seagate provided this statement to the News Leader:
“I watched video of the city commission discussion … regarding a request to authorize city staff to provide professional guidance in preparation of text for a proposed second interpretive sign at Unconditional Surrender (there is one there already) that would address the significant controversies regarding this statue and that would be privately funded (as was the existing interpretive sign at the statue, but without any oversight of its language or the inaccurate information included in it).
“It was a tortuous discussion that exemplified precisely the need for additional interpretation regarding the controversy regarding perception of the image — without even addressing correction of [a] factual error, the copyright infringement of the original and celebrated photograph, the fact that the statue is one of many iterations of manufactured and not original artwork, nor the kitschy nature of the statue — in a community that celebrates its stature as the fine arts capital of the state.
“The protracted opposition by a commissioner to initiating a process that would be reviewed by the commission as well as the [Public Art Committee] before even being considered as acceptable to the commission and the art committee, was an embarrassment. It came across as rigid resistance to exploration of the varying perceptions of the statue and the controversies that have raged around the world where multiple iterations of it have been installed.”
Benz added, “The discussion took more than an hour to reach a decision without consensus, that the city was unwilling even to explore acknowledgement of the existing controversies, much less the impact the statue may have upon those who are disturbed by their perceptions of its nature and the facts associated with it. This ill-founded outcome begs for reconsideration because previous commissions recognized that another interpretive sign could mitigate such issues,” Benz concluded.
The issue before the commissioners on Dec. 6
In response to a question on Dec. 6 from Vice Mayor Battie, Commissioner Alpert asked Mary Davis Wallace, the city’s senior planner for public art, to explain the process that was being proposed.
The board was being asked to decide whether to allow staff to work on the text of the new interpretative signage, Wallace said. “We do not believe that this needs to be a very long sign,” she added, noting that it would serve an educational purpose. She characterized the effort as a means of encouraging a civic discussion about Unconditional Surrender.
Battie then told his colleagues that he believes every person who views a work of art should be entitled to his or her own interpretation of it. If the commission allowed the new signage at the statue, he added, that signage would be based on “someone else’s perspective, you know, whatever that might be, you know.”
Mayor Erik Arroyo initially said, “I don’t have a problem” with the proposal. However, he added, he was concerned about the potential that approving the initiative would set a precedent. “I’m hoping this is just a one-time thing, but if we start going in and putting interpretative language into every single piece of art, I certainly wouldn’t want that.”
Nonetheless, he said, he did recall the commission discussion that Alpert initially referenced that morning in regard to signage for Unconditional Surrender.
Ahearn-Koch stressed her view that the new signage would represent an educational opportunity. “Sometimes we have to have the hard discussions, because life isn’t always pretty or fair.”
When Arroyo asked for any further comments, Brody emphasized once more his opposition to the idea. “Look, I’m a Democrat,” he said, “but this is woke gone too far. It really is.”
Brody asserted that the plaque in place at the statue is well written in describing the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. “And that is the point and that is supposed to be the discussion that it creates,” he continued — “to never forget that moment in history and the jubilation that came after … we won the war.”
He argued that the new signage would be a show of disrespect to veterans. Brody added that all he had read and heard had led him to believe that the couple depicted in Unconditional Surrender rejected the “Me Too” characterization.
“A lot of what Commissioner Brody said I certainly agree with,” Alpert told her colleagues. “I would only support something that showed accurately the actual facts,” she added. In looking at Unconditional Surrender, she continued, “I see the joy of celebration of that day. … But there are people who see it differently.”
Therefore, Alpert said, she would support new interpretive signage that contains “nothing subjective, nothing with adjectives about either party [in the statue], just a more accurate depiction of what took place.”
Battie acknowledged, “You don’t want to be in the position of trying to marginalize, you know, someone else’s concerns [or trauma].”
Still, he continued, Sarasota is known for its art. Like Arroyo, he added, he was concerned about setting a precedent for alternative interpretive signage. Moreover, Battie said, “What is going to be the interpretation? … I don’t want to get into the whole, you know, thing of trying to delineate between truth and fact.”
Offering what she called “guidance from the public art realm,” Senior Planner Wallace told the board members, “Every one of you has a different interpretation of the piece, and none of you are wrong. I think that is the point of public art.”
Nonetheless, she said, “Every now and then you’ll hit a very controversial piece that is part of … a collection. … Most cities have one.”
“This piece, she added, “has garnered attention nationally and internationally.”
Wallace also stressed that the proposed signage would not express the feelings of city leaders. It would make it clear, she continued, that city leaders recognize “there are people in society who feel this way. And I think that’s all we need to say.” The signage, she said, would recognize that different viewpoints exist.
When Arroyo asked for assurance that the commissioners would have final say on the language, if they agreed to allow staff to work with the private individuals, Wallace told him that that was correct.
“What’s wrong with the current language [on the plaque at the statue]?” Arroyo asked.
“There is a discrepancy in the sign,” Wallace replied. “The woman is not a nurse; she is a dental assistant,” so that needs to be corrected, Wallace said.
Brody criticizes city staff member
After Alpert made her motion to allow staff to work with the group seeking the new interpretative signage, she stressed that that was the only step she was seeking that day. She also called for the Public Art Committee to review the resulting proposed language before that comes to the City Commission for consideration.
Ahearn-Koch seconded the motion, emphasizing once more the educational opportunity. The new interpretative sign, with the existing one, she said, “support each other, because we are a big, vast community, and we want to represent inclusiveness and accessibility to our public art.”
Brody again protested the proposal. Moreover, pointing at Wallace, he said, “You’re advocating for it, first of all, and you shouldn’t do that, in my opinion.”
Then he told Alpert that the facts about the sailor kissing the woman “are on the plaque as currently displayed.”
City Manager Marlon Brown responded to Brody: “We’re not advocating for [the new sign]. We’re following the direction of a commissioner …”
Brody insisted that Wallace, in his opinion, was advocating for the second sign.
Alpert also rejected Brody’s claim, adding that she had asked Wallace to be present “to explain what we were talking about.”
Battie said, “We’re, you know, trying to, you know, take something vintage … or old, if you will … and then apply like where we are in our feelings and so on today to, like, yesterday.”
Arroyo told his colleagues that, before the discussion ensued, he did not know how he would vote. “It is divisive rhetoric,” he said of the proposed new sign, adding that Brody “made a very good argument.”
The statue was a gift to the city, Arroyo continued. “We’re trying to rewrite history. I can see now this is opening up a can of worms.”
Yet, Ahearn-Koch stressed, “It’s not about alienating anyone or vilifying anyone. It’s about inclusion.”
Finally, when Arroyo called for the vote, Alpert’s motion failed 2-3.