Monday, July 11, 2011

Sould your taxes pay for art in public buildings.

Behind a secure door, up an elevator, down a hallway, behind a partition and inside some crates is a piece of public art.

The colorful glass sculpture inside, called "Linaje,'' cost taxpayers $25,000 and was planned for "high visibility.'' So far, it's only getting exposure as a symbol of troubles in Broward County's Art in Public Places program.

Public art advocates say Florida is a national leader in spending public money on quality art. All three South Florida counties do it. But can taxpayers afford it? This time, it's Broward that's split in debate.

Exasperated Broward officials, most of them supporters of public art, nevertheless said it's time to tighten up a program that has allowed the glass sculpture to lie unseen long after it was paid for and created, and that shifts tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to art when painful cuts have been made elsewhere.

Commissioners also want a say in what art gets built, where.

"I look at my own life,'' Broward's John Rodstrom said. "I have collected art in the past and I haven't bought a piece in a while. I don't have the disposable income. I think a lot of America feels that way right now.''

No, thanks

Some taxpayers don't want government taking their money and buying art with it, especially art they think is ugly.

One remedy that's likely to be approved in the fall — commissioners said they want to hold a public vote on every art project with a price tag of $100,000 or more.

"It's ridiculous. Especially today, I don't think we have the money to be spending on crappy art like that," traveler and Deerfield Beach resident Robert Pinder said, standing in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and pointing to an artist's airplane hanging from a ceiling.

Will the public like a $185,000 "Curtain of Democracy'' 25-foot tall totem pole that represents "the flow of democracy in action''? It was approved in 2009 for the elections headquarters, and is on hold.

Does the public appreciate, or just mock, the giant coral "rice cake'' and "upside down ice cream cone'' geometric sculptures on the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale?

A $66,000 freestanding drum circle just revives a bad memory for Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, an arts supporter. In an episode of "I Love Lucy," Little Ricky banged on a set of drums, tap-tap-tapping on Lucy and Ricky's nerves.

The drums will be installed when Pompano Beach's Northeast Transit Center is built. It's not art, Jacobs complained.

"I think of that just as I think in the episode of "I Love Lucy" they thought of those drums: making them crazy.''

No more "plop art'

One thing has already changed: There'll be no more art that's just plopped down for people to look at in Broward.

Deriding standalone art as "plop art,'' Broward officials in January rewrote the public art law to say that all the art has to be "integrated'' into the project, making it more practical and less subject to public criticism.

Every Broward government-built project gets public art — even renovations do — usually at a price that's 2 percent of the overall budget, though commissioners can reduce it or cut it out entirely.

Functional, integrated public art is something like the "Flying Saucer Grove'' that provides lighting outside the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise.

Plop art, though, would be something like the military busts in Veterans Park west of Boca Raon. The 14-foot steel eagle at Zoo Miami. The "Gumby''-like family outside the Broward Sheriff's Office on Broward Boulevard.

Or in Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Memorial.

You call that public?

It might be public art, but that doesn't mean you can go look at it.

The $25,000 glass "Linaje'' is hidden behind a partition on an unused floor of Broward's Main Library. It was waiting for all the glass in the library to be replaced, but because of all the attention, Broward Cultural Division Director Mary Becht said it'll be assembled soon.

It's not the only hidden public art.

The Sun Sentinel had to have an escort to view art in cruise terminals at Port Everglades.

One of the art pieces there, a much-ballyhooed neon-light piece embedded in the ceiling, might never be seen by most people — it will be dismantled and possibly discarded from public use, officials said, because the terminal is one of three to be renovated. And when that happens, the county plans to spend another $462,000 on public art.

Anywhere, USA

"People sit on them, rub them, kiss them, pray to them, lean on them, sleep on them, trip over them, and birds love them also,'' as one lady put it to commissioners.

"They are our legacy, and speak volumes as to what kind of people we are,'' local historic preservationist Steve Glassman urged. "Otherwise we could be Anywhere, USA. And that would be sad.''

At the Americans for the Arts non-profit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., Liesel Fenner said she'd just come back recently from West Palm Beach, where an annual public art convention was held. She called public art "integral to tourism'' and said Miami-Dade and Broward have high-level programs. Palm Beach County's is much more modest, its art collection smaller.

Broward officials said art spending might not be a priority for people right now. Broward's Jacobs said it should be delayed or cut back, and can come back with a flourish when the economy does.

People are having tough times, they've lost jobs, they've lost homes.

But Broward Mayor Sue Gunzburger argued they need art now more than ever.

There's a Hebrew word, n'shamah, she told her colleagues.

"It means soul. And art is part of the soul of a community.''

Then commissioners voted 6-3 to approve another art project, this one a plaza for the coming Broward County Courthouse. Price tag: $610,000.

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