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An obituary for public art? Not yet

So long, public art. Nice knowing you.

Okay, so that's a tad dramatic. Public art — those provocative pieces you see around town, in parks and outside your local courthouse — is not dead. Officially. Yet.

But given the dismal daily news of bone-deep budget cuts and unemployment, no one was shocked to hear that Hillsborough County is suspending a requirement that up to 1 percent of construction costs for new government buildings be spent on public art. (That's capped at $150,000, by the way, not that there's a mad rash of building at the moment.)

The county's action is a shame, even if the economy makes it hard to argue the point. It's so tough out there that the same commission just voted to contribute to a $1.2 million incentive to keep a company and its 1,633 jobs in Tampa instead of bolting for, say, India.

Art can be low-hanging fruit. State funding for public art has gotten the stink-eye. ("Fat," Sen. Ronda Storms has pronounced it.) Last year, Pinellas County killed arts programs, but committed to seed money for a local arts agency. Broward is looking at tightening its program.

It's worth noting that in years past, there was another county rallying cry for chopping funds over pieces like Tampa's big, bold, green and gold Lady Justice statue at the courthouse. So you don't like it, get rid of it? Lady J. does stir opinion — but isn't that what art is supposed to do?

The best thing about public art is it's there for anyone, not all museumed up. The dilemma, then: Any spending is hard to defend right now. Also right now, we want more than ever to be an attractive place for businesses and new residents, and an arts-friendly atmosphere definitely helps.

Hillsborough does have projects funded and in the works, and public art programs in Tampa and St. Petersburg survive. (How much does St. Pete like its accessible art? When the tiled art they call the beach balls at North Shore pool got too expensive to refurbish with public art funds, the parks department took over maintenance.) People are being, to use an arty word, creative.

Lights on Tampa, the city's most visible outdoor display, was largely paid for with federal grants and private money. Proponents talk up art that also has a concrete public purpose, like a plaza with shade structures for the SouthShore library.

Then there's the Exploding Chicken, probably Tampa's best-known (and best-nicknamed) outdoor art. The George Sugarman piece, a massive metal burst of yellow, black and white, sat for decades on a prominent downtown corner, then was donated to the city by new building owners America's Capital Partners, which also gave money to move it. The city had a great idea: Put it in the traffic circle in the Channel District near the aquarium, a bold piece for visitors to see.

But installing the Chicken turned out to be cost-prohibitive at more than $100,000, so it sits in pieces in storage. "I think people miss it," says Bob McDonaugh, manager for economic development in the area.

But with donated free labor and a redesign expected to cut costs in half, he says, the Chicken could rise triumphant by year's end.

And maybe if elected officials know voters care about art even now, and creative people keep coming up with artful ways to save it, public art can survive even this.

An obituary for public art? Not yet 07/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 22, 2011 12:18am]

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