There surely have been times that Clearwater's former elected officials looked back on a decision they made and regretted making it. I predict that someday the current Clearwater City Council members will look back on a decision they made Monday and say, "We really wish we hadn't done that."
The decision: to make themselves the judges of what is "good" or "acceptable" public art so they can reject art they think is divisive or offensive.
Since art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, why would they want such a headache?
It all goes back to Sorcerer's Gate.
That's the name of the purple sculpture placed in the median of downtown's Cleveland Street for a 12-month run earlier this year. The name the artist gave to the fanciful arch with a tail or ringlet dangling from the top was objectionable to some people on religious grounds. They seemed to equate it with the devil, even though a sorcerer is a magician, not the devil.
City Council members had not expected such a stir when they adopted a public art ordinance in 2005. They just thought it would be nice to have more art scattered around the city.
The ordinance requires the city to spend at least 1 percent of the construction budget for city capital projects on public art, up to $200,000 per project. Private developers doing projects worth more than $5-million also are required to either spend 1 percent of the project's aggregate job value to display art on their property where the public can view it, or pay into a city art fund.
The City Council appointed an independent Public Art and Design Board to administer the public art program and choose the art. That board would get help from art experts and local residents to make the selections.
Three pieces were selected from artists' submissions to be displayed for a year on three "stages" created in the center median of Cleveland Street. One of those selections was Sorcerer's Gate.
After hearing people call Sorcerer's Gate "wicked" or a "message from hell," among other things, Mayor Frank Hibbard said he wanted the right to approve or disapprove of the Public Art and Design Board's choices of art to be placed on public property. Monday he and three other council members — Paul Gibson, John Doran and George Cretekos — directed the city attorney to write an amendment to the public art ordinance that would give them the final vote.
"When we're using public property, we should try not to offend," said Gibson. "We can talk about artistic freedom, etc., but if it's offending a large portion of our population, then it's divisive and I'm not for it."
Council member Carlen Petersen vigorously opposed such an amendment. She wanted the Public Art and Design Board to retain final authority to make the choices, rather than becoming what is essentially an advisory board. And though she heard some criticisms of Sorcerer's Gate, she said she heard from as many or more people who like it.
"You're never going to find a piece of art that doesn't offend somebody," she said, and she accused her colleagues of trying to "sanitize art."
How will the council decide what is acceptable and what isn't? When City Manager Bill Horne asked council members to tell him which "community sensitivities" might be offended by art, the council struggled to name something. Mayor Hibbard mentioned "things that are racial, certain things that are religious, things that would be visually improper," but then said, "It's like pornography — you know it when you see it."
The public likely will not find out what standards council members are using when they make those decisions, because City Attorney Pam Akin plans to advise them to say just "I like this" or "I don't like this," and give no details. She knows that if they reject a piece of art because of its message, and say so, they risk running afoul of the First Amendment's protection of free speech.
Art is expressive. It is interpretive. It is challenging. At its best, it draws from us not a mere glance, but thought, emotion and deeper examination. It makes us ask ourselves questions: What does this mean? Do I like it? What was the artist's point?
In that respect, Sorcerer's Gate has been a great success. But some members of the City Council seem to want to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is email@example.com. To write a letter to the editor for publication, go to www.sptimes.com/letters.