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Public art will focus on Hillsborough’s transportation history

A planned mural inside the county center is intended to showcase transit's role in the county's development.

TAMPA — The art on a public bus exterior honors music in Tampa. Now, Hillsborough County is acting in harmony to put the spotlight on transportation through its own public art project.

Last week, county commissioners put out a call for artists to create a mural for the lobby of the seat of its government activities — the Frederick B. Karl County Center in downtown Tampa.

The final product is envisioned as up to 400 square feet of mosaic tile depicting “the history of the county and its development by transit, via rail, river, bay, water, road, air and other ways,‘' according to the request for artists.

The initial push came from Commissioner Kimberly Overman, who brought the idea to the rest of the commission 10 months ago. Part of the inspiration, she said, was a mural in Historic Seminole Heights that depicted the businesses there and “said, ‘We are Seminole Heights.' That gives people a sense of place. That’s really what kind of got this going. It celebrates Hillsborough County.”

Another motivation, she said, was the mobile Art on HART effort from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Tampa Bay Foundation for Architecture and Design.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Tampa Bay Foundation for Architecture and Design unveiled a second rolling art canvas placed on the side of a public transit bus in January 2020. The initial bus canvas, selected year earlier, was decommissioned. The project's goal, to place local artists' designs in highly accessible and visible public spaces, was one of the motivations for Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman to seek public art in the lobby of the Frederick B. Karl County Center to showcase the history of transportation. [ Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority ]

Unveiled in January 2019, the program turns a public bus into a rolling art canvas. The first bus, since decommissioned, showcased music. The second mural honors the city’s architecture, music and arts. The project’s goal is to place local artists’ designs in highly accessible and visible public spaces.

The county seeks to do likewise through its own public arts program, that totals 311 works like sculptures, paintings and other pieces in libraries, parks, community service centers, fire stations, the Sheriff’s Office and other county buildings.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Tampa Bay Foundation for Architecture and Design unveiled a second rolling art canvas placed on the side of a public transit bus in January 2020. The initial bus canvas, selected year earlier, was decommissioned. The project's goal, to place local artists' designs in highly accessible and visible public spaces, was one of the motivations for Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman to seek public art in the lobby of the Frederick B. Karl County Center to showcase the history of transportation. [ Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority ]

There are individual paintings around the county center and other works in a holding case, but no large-scale pieces. The mural will be the first.

“It’s important to celebrate our history and it’s Important to do it with art,” said Overman.

If this sounds a little familiar, it is. This is the second call for artists issued by the county for this project. The initial call, approved in December 2019, turned out to be too broad. It didn’t specify a mural nor where in the lobby the art would be installed. Both a county advisory committee and the Public Art Committee recommended a second request and to forgo the idea of free-standing or suspended art work in the lobby.

“It’s just really important to showcase the cultural history and the history of Hillsborough County to actually document it through the visual arts,” said Georgia Vahue, a member of the county’s Public Art Committee.

When it comes to transportation, there is plenty of material from which to choose, like railroad pioneer Henry B. Plant, pilot Tony Jannus, streetcars, the port, Hillsborough River, the Interstate Highway System and more.

“I do want it to be somewhat of a story about how we arrived here. That’s really why I wanted it, to tell the story through art,” said Overman.

Final approval of the artist and mural rests with county commissioners, and the Tampa Bay History Center will be included as a technical advisor to ensure historical accuracy. The expected cost of the mural is $75,000, to come from the county’s public arts program.

The mural should get a lot of looks. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the 28-story county center housed approximately 1,500 employees and had about 400 daily visitors. It has been the hub of county government since the county purchased the building in 1992.

And, in a bit of irony, the commission approved the call for artists for a transportation-themed mural, the same day the proposed county budget revealed a $463 million shortfall in a planned 10-year transportation plan.

“Well, that wasn’t the plan,‘' Overman said.

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