Art can be thought-provoking. Clearwater has learned that since passing a public art ordinance in 2006 that on more than one occasion has spawned disagreements among residents, artists and city officials over public art pieces. Last week, the City Council split 3-2 on an art piece — not because of the content of the art, but because of where it will be placed. The disagreement revealed that the city's public art ordinance may need some tweaking.
Clearwater is preparing to open its new $11 million main fire station, which also contains offices for Fire Department administrators, on Court Street just west of Missouri Avenue. The impressive-looking station has a three-story entrance lobby with tall windows and faces Court Street, a busy route to Clearwater Beach.
Thursday night the City Council was scheduled to decide whether to accept a proposal from well-regarded Maine artist Aaron T. Stephan for a piece of public art to hang from the ceiling of the entrance lobby. A 10-foot-wide, 700-pound orb made of hundreds of small glass spheres would resemble a burst of water droplets, and the orb would be suspended from what looks like knotted fire hoses.
All five City Council members agreed they really liked the piece. What two of them didn't like was that the city would be paying just under $107,000 from Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue for the piece, but few members of the public would see it.
The problem is the design of the entrance lobby. It will be difficult for anyone outside the fire station to see the orb, titled Accumulate, because a horizontal beam interferes with the view and because the glass windows are reflective. Accumulate may be easier to see at night, when the orb will be lighted, but still, at best, passing motorists will get only a glimpse. And few residents ever have reason to go inside a fire station.
"$106,000 for something not visible is not a good use of public money," said Mayor George Cretekos, who was joined by council member Bill Jonson in voting against the proposal. Council members Doreen Hock-DiPolito, Jay Polglaze and Hoyt Hamilton voted for it, saying they were impressed with the proposal and the artist's stature and that Stephan perhaps could modify the design slightly when he comes to Clearwater to see the fire station. His proposal and sketches were based on seeing only blueprints of the station.
Clearwater's public art ordinance mandates that 1 percent of the cost of a city capital project of more than $500,000 must be set aside for public art. However, the ordinance does not require that the art be placed at that location — it could go elsewhere. The section of the ordinance that applies to public art for private projects mentions that public art should be publicly accessible, defined as "locations that are open to the general public during normal business hours and visible by the general public at all times." Surely the same policy should apply to public construction projects, but it is debatable whether the new fire station would qualify.
Clearwater's ordinance makes it clear that public art isn't supposed to be just a decorative bauble for a new facility or accessible for study and enjoyment only by the people who work there. It is supposed to provide "benefits to the community by expanding the historical, cultural, and creative knowledge of citizens."
At some point in the review process for public art installations, consideration ought to be given to whether a proposed location is accessible to enough people to deliver on that definition. The City Council should amend the ordinance to ensure that step won't be overlooked or minimized in the future.