Getting art we deserve

by Lennie Bennett

Published Friday, April 17, 2009

No surprise that public arts programs in cities, counties and the state are under review, subject to deep cuts or, in some cases, annihilation.

We hear the dismay-to-outrage responses from the usual arts advocates who say the usual things: Art increases the quality of life in a community, makes it vibrant, which translates into dollars from tourism and new business.

Can't argue with that.

Then we hear the political argument from legislators and officials, some version of "If we must choose between feeding the soul and feeding the body, the choice is obvious."

Can't argue with that, either.

The surprise comes in what is not heard.

Where is the most important voice in a debate over public arts programs?

Where is the voice of the public, to whom the art belongs?

I have heard no general outcry over cuts. Not even general sadness that they might be necessary.

The truth seems to be that the public doesn't care much about public art.

Or, maybe, we just don't care that much about the public art we have.

As reported last week in this newspaper, Florida, for example, has a public arts program funded by a small percentage of construction costs for new state buildings, not to exceed $100,000. So it has spent $11.5 million for 1,448 works of public art since 1979.

Wow, we think.

That averages out to less than $8,000 per artwork.

Have you looked at auction prices recently? Even now, a single work of significant art on the national or international market can fetch millions of dollars. More than Florida's entire 30-year expenditure.

The real problem is that most public art here has failed to demonstrate its value to its constituents because it has so little value as significant art.

We get what we pay for.

I don't rush to judge our elected officials who enacted these paltry measures. At least they did something, and without any great push from voters.

I can't criticize the public arts committees — volunteers, by the way — who select the art. They do much with little finding creative ways to stretch dollars for more impact.

I certainly don't blame the artists who create the works. Even those with national reputations are rarely given enough money to produce their best work even though they often do anyway.

I blame us.

For our lack of expectations, our indifference in demanding better.

If you have traveled to any of the great cities of Europe you have probably made a point of paying homage to the sculptures and fountains in parks, the paintings and murals in municipal buildings.

Almost all of it is public art.

True, it didn't begin that way; it was privately amassed by privileged individuals, especially royalty. But that was centuries ago and no one cares much how that art came into public ownership. Everyone values its worth as art.

I doubt we have any collection funded by a public art program in Florida that is considered destination art around which visits and tours are organized, even among locals.

The most prestigious example of public art in our community is a large aluminum bandage on the exterior of a University of South Florida medical building in St. Petersburg. It's the work of pop artist James Rosenquist, an international superstar. It's probably worth several million dollars. The only reason we have it is because Rosenquist donated it. The murals Christopher Still painted for the House chambers in Tallahassee were an exceptional bargain for us; he charged only $150,000, not much more than what he would get for one of them in the private sector.

So, occasionally, we get what we don't pay for and probably don't deserve.

I'm not saying our public art is bad. Some of it is very good, even excellent. The collection at the University of South Florida is probably the most distinguished in Florida. Both St. Petersburg and Tampa have some fine works, as do Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. One of the most stirring art events in memory, public or private, was Jorge Orta's magical temporary installation for Lights on Tampa in 2006.

But our public art as a unified collection doesn't matter enough to us, doesn't engender the pride and sense of ownership that would incite us to argue on behalf of the programs which make the art possible.

In St. Petersburg, where I live, I think of the passionate discourse between hundreds of citizens over the futures of Albert Whitted Airport and Al Lang Field, even among people who don't own a plane or attend spring training games. Whether on the yea or nay side of the argument, people had a clear sense of how much value they felt those places had to the community, how much or little they were worth to preserve.

We have no such debate over public art.

This isn't the right time in our history to advocate on behalf of more spending for public art. It's the best time, though, while public arts programs go dormant, to take stock of what we have and what we really want.

Until we believe we deserve the best and demand funding for it, until we have pride of ownership, the impulse to point to a work of art and say, "that's mine; I helped buy it," public art here has no chance for greatness. In good times, it will survive. But it will never thrive.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.

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