THE PEOPLE’S ART
No offensive nudes. Nix on political statements. Ditto, religious references. Forget avant-garde.
And that leaves . . . what?
Rainbows and daisies and sad-eyed puppy dogs? Well, not in Palm Beach Gardens, but there is a balance to be sought. And layers of approval to be met, first by the city’s seven-member advisory board, then by the city council itself.
“It has to be kind of milquetoast to a degree,” says sculptor Mark Fuller, who has created twodozen plus pieces for the city, more than any other artist. “If you plan on making a living, you have to do stuff that’s commercially viable.”
And that he does, but never without the WOW factor. Here, let him demonstrate. His back is out of whack today — he wrenched it, moving a sofa — but he gamely climbs into his Volkswagen CC to conduct a mini tour. The outside temperature registers December, but he’s got the heat cranked up to August as he heads toward “The Obelisk,” a gleaming 36-foot-tall objet d’art, its lower portion fashioned of polished stainless steel its upper studded with 89,986 custom-made, clear-glass marbles, and all of it winking with reflected sunlight.
Stop by in daylight and it’s a mirror, reflecting the Australian pines across the way, one of the city’s countless pink Mediterranean buildings and the PGA flyover. Stop by at night and the computer mechanism tucked inside performs a six-minute-long light show capable of painting the piece, Mr. Fuller says, with 12 million different colors.
“Most people don’t realize it’s public art,” he says, inspecting a small dent on its west-facing side. Deliberate vandalism? Some kid testing his aim with a rock? Even when an artist works at people-pleasing, shunning will happen, along with squabbles and quizzical glances and rude remarks and, well, a simple failure to understand.
“Anytime you have something visual, everybody’s got an opinion on it,” Mr. Fuller says. And, inevitably, those opinions will include, “You call that art?”
“Contiguous Currents” by Greek-born artist Costas Varotsos is one such piece, a magnet for unflattering comments. The sculpture stretches out along Military Trail, behind the city’s municipal complex, a sinuous line of curving metal with turquoise patches that suggest pools of water. Its nickname, The Wave, is not intended as a compliment.
“People have said to me, ‘I hate that Wave,’” says Councilman Eric Jablin, the city’s liaison to Art in Public Places. “It’s a large piece, very modern. It’s untraditional, but the artist is a world-renowned artist who has pieces all over the world.”
Mr. Varotsos has pieces in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens and the Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain in Nice, France, among other prestigious venues. Mr. Fuller is a fan. “People don’t understand it,” he says. “They think it’s stupid. But I appreciate it. I think it’s a great piece.”
Opinions are an expected element of art. Art wants to make people think. It seeks to expand a viewer’s mind. It’s valued here, all laid out in Ordinance 46, Part IV, Chapter 151 of the City Code: WHEREAS, the City of Palm Beach Gardens acknowledges the important part the arts play in the lives of its residents and visitors; and WHEREAS, the City of Palm Beach Gardens prides itself in its projects and programs in the visual and performing arts; and . . .
Well, three more WHEREASes later, the code defines “works of art:” painting, sculpture, fountains, engraving, carving, frescos, mobiles, murals, collages, mosaics, bas-reliefs, tapestries, photographs, drawings.
City officials do not want to field those My tax money paid for THAT? calls, because those taxes don’t pay for that. When they penned the code amendment, it included a wonderful little provision that puts the financial burden on developers: 1 percent of any project that exceeds $1 million. The developer selects the artist and the site and pays for any future maintenance.
His art appreciation comes naturally: “I grew up in New York,” he says with a what-else-do-you-need-to-know shrug, and a smile. “I went to museums in the city. Every opportunity we have to visit a museum, my wife and I, we do, in every city we go to. I just think artists are special people. I love what they do.”
The city’s love for art was codified in 1988 (15 years after Miami-Dade County established one of the country’s first public-art programs), and its art in public places begins in the most public of those places, City Hall, where artist Tim Prentice’s “Tryptich” hangs from the lobby ceiling, a glittering, shimmering invitation to look up. Mr. Fuller is a fan of the artist, who often creates kinetic pieces, so Mr. Fuller believes this work deserves a better opportunity to show its stuff. The rows of connected silvery squares can, and should, flutter; they should snake around. “I’ve always felt the city should have installed fans,” he says, “to get more of the wind action.”
At Legacy Place, he utilizes leg action, striding from one work to another, an exercise in styles and creativity. Mr. Fuller’s oeuvre, as they say in art circles, is not predictable. Take “Stack 45,” for example, which bears no resemblance at all to “The Obelisk.” Or to “Arc Solar” outside the conference center at the Doubletree Hotel. Or to “Butterfly Grove” at PGA Commons. Or “Stent Tower” in front of the Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center. Or “09.11.01” at Memorial Plaza.
No, “Stack 45” has its own story, one related to the man behind Legacy Place and PGA National and BallenIsles, urban designer Hank Skokowski, who also was Mr. Fuller’s best friend. “Hank was weaned on 45s,” Mr. Fuller says, gesturing toward the outer ring of five black semi-circles that represent vinyl records, and the five different-colored inner circles that represent their labels. Five and five: 55, the age Hank Skokowski was when he was killed in a motorcycle accident in Australia, shortly after the completion of Legacy Place.
Tributes to Mr. Skokowski take other forms here, too: a quartet of benches, each a different style, each a nod to the man who meant so much to the city, and to his friend. In each, a pair of Hank Skokowski’s shoes, cast in aluminum, represents an aspect of his life: motorcycle boots, flip-flops, formal shoes, casual ones.
“The design intent of these benches,” reads a small plaque, “is to evoke the feeling that someone has temporarily stepped away and is expected to be back — a visual metaphor of Hank’s failure to return from a motorcycle touring vacation.”
The variety of Mr. Fuller’s work is a point of pride for him.
“Most of my projects have a rooted meaning,” he says. “I don’t do plop art. I don’t do the picture-over-the-sofa kind of generic art.”
The number of his pieces chosen for display is a point of contention for some observers, and even for the city’s advisory board. Not long ago, when both of his proposals for city bus shelters were chosen from a group of 58 submissions, he says, “you could hear an audible groan. But it was a point system and, by far, I was head and shoulders above all of the others. I can boast about that.”
The bus shelter project, however, failed to go forward, a saga unto itself — and also a bit of commentary on public art. The mishigas began with Palm Tran, which expressed an interest in installing more bus shelters along the city’s two main thoroughfares, PGA Boulevard and Military Trail. Each roadway hosts one shelter, Mr. Jablin says, hardly enough to meet the demand.
Neither Palm Tran nor the city had a budget flush enough, however, to underwrite the project. Then inspiration struck: Why not, Mr. Jablin reasoned, put out a call to area artists to design the bus shelters and pay for them with surplus AIPP money? Allyson Black, the city’s resource manager, checked it out: New Orleans boasted artistic bus shelters. Scottsdale, Ariz., built some, too, albeit not without controversy. “What better than something practical and artistic?” Mr. Jablin asks. The city set aside $40,000 for the artist, plus a $180,000 building budget, for four shelters on each highway.
But then, WHAM! The bus shelter project got thrown under a bus. “GARDENS SPENDING $440,000 ON ART TO ADORN BUS STATIONS” blared an Aug. 21, 2009 headline on the cover of The Palm Beach Post’s Local section. The newspaper did explain — near the end of the article — that those thousands didn’t cost the public a dime; it was money sitting in the AIPP coffers. But it looked bad.
“You could not convince the general public that it wasn’t tax money,” Mr. Jablin says.
Residents made phone calls, wrote letters, turned up before the microphone at city council meetings.
“It was very frustrating,” recalls Cable Neuhaus, chairman of the city’s AIPP Advisory Board, “to hear people say, over and over, that this was tax money.”
But the protestations had their intended effect, and the city council voted down its own project. That didn’t look good either. The whole brouhaha clearly still rankles, but Mr. Jablin prefers to let the matter rest. That bus has left the station.
“You live and learn and you survive to come back another day,” he says. “This city has become the beautiful city it is not because we are bull-headed. We examine our mistakes and we learn from them.”
Mr. Fuller is less forgiving.
“It drives me nuts,” he says. “The city had close to a million dollars in the public art fund that’s growing cobwebs. That project would’ve put food on the tables of about 30 families for several months. Jeez Louise! They could’ve done a better job of getting the word out there.”
The approval process for public art in the Gardens is generally smoother, more agreeable. The developer selects an artist, the artist prepares a presentation with drawings or models or slides of the proposed work, the project receives a yea or nay and, sometimes, a suggestion for modification.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so which beholder, and whose eye, should one trust? In the Gardens, that honor is bestowed upon the AIPP Advisory Board, whose members have a grounding in the arts.
“Occasionally, it’s fractious, but not lately,” says Mr. Neuhaus, a writer with Entertainment Weekly and People magazine credentials. “Art is very subjective. It’s a matter of taste, you know, but we have a very harmonious board now. We’re usually very close to being unanimous.”
The carousel created by Carousel Works of Mansfield, Ohio, is an example of that. The committee loved the idea, and no one second-guessed its location in Downtown at the Gardens. Their sole recommendation: Leave one animal unpainted, clear-coated, so riders will know it’s natural wood, not a plastic prefab. But the board neglected to vote on the matter, so the authenticity of those flamingos, alligators, horses and fish will be noted on after-the-fact signage.
Safety, not signs, caused concern with “Mako Shark” at Nova Southeastern University, but the issue didn’t have much bite, just a heads-up about sharp edges and pedestrian clearance.
“There have been people on the board in the past who were contentious,” Mr.Neuhaus says, “but they were contentious in life, too.”
Still, is art-by-committee a good thing? Is it too safe, too ho-hum? Few would suggest that the same criteria be applied to public art as to museum art, but must everyone be an art critic? The 1989 installation of “Double Rainbow” by sculptor Lila Katzen, was the city’s first AIPP installation.
“It’s bent,” an observer said at the time. But, no, that was the arc of the double rainbow.
“It’s rusty,” another onlooker offered. But, no, the sculpture’s weathered steel was cognac-colored.
Mr. Fuller would like to see everyone raise a glass to public art, and he believes that, in general, people do respect it, even if they don’t always understand it, or the process that puts it there. “It’s a gift to the city, from the developer,” he says, “for the privilege of being able to build here.” ¦