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Art, expectations collide

The county demands to know why two new sculptures are corroding. The artist's answer: They're supposed to.

By BILL VARIAN
Published September 15, 2003

[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Artist Bradley Arthur created this sculpture, one of two that use metal from melted guns.

TAMPA - Sculptor Bradley Arthur accepted a novel assignment two years ago.

Hillsborough commissioners hired him to take guns removed from the street through a Sheriff's buyback program and turn them into art. They wanted Arthur to take something negative and make it positive, as only an artist can do.

The result, though, is what happens sometimes when art and institution intersect: They collide.

Arthur delivered two sculptures crafted from the melted guns and shaped in the form of the star found on a deputy's badge.

They were installed in front of two Sheriff's offices late last year - the guns transformed into sterling symbols of pride and protection.

But sometimes things have a way of going back to their former state. Negative returns to negative. Dust to dust.

Or, in this case, rust to rust.

Withing weeks of sending Arthur the final installment on his $120,000 commission, county officials began noticing something that alarmed them.

The metal bits that comprised the meat of the statues were turning reddish brown.

They were rusting.

Some rust was expected

The county now contends Arthur has delivered a "defective" product. He must have done something wrong in making the sculpture.

Officials with the county's public art program want him to "fix" it.

"It's like buying a painting with disappearing ink," said Commis sioner Ronda Storms. "We're not in the business of buying new eyesores."

Arthur, 50, of Land O'Lakes, says there's nothing broken.

Of course the pieces are rusting, he said, because they're made largely of gunmetal. He fully expected his artwork to rust in parts, and took that into account in his design, he said.

The star at the heart of his sculptures - titled Components of Public Safety I and II - is framed with stainless steel and is encircled as well by a stainless steel ring. They won't rust.

The result is a shiny star holding the bad that the guns once represented away from the heart of the star like a protective barrier in a sense. It fits perfectly with what he was trying to capture.

"The rusting of the former weapons represent their past and potential danger, as well as destructive effects criminal behavior has on society," Arthur writes in a proposed artistic statement he would like to see accompany the sculptures. "The bright stainless steel represents the strength of our laws and how they protect us.

"The enduring structural frame of the artwork relates to the enduring vision in our constitution."

Anyway, with it's thick metal pieces, the work will outlast us all, he says.

Arthur acknowledges that even he is a little surprised at how quickly the metal taken from the guns is rusting, though he says he knew it would happen sooner than later.

He covered the billets and rods formed from the guns with a protective coating similar to the type used on guns in an attempt to slow the effect.

But the rust is nevertheless an important aspect of Components of Public Safety, he says.

It's like the pieces are "speaking" to us, gradually revealing themselves.

"It is speaking," Arthur contends. "It's an object that is a living entity in and of itself on a certain level."

He told a friend last week about the blooming controversy surrounding his pieces, about the guns and how they were incorporated into the work. His friend's reaction? "Duh!"

"If they wanted something not to rust, they would have said that and wouldn't have had the requirement to use a material that does rust," Arthur said.

Storms is having none of it.

She wrote a memo to top county staffers demanding an explanation and wanting to know what the county is doing to safeguard its investment.

"I'm not going to be entertained with some pseudo-intellectual argument that the art is speaking to me," Storms said. "That's a crock. It's deteriorating is what it is."

And so the county has done what governments do when confronted with a dispute and unsure of the answer. It has hired a consultant.

For $975, John Maseman, director and chief conservator for the South Florida Conservation Center, has taken on the task of assessing the situation.

Should the artwork be rusting, given the materials from which it is largely made? And given the county's desire not to have it rusting, what can be done about it?

Maseman is working on his report after a Sept. 3 site visit.

His deadline is ASAP.

The pieces appear well put together, Maseman said. He doesn't believe, at first blush anyway, that their structural integrity is in question.

Squabbles from the start

Many artists actually intend for their pieces to rust. However, Maseman notes that that is usually stated up front in the case of public art so the people who buy it aren't surprised and don't take steps to stop it.

"All materials deteriorate as man-made objects," Maseman said. "But when something starts to exhibit slightly different characteristics than you'd expect, you want to find out why.

"You can't stop that natural aging process, but you try to slow it down and mitigate those processes."

The sculptures in question sit outside the Sheriff's headquarters in Ybor City and the District III office on Gunn Highway in Citrus Park.

Both are about 7 feet tall, one weighs 4 tons, the other 6 tons. The county's Public Art Committee selected Arthur for the project based on design proposals he submitted along with concept statements.

County officials say Arthur did not mention anything about the materials rusting in his concept statement, but he counters that nothing in his contract requires that the sculptures to be rust-free.

As an artist of 33 years who has done such work before, Arthur appeared well qualified for the job. His work has appeared around Florida and include a more abstract piece titled ChairMuse in a courtyard next to Tampa City Hall.

That piece, along with another he made for the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged, are cataloged in a public art inventory maintained by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

But from the beginning there were squabbles over his latest Hillsborough project. There were delays in acquiring the guns and winning approval from an Ybor preservation committee. Arthur also ran into cost overruns and unsuccessfully sought more money to complete the work.

When the sculptures were finally delivered months behind schedule, there were disputes about the size of the concrete platforms on which they sit.

Nevertheless, the Public Art Committee deemed the work substantially complete after they were installed in October and December. His final payment came in April.

Deputies appeared to like the pieces and the recognition they represented from the county about the importance of their work. But soon they noticed something about the sculptures.

"Yes, we noticed the rust," said Lt. Harold Winsett, who served as a Sheriff's liaison of sorts on the project. "Certainly we were under the impression that it was coated with something and wouldn't rust."

So his office alerted others. County Communications Director Mike Foerster, who at the time supervised the art program and has his own concerns about what he felt was incomplete work, paid a visit to the sculptures in May.

He saw the rust, and raised questions about whether Arthur should have received his final payment.

"It doesn't matter whether we're buying pencils or Picasso, we need to make sure the taxpayers get their money's worth," Foerster said.

Jan Stein, the county's public art coordinator, had been working on most of the hand-to-hand disagreements with Arthur and added rust to the list. She recommended hiring the consultant.

Like the others, Stein acknowledges she's no artist.

Nevertheless, she has trouble believing Arthur intended his work to rust. If so, she thinks he would have said something about it along the way so no one was caught off guard.

And Antonio Amadeo, an architect and member of the county's Public Art Committee who worked closely on the project, specifically recalls Arthur trumpeting the shiny quality the stars would have when making his pitch for the work.

"Now we're looking at a rusty style," Amadeo said. "It's incongruent."

No stranger to controversy

Arthur, who when he is not making art is active in an effort to create a town center in Land O'Lakes, is no stranger to artistic controversy. He currently is in a lawsuit with the Temple Beth-El synagogue in St. Petersburg after it sent one of his sculptures to the scrap heap.

Arthur says he was asked to leave the 600-pound metal sculpture, called The Wave/Quantum Fluctuation, on display after an art show there in 1988. The Temple says he never heeded requests to reclaim the piece, which it said also was rusting.

In 1984, working as an artist in New York, Arthur sued the American Broadcast Cos. Inc., saying the company borrowed its Olympic-themed company logo from a design he created. ABC ultimately prevailed in the suit.

Arthur considers himself an art advocate. Art shows the way to a society's "soul" and should be promoted like sports. That's partly why he chooses doing to the type of art he does - art for public display.

He acknowledges that this type of work is not for all artists.

Most artist do their work from inspiration and hope somebody likes it. Public artists are typically commissioned to do a job, risking that someone won't like it.

"Most art in public is safe, derivative, homogenized work. It's like art by committee," Arthur said. "Most of it is not controversial, is pretty and safe, and really has very little soul or long-term quality."

A part of him feels validated by the controversy. Art is supposed to evoke a reaction. That's part of revealing the truth about an artwork, he says. Still, he says he feels frustrated.

Arthur says he received his official notice of the commission on Sept. 11, 2001, a point that would prove particularly poignant given his public safety theme. He thinks he has delivered a piece with staying power, and one that faithfully employed the material he was asked to use.

"I don't want to come off as an obstinate, prissy artist," Arthur said. "I am sincerely dedicated to making the work reach a broader audience. But I respectfully submit that this work is not about the surface. It's about the materials and the integrity with which they are being used."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 15, 2003, 02:01:38]


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