Where art may be law

Published May 16, 2007


Suzanne Ruley remembers one of her first encounters with public art.

Visiting relatives in New York City, the New Jersey girl found herself standing inside an abstract structure, gazing at the sky. She was transfixed.

"I couldn't say I liked it, " recalls Ruley, who now works for Americans for the Arts in Tarpon Springs. "But it moved me."

Ruley is just one of many who want more public art in Tarpon Springs, and hence more aesthetic discussion.

As the City Commission moves closer to considering a public art ordinance - it is expected to come to a vote in the next couple months - art lovers warn that there will always be mixed responses to prominently displayed pieces. That's the point.

"Not everyone's going to like every piece, " said Commissioner Robin Saenger. "Art is controversial. It makes you think."

Saenger, a mixed media artist herself, first brought the idea of an ordinance before the commission about a year ago.

Her pitch: Public art helps create a sense of place and brings vibrancy to a city. It can attract new residents and even businesses. Companies often check to see if cities have public art ordinances when assessing demographics for a potential move.

"Young professionals are attracted to cities with nongeneric communities, art, " she said.

Saenger's proposal resulted in a small committee forming that last month brought a draft ordinance back to the commission.

The ordinance requires 1 percent of new developments' budgets to go toward public art. However, private developers have the slightly cheaper option of contributing money instead to the city's newly created public art fund. The required contribution would be three-fourths of 1 percent of a new development's budget. It also creates a public art board, which will vet artist applications for city-financed work and will work with private developers as they pick their artists.

The ordinance is modeled after a 2006 Clearwater ordinance that "went live" this fall. Under the Clearwater Public Art and Design Program, 1 percent of capital improvement and private development project budgets go toward public art. Instead of creating a specific project, private developers also have the option to donate three-fourths of 1 percent of total construction costs to a city public art discretionary fund.

Earmarking a certain percentage of construction costs for public art is not a novel idea in Florida or the United States. The art can vary from paintings hung after a project is completed to integral design elements such as benches or floor mosaics.

The state of Florida, including its universities, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Tampa and St. Petersburg, all have such requirements. But not all public art ordinances require participation by private developers, and mandatory percentages can vary. The State of Florida Art in State Buildings, for example, requires just one-half of 1 percent of construction costs for public facilities to be dedicated to art.

Kathleen Monahan, Tarpon Springs' cultural and civic services director, said she expects board members will pay close attention to what pieces are appropriate in different areas, and for Tarpon Springs in general.

"I don't think shock value is of interest here, " she said. "This isn't San Francisco."

For the most part, commissioners welcomed the public art concept.

Commissioner Peter Dalacos had a few concerns about the public art ordinance itself.

In its draft form, the ordinance requires public art contributions for private developments with budgets over $1-million and city capital improvement projects of over $500, 000. Dalacos didn't understand why this disparity exists.

He also took issue with the board being authorized to spend up to $25, 000 of fund money for individual projects without the commission's approval.

Attorneys are re-examining the ordinance and will soon bring a new version before the commission.

Despite his reservations, Dalacos pointed out that "in general, I'm in favor of it." Public art "almost becomes its own attraction."

Even if people don't necessarily like it.

"I hope the pieces don't make everyone happy, " Ruley said. "If no one said anything, it would have no effect, as if it were never there."

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.