Perhaps now isn't the best time to be singing the praises of public art, considering that the Broward County Commission recently suspended its Public Art and Design program because of budget cuts. Tell that to the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, which is currently showcasing "Natural Forces: Broward County Public Art & Design '06-'09," a small and uneven exhibition that may piss off more people than it pleases.
What is public art, anyway? In Broward, it is the taxpayer-funded art featured in such facilities as libraries and parks, the two places emphasized in this show. Throughout the county, at least 15 parks and 32 libraries keep public art on the premises, as do regional courthouses, the airport, Port Everglades, the central bus terminal, the Emergency Operations Center, and the Governmental Center and its western outpost. (Disclosure: My day job is with Broward County Parks.)
The county's Art in Public Places program, as it was originally called, was established in 1978 and has since amassed a collection of more than 200 works valued at about $19 million. According to the Broward Cultural Division website, the current program allocates a mere two percent of the "total new construction budget for Broward County government facilities for commissioned artists to provide design expertise, and to create artworks within a broad range of capital improvement projects." In short, public art is (or was) mandated for public amenities.
Skeptics might argue that "public art" is something of an oxymoron — that art is intended not for the general public but for a specific audience of informed, appreciative people who actually want to see it. Some might go further and insist that art has no business having a public component other than what's predicated by the open market. (As always, it's about the money.)
Artists I know tell tales of a public largely hostile to the idea of public art. They recount episodes in which members of that public complain bitterly about being "subjected" to art they don't necessarily want to see or that they even find outright offensive.
To which I reply, "Get over it!" We are, all of us, subjected daily to things we don't want to see, whether it's the garish façade of a fast-food joint or a hideous billboard on I-95. The fabric of our daily lives is regularly interrupted by things we don't want to see, so why should art be the particular subject of our wrath?
I used to be an unreconstructed opponent of public art myself. I thought of public art as, say, an ugly hunk of metal plopped onto a poorly landscaped plot of public land. But given the blighted urban environment most of us inhabit, I've come to see public art — at least the best of it — as a respite. Every time I drive west on Copans Road, for instance, I'm heartened by the imposing stone obelisks that make up Seven Runes, Patricia Leighton's piece that stands outside the county's Waste and Wastewater Services Division. I've even come, begrudgingly, to have a soft spot for Barbara Neijna and Ned Smyth's Accordant Zones at the Broward Judicial Complex, with its circular stone slab I've dubbed the "Tomb of the Unknown Rice Cake."
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the chief problem with the "Natural Forces" exhibition. Public art is pretty much site-specific by definition, and so a show like this can only suggest what the art is like in its context. We can experience it only secondhand, at a remove.
A room-sized outdoor installation such as Lorna Jordan's Island Garden, recently unveiled at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center in Davie, is here represented by photographs. Likewise, Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer's Written Words, which is integrated into the exterior plaza adjacent to the West Regional Library in Plantation. Even Wendy Wischer's wonderful mangrove-inspired bus wraps, applied to buses running between the airport and the car rental center, lose their otherworldly grandeur when reduced to reproductions.
I would lament the lack of scale models in the show if it weren't for the presence of the unappealing one for Whirls and Swirls and a Vortex on Water. Alice Aycock's ambitious sculpture at Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill has stirred controversy since it was installed last year, and it's hardly done justice here by a metal model that feels like an afterthought to the exhibition. Indeed, Aycock's unloved work might serve as a lightning rod for the public's animosity toward public art.
Love it or hate it, Aycock's piece, like the 13 other works in this show, deserves to be seen on site. If "Natural Forces" does nothing more than drive you out of the museum to look at public art on location, it will have served its purpose and served it well.
As if to atone for forcing us to confront our mixed emotions about public art, the Art and Culture Center also gives us its latest Project Room installation, "Kerry Phillips: Sometimes Your Things Are My Things." Two walls of half the space are blanketed with boxes containing hundreds of compartments of various sizes, each filled with an object. It's easy to slip into blissful sensory overload as you contemplate the seemingly countless items, which is exactly the point.