A question of artistic intent

A rusting sculpture is doing exactly what it's supposed to do, the artist says. The county officials who bought it don't agree.

All I wanna do is make art and get paid," says Bradley Arthur, standing by his imposing metal sculpture near the entrance of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Operation Center in Ybor City.

It's a shiny sweater day in December, the kind that tends to lift the spirits, but Arthur's mood is dark. His energies have not been directed much toward artistic creation of late. Instead, he's locked in a dispute with the county's Public Art Committee. The 6-ton sculpture and a companion piece at the Citrus Park sheriff depot have begun to rust. Sheriff's personnel have complained. Commissioner Ronda Storms has called them eyesores.

The committee wants Arthur to fix them, to make them shiny like when they were installed in October and December of 2002.

In a letter early last month, assistant county attorney Susan Fischer told Arthur to submit a plan to buff the pieces up by Jan. 15 or the county would find an outside contractor to "cure the defect" and "seek to recover these costs from you." In other words, the county is preparing to sue the man they commissioned to create two of the most impressive works in its public art program.

Arthur contends that the rust was inevitable. He was contractually required to use recycled metal from the county's Gun Buy-Back program. Gunmetal rusts — it's that simple. Even though the artist applied clear coating to the melted-down weapons, he says he was well aware they would rust, although he admits the corrosion began more quickly than anticipated. "It's such a wonderful work and no one is saying anything except about the rust," Arthur says. "It's painful."

Further, Arthur suggests that the rust is part of the pieces' status as living art, a common theme in works subjected to the elements. He's a gregarious sort who loves discussing meaning and subtext and symbolism. He's given to making lofty statements that can sound pretentious to people less aesthetically minded. At the Ybor City sculpture, he kneels to rub off a reddish smudge. "It's like the piece is crying," he says wistfully.

The county no longer wants to hear this sort of thing. Legalese has taken over.

Arthur has a heightened sense of principle that can blind him to opportunities for compromise. He says he cashed out a life insurance policy and remortgaged his Land-O-Lakes home to stay afloat during this three-year project and subsequent ordeal. Yet thus far he is not looking for a way out. Instead he continues to defy county officials, communicating without a lawyer. Arthur contends the county owes him up to $50,000 on top of his original $120,000 fee because he received the gunmetal eight months late, which cost him other work opportunities.

"They count on artists not being able to go the distance when they turn it into a legal battle," Arthur says of bureaucracies.

He's not the sort of artist to back down. Arthur is already embroiled in a lawsuit with Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg. In the late '80s, he installed a large outdoor piece call "The Wave" at an art show there. He says temple officials asked him to leave it on loan, which he did for a dozen years until they tried to move it. In Arthur's view, the move broke the sculpture and temple personnel simply discarded it. Temple Beth-El lawyer Henry Stein counters that the sculpture "was [already] broken. It was an eyesore and dangerous to anyone walking near or into the temple." The case will likely go to trial in the spring.

While Arthur possesses considerable charm, he can piss folks off. Several members of the Public Art Committee have called him extremely difficult to work with. "As much as I'm fond of him, I was shocked at his insulting behavior toward the committee," says former committee member Wallace Wilson, director of the School of Art and Art History at USF. "I would sit there and be amazed at how he was biting the hand that was feeding [him]. When it came down to the rust issue, he'd burned his good will."

Arthur's arch foe is Jan Stein, the county's coordinator of public art. If one interview is any indication, she too can be difficult. During a meeting at the Weekly Planet offices, she came equipped with a stuffed box of documents and correspondence and, instead of engaging in conversation, proceeded to read several of them aloud. She repeatedly interrupted questions and even proceeded to "object" to certain turns of phrase, as if in a legal proceeding.

It seems clear that personality conflicts are at play in this standoff. It seems equally evident that county officials have decided to play hardball. You might even say they're looking to punish this pain-in-the-ass artist.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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