Public art horrors (and some successes, too)

Well-designed streetscapes can be inspiring, but some public spaces are just dreadful.

click to enlarge SWOOPS! Canvas on poles and craft-y sidewalk tiles have not beautified Zack Street. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
SWOOPS! Canvas on poles and craft-y sidewalk tiles have not beautified Zack Street.

Well-designed streetscapes with thoughtful public art can be inspiring, lifting our hearts as we go about our daily lives. But some public spaces are, unfortunately, dreadful. The concept of the Zack Street Promenade of the Arts was a flawed premise from the get-go. When Mayor Pam Iorio was trying to house the Tampa Museum of Art in the Federal Courthouse (now blessedly under renovation as a Le Meridien Hotel), she concocted this idea of transforming Zack Street from the river eastward into a cultural boulevard.

The Clearwater landscape firm hired for the job didn’t seem to grasp the urban design vocabulary appropriate for this setting. Instead, they selected plant materials, pampas grass and sidewalk tiles more suitable to a beach town than a city.

The white metal poles and canvas covers along the street provide neither shade nor beauty. They actually look like fallopian tubes, which can at least make you laugh.

Susan Gott is one of my favorite local artists, and her beautifully wrought glass works are usually single large works, like a column or a bench or a sculpture which fit the space for which they were created. The vertical wire grids her small glass pieces hang on look silly, as if they are temporary screens trying ineffectively to hide the parked cars behind them.

My least favorite art along this ill-favored street is a series of geometric forms made seemingly of plastic shavings — actually glass particles colored like candy-wrappers — located on the crosswalks of Zack Street from Ashley Street east to Florida Avenue. The materials and the palette, which seem to have been lifted from a 1960s craft kit, are entirely unsuitable to an urban center, and the messily glued edges are too amateurish for a public artwork. Let’s hope the City of Tampa will see the error of its ways and stop this poorly conceived design from marching further eastward.

The Franklin Exchange Building, with its corner garden featuring an allee of shade trees, crisp fountain and green wall, is decidedly the most attractive public space on Zack Street. Now that the faded gecko mural is down and the building is being repainted, things are looking up.

But there’s a hitch. The mixed metal montage located outside the building is one of a series of less than inspired outdoor sculptures in downtown Tampa that were donated by CREW for their ARTloud program. Although juried, these works vary in quality, and the piece outside the Franklin Exchange, vaguely suggestive of Don Quixote, doesn’t do this elegant space justice. The excellent paintings visible in the building’s lobby speak to the quality of the artwork inside; the exterior art should maintain the same standards of excellence.

But there’s one great example in downtown Tampa of how exhilarating good public art — and more to the point, good public art placed in the right location — can be.

I’m talking about the energetic white, yellow and black sculpture by George Sugarman known unflatteringly as “The Exploding Chicken” that is now center stage in the traffic circle next to the Florida Aquarium. Placed in a tight spot on the corner of Ashley and Kennedy for two decades, the 19-ton, 36-foot-tall steel and aluminum sculpture was crowded by the stunning architecture of Harry Wolf, the cube and cylinder. When the property was purchased three years ago, the new owners offered the artwork to the City of Tampa.

A visual “pop” almost audible in its percussive vibrance, the large, active abstract sculpture is stunning in its new location, with sightlines from all directions. (The move deservedly won a Best of the Bay award for Best Art Relo this year.) Everyone passing this memorable sculpture enjoys a jolt of beauty. Isn’t this addition of quality what we seek from public art?

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