Susan Edwards: Not just for art snobs

What do a beer can, an exploding chicken and a toilet seat have in common?

a. They’re all things you might smash your head against on a Saturday night binge in Ybor.

b. They’re all things drunk pirates have peed on after a Gasparilla parade.

c. They’re all things you can use for target practice or stuff with fireworks.

d. They’re all punch lines to jokes about snobby cultural crap.

e. They’re all underappreciated works of art designed to delight.

f. All of the above.

The correct answer is f, which should tell you something about Bay area culture and its progress over the past 25 years since Creative Loafing published its first issue here. At that time, Tampa civic boosters were calling the town America’s Next Great City, and the arts community was struggling to convince them that cultural amenities should be part of the equation.

In 1988, cultural amenities were few and far between, and the city was not investing much in developing them. It wasn’t for lack of ideas. In fact, Tampa was among the earliest cities to propose a performing arts center and a public art ordinance, and among the last to develop them. The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened in 1987, 20 years after it was first proposed. Contrary to early plans, when it was finally built, most local artists and arts groups could not afford to use it. The public art ordinance was passed in 1985, after 11 years of wrangling, but three years later, there was still no staff to administer it. In fact, what little public art there was had been purchased at the initiative and expense of private companies.

In Creative Loafing Tampa’s inaugural year, NCNB erected the first truly landmark building in the city since Henry Plant had built his grand hotel a century earlier. At the corner of Ashley and Kennedy, the iconic structure was conceived by architect Harry Wolf as a watchtower at the entrance to the city, a sleek modern building that reimagined a powerful symbol and recalled the city’s roots as a fort. Built of limestone, it is a sculptural extension of and tribute to the limestone shelf beneath the city. If you’re moved to inexplicable awe when you enter the giant cube with its huge circular windows or see it lit up at night as you cross the river toward downtown, that’s because Wolf employed the Fibonacci Sequence in its design to achieve the perfect and harmonious proportions of nature. When this marvel was built, pundits promptly dubbed it the Beer Can Building because the other thing people were comparing it to could not be printed in newspapers.

In that same year, NCNB commissioned sculptor George Sugarman to create a piece for the building’s outdoor plaza. Sugarman left it unnamed so people could decide for themselves whatever images it evoked for them. People have compared it to the sun rising over waves and to a chrysanthemum. But the name that stuck was the Exploding Chicken. The current owners started trying to get rid of it in 2005. Eight years later, it’s finally finding a new home, thanks mostly to privately donated labor and materials.

Fast forward to 2013: The Lens is a bright, airy loop designed to replace the raggedy St. Petersburg Pier. It will be a place for walking, biking, dining, and lingering over spectacular views of water and city, with a sheltered marina for non-motorized watercraft. In the drawings The Lens looks like a crown. The oval window overlooking the water resembles a giant blue jewel at the crown’s center. It’s an apt image because this stunning structure would be the crowning achievement of downtown St. Pete’s amazing rebirth. Plans to replace the current pier began in 2005. It took seven years to arrive at this new design. If everything goes as planned, it would be completed in 2016. However, that date could be moved considerably forward or The Lens might never get built because of the efforts of people trying to force the city to cancel the project. They say it looks like a toilet seat.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? It’s tempting to conclude that we’re largely a region of party-till-you-puke yahoos who would rather blow stuff up than admire a work of art. But the truth is more like this: A lot of people consider arts and culture the province of snobs and enjoy shooting down their efforts and peeing on their perceived pretentions.

The other truth is, change is slow, especially on a civic level, but we have made some headway in cultural amenities since 1988. On the 25th anniversary of this paper, the cultural landscape has changed. Artists and arts groups have come and gone and been replaced by new ones too numerous to name here. Tampa’s downtown waterfront is marginally more lively and accessible, and since Creative Loafing first hit our streets, Tampa has built a new art museum, children’s museum and history museum. University of South Florida has built the Contemporary Art Museum, and a new School of Music building with performance, rehearsal and classroom space. St. Pete’s downtown waterfront has exploded with cultural amenities, including the spectacular Dali Museum, the jewel-like Chihuly, and the renovation of the Mahaffey.

This paper has also gone through a lot of changes over the past 25 years. It was started by a young idealist named Ben Eason who truly wanted to provide an alternative to the mainstream media. His first partner, Terry Garrett, did too. When I came on staff as managing editor, Terry said the most liberating words that have ever been spoken to me: “Don’t be afraid to fail.” Those are still words to live by for people who put out a truly alternative paper, and, I think, for the artists and visionaries who will keep trying to delight a public that will sometimes ridicule them and pee on their work.

Susan Edwards was a frequent contributor to the Weekly Planet before becoming Managing Editor in 1999, then Co-Editor and Senior Editor till her departure in 2004.

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