CLEARWATER — Public art is a serious subject in Clearwater, especially the latest piece, a $36,000 panel of blues and greens by Kentucky artist Guy Kemper.
The piece is destined for the interior lobby of the Morningside Recreation Complex, which was renovated and reopened to much fanfare in October. The 21,000-square-foot facility houses a pool, gymnasium, fitness center, multi-purpose rooms and more. More than 47,000 Morningside neighbors and other city residents have walked through that lobby since its reopening, making it a great spot to display the piece, said Christopher Hubbard, the city’s cultural affairs coordinator.
Clearwater Mayor George N. Cretekos, however, prefers public art outside of buildings, which led to a bit of debate at the Aug. 14 City Council meeting.
Public art is designed to improve the quality and design of public buildings and areas within the city. Whether a mosaic in a plaza or a bronze statue of a bull as on Wall Street in lower Manhattan, public art is an expression of the community in which it resides, creating a sense of place in streetscapes and public places. For instance, the Clearwater Public Art and Design Program, launched in 2005, has led to such art displays as Sculpture360, a rotating exhibition of temporary artwork on Cleveland Street. The exhibit includes a large, red heart by Dominique Martinez and “Gaia,” the big, stainless steel head named after the mythological source of all life.
The city’s Public Art & Design Advisory Board creates a Selection Committee consisting of architects, local artists, and residents, Hubbard told the Beacon. A staff member from the city department where the art is to be placed also has a spot on the board.
“The Selection Panel identifies the theme, scope, and potential locations for the artwork and issues a Call to Artists,” he said. “When the call is complete, the panel reviews the applicants and chooses three artists or artist teams to create site-specific proposals for the facility.”
The advisory board also recommends the art’s placement once it’s completed. Hubbard takes the advisory board’s recommendations before the council, which then decides the project’s fate.
And that’s why the placement of Kemper’s art was such a big discussion at the City Council’s meeting. Kemper’s art, instead of being installed on the lawn or other exterior space at the Morningside complex, is to hang inside the building, above the entrance to the gymnasium.
The committee’s decision to place the art inside the building so bothered Cretekos — who told Hubbard that all public art should be outside so everyone can see it — that it kept him awake.
“No one has been a bigger proponent of the Morningside Recreation Complex than I have been,” Cretekos told Hubbard as the cultural affairs coordinator described the project from the podium. “I really had a sleepless night last night, this has weighed heavily on me because I know how important this is to the community.”
Hubbard, who also served as the program manager at Creative Pinellas, the county program that supports artists, arts organizations and the creative community, explained to councilmembers that the advisory board had its reasons for installing the imaginative panel on an inside wall.
“We wanted to protect against vandalism,” Hubbard said. Noting that Morningside neighborhood isn’t a bad one, he noted that vandals have defaced public art in other parts of the city with graffiti and other harm.
Spencer Cook, a neighborhood representative on the Selection Panel, explained the board’s debate in a letter to Hubbard.
According to Cook’s letter, the committee’s decision on style and placement of the artwork was reached after “lengthy and deliberate discussions over the course of several meetings across multiple years.” Meaning: The committee had been deliberating since 2017, when construction on the $5.6 million recreation complex began.
“We were aware of the mayor’s opinion on the placement of the artwork during this time,” Cook wrote. “We also feel strongly that the building itself is a work of art from the outside and we do not want to risk an installation that might look tacky or detract from the already amazing and elegant appearance of the building.”
According to Hubbard, Kemper’s original concept of a glass treatment consisting of oranges, yellows, and greens to represent Clearwater’s early days was not feasible due to window tinting added to conform to Florida building codes. The artist suggested the colors represented a land of orange groves and cattle grazing areas. The panel asked him to rethink his design, indicating the new piece would hang indoors, Hubbard said.
“The artist looked toward the internal site at the direction of panel,” he told the council. “He came back with (one with) warm colors and a piece (of art) that reflected the pool color scheme of blues and greens. The panel felt that reflected the (presence of the swimming) pool, which is a dominant use for the rec site.”
After agreeing with Councilman Robert Cundiff that the art “doesn’t really seem to jive with the fluorescent lights” in the complex building’s lobby, Hubbard said he would ask the Park and Recreation Department, which manages the recreation complex, to install different lighting “to better highlight the piece.”
Councilman Hoyt Hamilton was satisfied.
“I’m a person who likes public art as well,” Hamilton said. “Inside is not the end of the world.”
The mayor stuck to his easel to the end: “The artwork in a situation like this should be outdoors. I am going to be voting in opposition.”
The council approved Kemper’s art, 4-1.
Kemper’s contract calls for the city to provide his first payment of $12,017.50 in August. The large piece of art should take two days to install, from Jan. 6-8, 2020.