Art and criticism are slippery, shady (a.f.) businesses packed with ego, agenda and the genuine search for meaning. When it comes to gifts of public art, who is the arbiter of taste? Some recent works in Downtown Jacksonville beg the question.
In January, the New York Times reported that French artists and cultural figures publicly demanded that the city of Paris abandon a plan to install the Jeff Koons sculpture, Bouquet of Tulips-a giant white hand gripping a fistful of balloon flowers. The piece was set to commemorate victims of recent terrorist attacks. Citing the sculpture as "opportunistic and cynical," the signers of the public letter were able to push back against an unwanted "gift."
Authenticity and meaning are at the heart of most arguments in and around the arts. In Jacksonville, the discussions around private, public spaces-that is to say, private property that intersects with the public realm-come on the heels of the privately funded nonprofit Art Republic mural expo, as well as the (also privately funded) Downtown Sculpture Initiative spearheaded by Preston Haskell and David Engdahl. Both entities are formed around private partnerships with businesses. In DSI's case, these include Farah & Farah, Gresham Smith and Partners, and First Tennessee Bank.
However, recent developments at the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville (CCGJ) and the Art in Public Places committee (APP) move the conversation away from private matters of taste, and toward the city's vision for itself. DSI wants to gift Tropical Flower, a brushed and painted aluminum sculpture by Lina and Gus Ocamposilva, to the city. The work is a 26-foot-tall tripartite turquoise and teal form that resembles a hood ornament from Hell, that is to say, a sorta spooky/silly winged vagina. It's slated for installation on Laura Street, Downtown.
"Color and solidity" are the two requirements that Haskell thinks are "absolutely necessary for a successful sculpture in a downtown environment, with all of the surrounding visual complexity," according to sculptor and former Senior Vice President and Chief Architect at Haskell,
Observers of Downtown may have noticed a few bright and monolithic additions to the landscape. These include Opposing Forces, a big, red, shiny sculpture by Hanna Jubran in Hemming Park, Baladee also by Jubran, at the corner of Main and Adams streets; and Aisling Millar's Harmonious Ascent (pictured) which evokes a giant egg, waiting to hatch and wreak iridescent rainbow-hued havoc all over Downtown. Placed in public view on private property (or by special arrangement on public property), they speak of hopefulness and of arrogance.
It is important to note that there's no arguing against Haskell and Engdahl's deep commitment to the art scene. In addition to Haskell's own collection, he's helped MOCA Jacksonville for years as that entity lurches from director to crisis and back again. And Engdahl is an artist and former member of the APP.
However, when it comes to a legacy project that the rest of us get to interact with for decades, it seems there should be a public discourse. In this case, there's not much to be done about the pieces already installed on private land-beyond scorn and the occasional prayer for a very specifically destructive weather event. Or an artist-led uprising, one in which artists enter into the actual fray, which, judging by how ravenous for any kind of art the city seems to be, should be feasible.
But Tropical Flower is different. In March 2017, it was a part of an initial 10-sculpture installation to be placed in Downtown (this project is still moving forward). Then, in May 2017, DSI wanted to gift Tropical Flower to the city (along with a $8,000 fee for upkeep to the APP), because the sculpture is scheduled to be installed on a city right-of-way, on the sidewalk in front of the 100 North Laura St. building. At that time various concerns were raised including pedestrian access and basement accessibility. The gift was voted down.
But this flower wouldn't wilt: In November 2017, the Director of the CCGJ and Lenny Curry PAC-donor Tony Allegretti revisited the gift issue by suggesting, in an APP meeting, that a workshop to visit the site be organized. At that time, he said he was concerned about "putting up an impediment to anyone wanting to donate to the [city's] collection [...] hopefully we can get more art out of it."
The workshop was held in January 2018, but before the APP could again vote, the Office of General Counsel (OGC) advised the CCGJ that this decision-whether or not to accept a gift on behalf of the city-was outside of the APP's scope. Legally, it falls under the CCGJ's purview. Currently, the status of the gift is nebulous, as the CCGJ-with "guidance from the OGC," said Allegretti-is in the process of developing protocols to approve and accept gifts.
To say that art is subjective is to make an understatement so great as to be the Vanta Black of dissembling. And unlike Tulips, Tropical Flower and its ilk might not "sully the most sacred aspects of our heritage and identity." However, with single-source aesthetic impositions, surely a closer look is warranted.
To weigh in, attend the next meeting of the Art in Public Places committee, noon, April 11, in City Hall's Don Davis Room.