PUBLIC ART TELLS A STORY. Through brushstrokes, the play of light and shadow and prismatic colors cast on its viewers, public art conveys the spirit and character of a community, capturing a snapshot of long-ago history, revealing its values, culture and diversity. For newcomers and visitors, it captures a sense of place; for locals it instills civic pride and builds communities.
Public art tells the story of lives lived and lost. It celebrates famous residents, every-day moments, everyday people.
On a wall in downtown Fort Myers, public art speaks of slavery and bravery. In the tentacle-like tangles of a just-unveiled sculpture in Boca Raton and the bent-to-the-breaking-point palm trunk of a Punta Gorda sculpture, it reminds viewers of the fragility of nature — and its power. Or the joy of life — a mural of a shorts-clad Albert Einstein against a psychedelic background in West Palm, a statue of three childhood pals marching along a fallen tree in Bonita Springs.
Fun and playful. Provocative and purposeful. Wayfinder and placemaker.
Told by murals and memorials, light and landscaping, architecture and sculpture, public art imparts color and vibrancy for all to enjoy, ready to surprise at the turn of a corner. No admission required.
“Public art can help to celebrate communities, honor history and tradition, improve streetscapes and define public spaces and cultural districts,” says Dave Lawrence, president and CEO of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County. “Public art provides meaningful engagement for residents and visitors alike and fosters engagement with local businesses, creative professionals and the community — all of which supports and strengthens our economy and quality of life here in the Palm Beaches.”
Public art also impacts local economies, attracting visitors and tourists interested in the increasingly popular history and heritage travel niche.
“A substantial amount of money is spent each year on trips to see artistic or historic sites,” says Tom Hall, the city of Fort Myers’ public art consultant. “People who come and see art remember and identify where they visited. Art burnishes a city’s image to the outside world.”
Naples’ public art advisory committee recently completed a 24-page public art master plan outlining ambitions and intentions for expanding its program established in 2001. Collier County’s convention and visitors bureau hired its first-ever arts and culture manager in February.
By gauging the public’s perception of the city’s 45 permanent pieces, art leaders in Naples also discovered its shortcomings. Only one-third of respondents rated the quality of public art as good or excellent and the majority viewed the works as conventional and safe, woefully lacking diversity and failing to address local priorities or social issues. Consisting of outdoor sculptures, indoor paintings and photography, most of the city-owned collection was created primarily by men with few by artists of color.
Raising awareness, engaging the public and establishing a steady revenue source are critical to growing a public collection. Despite its very public nature, residents are seldom aware of the scope of public art in their community, passing by pieces during the course of their daily lives and commutes without a second thought — or glance.
Palm Beach Gardens engages visitors exploring its online inventory by encouraging them to vote for their favorite pieces as a people’s choice winner. To increase awareness, 21 of Fort Myers’ 41-piece collection are now on Otocast, a GPS-guided tour app for smartphones. Guided by the community’s input, Naples has identified visible locations for future artwork.
Municipalities have enacted art taxes, development fees and incentives to support continued growth of their bodies of work — and ongoing maintenance. Boynton Beach has a 1% public art fee and guidelines for integrating public art into architecture, infrastructure, landscape and greenways. In West Palm, The Related Group has installed three monumental pieces at Rosemary Square, including “The Wishing Tree,” a towering 32-foot LED-powered banyan tree.
The inclusion of artists in county construction projects enriches public spaces, building and streetscapes, says Elayna Toby Singer, administrator for the Palm Beach County Art in Public Places program, also referencing a 2018 survey that found 70% of Americans believe the arts improve the image and identity of a community.
Naples has over $500,000 in available public art funds since passage of a 2006 ordinance requiring developers to pay an art fee based on the square footage of their nonresidential real estate projects. Fort Myers’ 15-year-old program is at the mercy of the municipality, receiving funding only through capital improvement projects.
“The city doesn’t build much,” laments Mr. Hall.
Art collectors are also known to share with the public. In 2016, prominent Naples business owners and entrepreneurs David Hoffmann and Jerri Hoffmann placed 30 sculptures along trendy Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South districts. The 2018 relocation of “Really…?” from Winnetka, Ill., to the dock at the Hoffmann-owned Naples Princess, a sightseeing tour boat, warranted a headline in the Chicago Tribune.
Nonprofit arts organizations rely on the generosity of the community. The mural society in Punta Gorda has funded 31 paintings, some as much as $30,000, entirely through donations. The small town has supported an active mural society since 1995. A $1.2 million expansion of the Alliance for the Arts’ 10-acre Fort Myers campus, including the 25-foot-tall commissioned “Caloosahatchee
Water Wall” in 2020, was paid by the city, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, foundations, local businesses and private donors. “Water Wall,” an ode to the sculpture’s namesake river by Michael Singer, also functions as a filter for the adjoining retention pond and as a place maker.
“From the outside, there wasn’t anything that screamed ‘art center,’” says Emily Radomski, the Alliance’s gallery director. “We’re open to anything that makes the campus more vibrant and brings more color and life.”
The Marco Island Center for the Arts campus features work by notable artists, among them Leo Schimanszky who proposed a sculpture garden in 2012, and “Blue Man,” an early work by Jack Howard Potter. Miami-area artists Hoxxoh and Johnny Robles painted “The Heart of Street Art” on an outside wall in 2015, before the twosome rose to prominence for their Wynwood Murals.
“The artists are now so established, we could never have them here now nor could we afford them,” says executive director Hyla Crane.
A building’s walls provide a blank canvas for murals and many Florida cities are capitalizing on the growing trend. There’s even a Florida Mural Trail (www.VisitFlorida.com).
“There’s nothing like taking concrete and painting a picture on it,” says Emily Theodossakos, marketing and program manager for Lake Worth Arts, or LULA, the arts arm of Lake Worth Beach’s community redevelopment agency. “Our murals have definitely brightened the area and brought more exposure to the city. Murals attract visitors. I see people jump out of their cars and take selfies.”
Public art is forever changing the landscape, evolving with the addition of new works and taking on fleeting forms with outdoor performances, music, temporary alfresco museums and exhibitions, and festivals. It also remembers the past: the replica Iwo Jima Memorial in Cape Coral, the Collier County Freedom Memorial which incorporates beams from the World Trade Center, the Wellington Patriot Memorial and many monuments honoring lives lost to wars, terrorism and social injustice.
As with beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. Not all public arts programs succeed, some works stir controversy and criticism. Lee County is said to have abandoned its efforts after the 1998 installation of “Sun Gate,” a 12-foot granite ring, drew comparisons to a tire and a donut from a less-than-adoring public. It didn’t help that the sculpture wasn’t aligned with the sun as artist Robert Sindorf intended or placed in a location where children could crawl through it, says Mr. Hall.
“Territorias (Man and Dog Marking Their Territory),” one of 20-plus metal sculptures by Columbian artist Eduardo Carmona placed throughout downtown Fort Myers by the developer of the failed riverfront Allure condominiums, raised eyebrows. Some six years later, it’s still displayed prominently at Main and Hendry streets.
“It’s our most controversial piece,” says Mr. Hall. “There was a push by some residents to have it removed. They felt it was inappropriate.”
Collier County’s sole public installation, the 15-foot, 22-ton abstract womanly marble form of “La Donna” erected in 2020 at Collier Boulevard and Tamiami Trail East, received a lukewarm reception.
Whatever the community’s reaction, perceptions and even misperceptions, public art remains an important part of society.
“I think it’s uplifting to know that there’s public art all around us,” says Mr. Hall.
In Fort Myers, one form of public art took time to get its footing.
Business owner Shari Shifrin discovered Fort Myers’ citywide ban on murals after painting a decorative mural on the back door of Grand Illusion, her custom screen printing and embroidery shop on First Street in the Historic River District.
“I grew up outside New York City where public art was more of a happening,” says Ms. Shifrin, director of the Fort Myers Mural Society which she founded in 2013, shortly after the run-in with code enforcement. “In the 1980s, there were a lot of public happenings and mural painting was always an event. They made statements.”
It took three years for the fledgling society to get its footing, two of them convincing city hall to change the ordinance which specifically singled out murals and mosaics permanently affixed to walls.
“Public art increases commerce within the city limits, evokes more passion, spirit, fun and life,” says Ms. Shifrin. “There’s a lot of emotional spirit and social meaning behind a mural painting. As a form of public art, murals sometimes express angst, euphoria or politics.”
That latter is represented by two temporary murals supporting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They were installed at the Alliance for the Arts on McGregor Boulevard just five days after the February Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The society’s 500-foot mural on the wall behind McCollum Hall, completed in 2021, pays homage to the Dunbar community center’s past as a dance hall on the Chitlin’ Circuit, venues considered safe for entertainers during the 1940s and ‘50s, the waning years of the Jim Crow era. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dunbar namesake poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and dancers are expressed in energetic whirls of vibrant oranges, blues and purples.
The city’s public arts committee has commissioned 17 society murals for the building, currently under renovation.
“Yesterday’s Riverfront” on the Hall of Fifty States offers a comparison of past and present, depicting a historic view of the Caloosahatchee River and yacht basin.
“You stand and look at the mural, turn 180 degrees and see the same yacht basin and railing as it is now,” says Ms. Shifrin.
The society’s 37 registered mural artists, 10 of them active, are more prolific outside the city limits — following up a mural in the lobby of the Amazon fulfillment center on Alico Road with paintings on the building’s windows. Muralists have also complete work at Vanderbilt Shops in Naples, on Fort Myers Beach and in parks, churches and food pantries throughout the region.
While murals were explicitly outlawed, the city already had an active public art program in place, even a public art consultant, established by ordinance in 2007. Mr. Hall credits former Mayor Jim Humphrey as the architect, pushing for the initiative after seeing Indianapolis’ success in reclaiming downtown through public art.
The Fort Myers-owned collection comprises 41 pieces, including the 25-foot Dupont-red “Fire Dance,” its first commissioned piece installed in 2012 at Centennial Park, and the recent acquisition of Mr. Carmona’s rust-hued metal sculptures — including the territory marking man and dog.
“A lot of our public artwork tells the story about our early history, who we were and where we’ve come from,” says Mr. Hall.
The city’s oldest work is the 1913 Tootie McGregor fountain on McGregor Boulevard honoring its influential namesake. Centennial Park’s “Uncommon Friends,” the 1988 sculpture and fountain of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, is the work most associated with Fort Myers, says Mr. Hall. A statue of Mr. Edison at the Edison and Ford Winter Estate is one of the city’s most photographed sculptures. So, too is the FPL-commissioned “Caloosahatchee Manuscripts” at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, which plays with light and text — perforations in its two 10-foot cylinders cast the Latin names of 500 botanicals tested by Mr. Edison in search of a durable latex; the other a story told by Maskoki Native American leader Tchikilli.
“It’s a fan favorite for photo opportunities and selfies,” says Mr. Hall.
Three new commissions are also in the works. The community redevelopment funded “Journey of Hope,” a 20-foot sculpture showing the uplifted face of a Black woman silhouetted by a starburst, reflects people and place. The gateway artwork by St. Pete artist Cecilia Lueza is expected to be installed in late summer at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Veronica S. Shoemaker boulevards.
“It signifies dreams, hopes and civil rights,” says Mr. Hall, noting a call for artists received 100 entries. “We canvased the Dunbar community and asked what they wanted.”
Dunbar is also home to “What Dreams We Have and How They Fly,” a 2015 glass mosaic sculpture by Cheryl Foster, borrowing its name from the first line of a poem penned by Mr. Dunbar. Ms. Foster also created Delray Beach’s “Endurance” in homage to that city’s original Black and Caribbean settlers.
Sometimes, public art is raw in its truth, revealing untold chapters of history often dark and glossed over. Barbara Jo Reivelle’s “Fort Myers: An Alternative History,” a 20-by-100-foot sepia-toned ceramic tile mural commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration as part of Fort Myers’ new federal courthouse, intentionally strayed from the city’s well-known past and famous citizens, instead delving into a 46-year history of the former fort. Ms. Reivelle, a photographer and then-professor at the University of Florida, conducted exhaustive research to portray scenes from the mid-1800s to 1904, a span covering the Seminole Wars, Fort Myers’ distinction as the southernmost land battle during the Civil War, its heritage as a dusty cow town and the arrival of the railroad.
Among its daguerreotype-like portraits are Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs and Black soldiers of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops who defended the fort, a Union stronghold, against Confederate attack in February 1865. A scene of a slave, his arms extended from a public stockade, is located above the soldiers.
“It brought out the fact the fort was built by slave labor and when they didn’t perform, they were corporally punished,” says Mr. Hall. “It wasn’t common knowledge that slaves built the fort and Black soldiers saved it from destruction.”
Coupled with a 1997 Population Today report rating Fort Myers among the nation’s most segregated cities, a dedication ceremony marking the mural’s 1998 completion was cancelled.
Mr. Hall says Fort Myers’ public art committee is making a concerted effort to raise awareness and accessibility to its collection. With many of its pieces concentrated primarily in the river district, the committee is distributing warehoused works by Mr. Carmona to other wards, creating art hubs at community theaters, retail centers and parks.
“With all the benefits a community derives from a vibrant public art program, we’ve been grappling with how to allow people who don’t necessarily have an interest in art to get exposed to art,” says Mr. Hall.
Most of the city’s collection is also featured online and on Otocast, a free tour guide phone app using GPS to show users nearby installations, plus photos, a brief narrative about each piece and audio describing the work, the story it tells and the inspirations, often told by the artist. Currently, 19 pieces are on the site; it will eventually feature all 41 with plans to add 41 historic buildings.
Elsewhere in Lee County, public art can be viewed on the campuses of Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern State College. Bonita Spring’s Riverside Park is home to the trio of tree-marching children in the sculpture “Lords of the Forest” and a man walking atop a towering ring in “Setting the Pace.” ¦
Leave a Reply