Art hits the streets of downtown Clearwater 

Peace, Harmony and a Sorcerer's Gate on a sidewalk near you

In the current economic climate, Christopher Hubbard, Clearwater's public art specialist, is quick to preface his praise of downtown's new outdoor sculptures with a key bit of information: The city didn't pay for them.

"We didn't want people to feel like, 'OK, we're hurting for police and fire, and now you're putting artworks in,'" he says.

Thus far, the three artful displays installed on Cleveland Street's landscaped medians in July have been well received -- except for the inevitable chatter about wasted city funds (and one other issue that I'll get to later). So Hubbard qualifies any early pronouncements of the program's success with a little public-relations finesse. This year, he explains, the $14,000 that enabled the debut of Sculpture360, as the project is called, came from donations by downtown businesses via Clearwater's Downtown Development Board and the Clearwater Downtown Partnership. Granted, Hubbard, who facilitated the project, is a city employee, but the bulk of the funding has private roots, he says.

With $4,000 as a commission for each artist and $2,000 for installing the sculptures, the project buys a lot of good with a relatively small purse: Artists get compensated for their work; businesses gain an attraction to the downtown core, and Clearwater residents find another reason to engage with or feel proud of their city. (By the way, pride needn't require taking an artwork too seriously; Tampans will vouch that you can still have civic esteem and poke fun at the "exploding chicken" -- i.e., a metal sculpture by George Sugarman located outside the Rivergate Tower.)

The Sculpture360 works will be replaced with new ones each summer, and Hubbard hopes a local business will step forward to be a major sponsor of the annual event.

Add Clearwater to a long list of cities, big and small, that cite public art as a priority in the revitalization of their downtowns. Chicago -- with its gems by Picasso, Dubuffet and Calder, as well as the newer, dazzling Millennium Park -- might be the most obvious example, but locally, Sarasota and Lakeland have served as models for Clearwater.

The Pinellas city's core -- long sparsely populated save the hordes of identically clad Scientologists -- now boasts a revamped main drag, Cleveland Street, where independent arrivals like Tangerine, a Mediterranean café, mingle with Jamba Juice and Dunkin' Donuts (the latter soon to open in a beautiful brick historic building that stands out against concrete-and-glass offices and condominiums).

The landscaped medians and the sculptures mounted atop them not only add visual interest, they create an opportunity for cultural and civic engagement on the sidewalk in an age when cars often shelter people from street-level contact.

"We're losing so many of our public conversation spaces," Hubbard says. "It's not the days of Rome, where you would go to the market. ... and talk about things with your neighbor."

From 27 submissions, a committee composed of City of Clearwater employees, business owners, citizens and others selected the sculptures on display. All three have previously been shown in public; it was a precondition of the selection process that the artworks already exist in fully realized form (as opposed to proposals).

There's "Shanti" (meaning "peace") by Claudia Jane Klein of Lake Worth, a metallic, abstracted figure that suggests a sci-fi alien in a yogi's lotus pose. Hanna Jubran's "In Harmony -- Earth, Water, Wind, Fire," has four components made of stainless steel and bronze, an obelisk corresponding to each element.

Because the sculptures will be swapped out for new ones each year, the committee felt it could be a bit more adventurous than if it were choosing something permanent, Hubbard says. That spirit of freewheeling experimentation led them to select Bruce White's "Sorcerer's Gate," an abstracted metal gate painted bright fuchsia, which brings elements of whimsy and fun to the sculptural trio. However, the 15-foot gate, topped with a curlicue and bordered with shapes that suggest cartoonish faces, has drawn some complaints of its own -- for its implied pagan content. While White's artistic statement describes his work as "an elegant union of ancient symbolism and contemporary science," some folks apparently interpret his sculpture as a Harry Potter-esque threat to the God-fearing people of Pinellas County. But hey, at least the neighbors are talking.

"It's different. It's something you don't normally see -- and that's exactly what public art should be," Hubbard says.

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