Sometimes controversial, public art spending could be cut
There's the statue nicknamed Gumby and the coral rock formations some describe as an upside-down ice cream cone. There's also the statue of a sailfish seeming to fly from a fountain and a park of brightly colored umbrellas that look like an invasion of flying saucers.

Derided by some as a waste of money and heralded by others as building a sense of community, Broward County's art-in-public-places program has placed art in libraries, parks, courthouses, government buildings and even in bus terminals and parking garages since it started 33 years ago.

The program is now in trouble.

County commissioners are looking at suspending a requirement that 2 percent of the cost of every government construction project be set aside for public art. More than $8 million in art projects is on the horizon for the county, but officials must overcome a $109 million budget deficit. The idea has cultural art activists up in arms.

"These public artworks speak to our values and make a clear statement about who we are as a people and also to who we are in Broward County," Fort Lauderdale artist Virginia Fifield said.

Broward has amassed a collection of more than 200 artworks over the three decades of the art-in-public-places program. Appraised at $19 million, the tax-funded art collection includes both acclaimed and controversial pieces.

The abstract metal stick figures detractors dubbed Gumby, located outside the Sheriff's Office headquarters, cost $186,000. Some projects were much more expensive. The collection of 30-foot colored umbrellas at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise known as Flying Saucer Grove cost $1.6 million, while Light Cylinders, a series of colored cylinders shielding the escalators in a Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport parking garage, had a $1.1 million pricetag.

Other examples – like the $167,000 art plaza at West Regional Library in Plantation and the $292,000 entryway into South Regional Library in Pembroke Pines – were highlighted as innovative examples of public art in Americans for the Arts' annual review last year. The monumental geometric shapes by the main courthouse are sometimes compared to a spilled ice cream cone, but were among four local artworks featured in the book "Designing the World's Best Public Art."

The most recent project will be stepped on by thousands of passengers as they board Royal Caribbean's large new cruise ships -- a $470,000 terrazzo floor inlaid with a bronze sculpture of the globe and trade winds, required as part of Port Everglades' construction of the cruise terminal.

Commissioners have asked for more information on how much could be saved by suspending the program and what work could be delayed. During the height of airport renovation projects and library and park expansion programs, the county spent between $2 million and $3 million a year on art.

The savings today could be much less.

An initial review by budget analysts shows that the county has $1.3 million in public art projects currently in the pipeline in which a contract with an artist has not been signed. The county potentially could save another $48,000 that it would otherwise be required to spend on art for Everglades Holiday Park and the parking garage next to the public safety building.

The savings could be more substantial if the county moves ahead with plans for a new downtown courthouse. Budget analysts estimate $6.8 million would have to be set aside for public art under the current rules.

Commissioners said they have supported the public arts program, but see little choice but to study its suspension until the national economy pulls out of recession and local tax collections improve. They will make a decision on what to do by Oct. 1, when the new budget goes into effect.

"These are the difficult decisions we are going to have to make in order not to raise taxes," Commissioner Ken Keechl said. Commissioner Lois Wexler added, "You can't have champagne on a beer budget."

Scott Wyman can be reached at swyman@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4511.