The art of acceptance

One example of public acceptance is UF's "Alachua," which was once dubbed "French Fries From Hell."


Published: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 1:08 a.m.
To Lakelanders still coming to terms with a colorful-but-controversial sculpture overlooking their city's Lake Mirror, some advice from Gainesville: Give it time.
And maybe a nickname.
In recent months, Lakeland has been debating the artistry and appropriateness of its largest and most expensive piece of public art, "Tribute to the Spirit of Volunteerism." It's a $100,000, 35-foot-tall steel abstract by famed sculptor Albert Paley, commissioned by the city to commemorate volunteerism.
"Tribute" was unveiled to mixed reviews last spring in a park next to Lake Mirror. Since then, it's been called everything from inspired to atrocious.
By fall, according to a story in The Ledger in Lakeland, the community was still "adjusting" to the sculpture.
Gainesville and the University of Florida have undergone similar adjustments over public art.
Often controversial pieces have become better known by their nicknames than by their formal titles: "Mud Ball," nickname for "Sanctuary Sphere" outside Gainesville Regional Utilities' downtown headquarters; the UF law school's "Cheerios" ("Cause and Effect"); and the most famous of all, the so-called "French Fries" between UF's Marston Science Library and the computer sciences building.
One of the most memorable art debates in Gainesville swirled around a supersized, bright-yellow sculpture that hardly anyone today describes by its official title, "Alachua." On campus and in Gainesville, the $104,000 work by artist John Henry was dubbed "French Fries From Hell" almost immediately upon its debut in February 1989.
"I still just call it 'French Fries,' " said Roy Hunt, emeritus professor of law at UF and former interim dean of the college of law. "I've always been offended by the (official) name. It has nothing to do with Alachua or its history."
Hunt recently ended a four-year term on the Florida Arts Council, the 15-member advisory group appointed to advise Florida's secretary of state on grant funding and all other matters pertaining to culture in the state, including public art.
He said he has no problem with the artistic quality of "Alachua," and likes it. And, he said, he thinks nicknaming a piece of public art is a good thing that can help the community embrace it.
"It shows the public cares enough to call it something," he said.
"Junk-metal sculpture" is what Robert Bryan called "Alachua" in 1989, when he was UF's provost and shortly was to become the university's interim president.
He said Friday that his main objection 16 years ago was that the piece threatened to obstruct a vista that an early campus architect had sought to preserve forever. The architect's vision, Bryan said, was for a long, unobstructed view between Century Tower and the Reitz Union.
That view was maintained even when the Marston library and computer science building were built between the tower and union, Bryan said, by a large arch. But then "Alachua" was installed near the arch and partly obstructed the view, he said.
Today, Bryan said, "Alachua" "has become part of the landscape, and you unconsciously accept it." If somehow it disappeared, he said, he might even miss it.
"But I doubt it," he said with a laugh. "But it's there. Now it's almost fully accepted. And that old idea of 'French Fries From Hell,' now we can't even understand what that was all about."
Hunt said that even with controversial works of public art, the public usually warms to it over time.
One of the earlier examples of the modern era of public-funded art in the United States, he said, was installed in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1969. It's a 42-ton, bright-red work titled "La Grande Vitesse" (French for "the grand rapids") by Alexander Calder. Most Grand Rapids residents call it "Big Red" or "The Calder."
Hunt said it was unveiled to "tremendous controversy" in 1969, but today Grand Rapids proudly emblazons the "Big Red" image on everything from garbage trucks and street signs to city letterhead.
"It's loved now," he said.
Amy Dickerson, director of University Galleries at UF, said a similar turnaround has occurred with the once-derided "Alachua."
"Now it's on the cover of the graduate student handbook, and the University of Florida has adopted it in other promotions," she said.
Dickerson agreed that a nickname sometimes can help people discard any initial reservations they might have about a piece of public art.
"Public art really does stir emotions in people," she said. "I think a nickname can make it seem more accessible. But I've also heard people say they are offended when they hear it called 'French Fries.' "
Since the fries first appeared, there has been an explosion of art in public spaces, thanks to state and local laws that mandate a percentage of the cost of public buildings be dedicated to paintings, sculpture and other artwork.
For state buildings, one-half percent of their cost is appropriated for artwork. UF has more than 20 works of art gracing buildings and other spaces.
Campus additions in recent years include "Moses," a striking sculpture along Museum Road at the new physics building that features 10 stone slabs - tablets? - supported by a system of weights and cables. "Evolving Forms," a three-dimensional, purple-and-white work, is mounted on a wall over a basketball court inside the Southwest Recreation Center.
And at the Levin College of Law, an aging copper piece that looks like giant Cheerios dates to 1969 and now leans unceremoniously against a light pole inside a construction fence. Once the addition to the law school is finished, "Cause and Effect" - the artist's name for "Cheerios" - will be relocated to another part of the law complex.
The city of Gainesville's "Percent for Art" ordinance, passed in 1989, requires that 1 percent of money for new city buildings that cost more than $100,000 be used to acquire art. The city has defined public art as "original works of art created for and installed at public sites that provide wide access to citizens and visitors," said Erin Friedberg, visual arts coordinator for Gainesville's Department of Cultural Affairs.
She said since the ordinance went into effect, a half-dozen city spaces have been enhanced by artwork placed inside or outside or incorporated into the architectural design of the building or landscape.
Among them is a mural in the Martin Luther King center on Waldo Road, a work inside City Hall, specially commissioned paintings inside the Thomas Center and the Solar Walk, a series of sculptures along NW 8th Avenue that represent the planets in the solar system.
"Gainesville is a very art-conscious city," Friedberg said. "There's so much creativity in this town, and art is something people appreciate."
And to that end - Lakeland take note - nicknames help.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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