Sculpture has long been an integral part of that image –a city without sculpture rings hollow, particularly if that city is heralded as a cultural center.

Between the authorized replica of Michelangelo’s Statue of David, which graces the courtyard of the Ringling Museum, John Henry’s Complexus (in front of One Sarasota Tower) and Seward Johnson’s Bayfront addition, Unconditional Surrender, it’s safe to say that Sarasota has embraced, to an extent, the importance of public art and sculpture, but some resident sculptors still convey disappointment and even alarm when discussing the direction of public art and Sarasota’s image on the national sculpture scene. Resident artists aren’t properly supported, they say. Money and politics have hijacked the discussion. And finally, the art selected just isn’t good enough.

“Before I moved here, the image of Sarasota was one of intense art activity, with works that I would consider more significant than the things happening today,” says Dennis Kowal, a Sarasota resident and artist whose work can be found in front of the Van Wezel, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and on the Bayfront, where he was included in multiple Season of Sculpture exhibitions. “A lot of that has changed. It’s become more decorative and design-oriented. Politics are very difficult. I don’t think the energy is here to support the fine arts like it was 20 years ago.”Kowal’s fears for the future of Sarasota sculpture and public art are aptly summed in Johnson’s Unconditional Surrender, which sparked controversy upon arrival. Detractors called it unoriginal and kitschy, an eyesore on the beautiful Bayfront, the product of moneyed interests. Kowal, who draped his own Bayfront piece, Iris, in protest, has made a home firmly within that camp.

“I don’t ever object to pieces like that showing up,” says Kowal. “What I object to is a celebration of it as art, as if it means something. I’d like to see more people with intelligence as to what constitutes good work and I just don’t see that much around here anymore.”A deliberate and philosophical man, Kowal is not one for wishy-washy declarations or half-measures. He strives to imbue each of his projects with meaning or a message, some purposeful attempt at truth. This, he feels, separates art from decoration. Celebrating the end of a war is easy, according to Kowal, exploring what war really is and what it means for our future is art. In his own career, Kowal repeatedly revisits notions of war, violence and surveillance and where the road we currently travel will end. He expects as much from any artist, but doesn’t see that same earnestness reflected in Sarasota.

The appearance of this “manufactured” sort of public art that Kowal describes as “empty” and “anonymous,” is not merely the result of an influx of poor taste, in his eyes, but indicative of a more subversive problem—the inexorable intertwining of money and politics in the assessment of public art, and the resulting lack of support for resident artists not aiming for mass-marketed appeal. And choosing one or the other will define what is “Sarasota” art. “The unfortunate part of Unconditional Surrender is that it sets the tone for public art in Sarasota,” says Virginia Hoffman, a resident artist specializing in sculpture and design and founder of Virginia Hoffman Studio. “The masses judge all public art by Unconditional Surrender. It’s always in the conversation.”

Hoffman has been vocal in her disdain for Seward’s work since it first appeared, sounding off in public meetings when it was first presented and continuing today via social media. And like Kowal, Hoffman’s sees a major problem in not only what pieces are selected for display, but how.

In Hoffman’s eyes, the city commission, which authorizes public art projects using recommendations from the public art committee, gives short shrift to local artists. They favor big-name artists such as Johnson and Glenna Goodacre, whose work can be found in various cities across the United States, alleges Hoffman, instead of nurturing the community at home. She recalls an incident years ago when City Hall was to be remodeled. An artist was needed and instead of putting out a call to consider pitches from Sarasota’s artistic community, a single committee member recommended a Philadelphia artist and, according to Hoffman, that was that. To Hoffman, who considers her work comparable in quality and style to the selected artist, it was an insult and further evidence that those in control of public art in Sarasota were cutting out the community at large.

“In a lot of small communities, [local government] will give opportunities to resident artists. Sarasota has not picked up on that,” says Hoffman. “It’s given lip-service but hasn’t really been served.”

Kowal supplies a similar story involving the newest addition to the Glasser-Schoenbaum Center off 17th. Kowal’s proposed piece jived aesthetically with the building design and the people “loved it,” he says, but it was eventually shot down by a single board member. The commission eventually went to an out-of-state artist. Incidents like these led Hoffman to join the Public Art Advisory Board for 10 years and volunteer as Public Art Coordinator for two years, in an attempt to democratize the decision-making process. Instead of the City Commission deciding behind closed doors on recommendations from the Public Art Committee, Hoffman wanted to create a transparent and objective set of criteria for public art, with proceedings designed for public input.

She had a moment of success, she says, but that was all. Public art discussions now take place “in the Sunshine,” but not before city officials grandfathered in Unconditional Surrender, regardless of criteria. Both Kowal and Hoffman point to the same thing–money.

These are strange rumblings in the sculpture community. Crosscurrents and conflicting opinions. Kowal and Hoffman agree there’s a problem with Sarasota’s image and public art decision process, but disagree on how to fix it–Hoffman wants democracy, Kowal wants rigorous artistic evaluators; Kowal is more concerned about art quality, Hoffman about resident vs. national artists. Both want money and politics out of Sarasota’s artistic decisions.

On the other side of the debate sits the local government and the Public Art Committee. David Smith and Dr. Clifford Smith, who work for the city of Sarasota in the Neighborhood and Development Services Department as general manager and senior planner respectively, both strongly disagree with the notions that public art selection is politicized or dismissive of resident artists.

“We have a number of pieces in our collection from local artists,” says Clifford Smith. “When doing a call for artists, we like to focus on local artists to make sure we have good representation from the community.” Sarasota’s public art collection numbers 48 pieces, with three to five new additions each year, depending on development. Many, they say, involve a call to artists that resident artists can respond to. Past calls have resulted in purchases from resident artists, such as James Evans’ Community Figures on Palm Avenue and Kowal’s own Fractured Migration Series 2, which won the “Intersections” competition by unanimous vote from the Public Art Committee and still stands in Five Points Park.

More recently, the Smiths say a local artist has been selected by the city to add an assortment of lizard sculptures to the Children’s Fountain on the Bayfront. Currently for the Public Art Committee, selection is typically a tri-part process. A call to artists is put out and submissions are received as they come. Submissions are reviewed by a panel of artistic professionals appointed by the City Commission to the Public Art Committee, based on set criteria established before the call. The top recommendations are sent to the City Council for a final decision. According to the Smiths, the Council customarily accepts the Committee’s recommendation.

“I’ve been around for two years and we’ve not done that,” says Jeffrey Weisman, a writer and photographer serving his second year on the Public Art Committee, as to the process. “Within the two years I’ve served, we haven’t gotten to that point.”However, in his time on the Committee, Weisman says they have tackled multiple projects involving improving existing public part and he has noticed no undue intrusion of politics and economics into the Committee’s decision-making.

“From what I’ve seen in my two years, politics and economics have not played a part,” says Weisman. As to leaving the final decision on public art to the City Commission, as opposed to select artistic minds or the artistic community at large, “They’re elected and they’re running the show, and they have to be responsible. You have art-involved people who are part of the public art committee and we make the recommendation. It’s up to the city to accept it or not.”It’s a hybrid between Hoffman’s call for democracy and Kowal’s aristocracy and thus neither is satisfied, particularly with the final say laying in the hands of city commissioners and “self-proclaimed experts” who are not artists, yet make decisions about public art that “affect the community long after they’re gone,” according to Kowal.

Susan McLeod of Season of Sculpture says she can understand why the city places the emphasis it does on bringing works from national artists to Sarasota, as opposed to relying solely on resident artists, and she’s dealt with similar criticisms aimed at Season of Sculpture, which has never itself shied away from showcasing the work of non-resident artists, including Johnson. McLeod argues that their inclusion is necessary to the prestige and vitality of the show, which in turn benefits everyone who participates, including resident artists.

“Season of Sculpture has always wanted to put up local shows in the interim. It would be fabulous to have a show of local work,” says McLeod. “We’ve never had the staff to pull it off and we’ve never had the money.”At the same time, however, McLeod admits that she wishes there was more direct support for organizations like Season of Sculpture, which do help enrich the local artistic community and provides opportunities for locals to prominently display their work outside the confines of a typical gallery, but relies primarily on volunteer efforts and private donations to function. “[City officials] support us by leasing the land to us that we put our exhibitions on. They put some light fixtures up to light it at night,” says McLeod of Season’s relationship with local government. “Other than that, we have no funding from the city, the county, the state. We have no government monetary participation in what we do.”

“It’s very difficult to raise funds these days, but I think it’s important,” says Mark Ormond, art historian and professor at Ringling College, where he teaches a course on public art, Season of Sculpture. Ormond is less dire in his assessment of Sarasota’s art scene, citing the past 20 years as being more fruitful than the previous, but is also cagey in his assessment of the political side of the decision-making. “Every commission is different, every committee has a different dynamic,” he says, seemingly inviting one to read between the lines. He did offer one specific piece of advice, however.

“They need to hire a full-time person to be the coordinator of public art, and that person doesn’t exist now and has never existed,” says Ormond. “That ensures continuity and someone at the table as an advocate for public art.”As for the future of public art and sculpture in Sarasota, David Smith says a plan is underway to place 16 roundabouts throughout the city and install public art in each one. A call to artists will be announced in the coming months. “It will probably be a national call,” says Smith. “We’d like to see a local artist put something in, but we don’t want to limit ourselves.”