“This story isn’t about me,” begins Sam Alfstad, owner of Alfstad& Contemporary. The story, he says, is Ba’al and Yizhaq, the newly installed sculpture turning heads by the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and South Links Avenue, purchased from the internationally acclaimed Israeli artist Boaz Vaadia shortly before his passing in 2017. The real story, Alfstad insists, is the unprecedented public-private partnership that enabled the City of Sarasota to overcome a daunting price tag and bring work of this stature into the public art landscape to announce Sarasota as a global player—and what this could mean for the future. This is all true. But the story is also about Sam.

Regardless of where the story ends, it begins in 2016 with notable Sarasota developer Dr. Mark Kauffman of Red Property Management. Local regulation demands that for near every development project exceeding $250,000 within the city’s downtown area, a small percentage goes towards public art within the city, either as actual public art or a contribution to the city’s public art fund. Working on three lots within the city—one on State Street, another on South Washington Boulevard and a third on South Ringling Boulevard—the retired physician found himself holding three separate public art obligations to the city and one novel idea: to combine what he owed—a total just topping $61,000—into a single contribution that, with the city’s help, could raise the profile of the city as a whole. “Sarasota had a quantity of public art,” Kauffman says of his thinking at the time and today, “and now it was time to get more quality.” And instead of having three smaller bits of sculptural art, wouldn’t it be better, for the city as a whole, to invest in one larger one? Twenty grand is twenty grand, continues Kauffman, “but there’s only so much you can get for that price.” The city saw this as “reasonable,” he says, and approved the idea. Then Kauffman told them the price.

PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

A real piece of internationally renowned sculptural art would run around $200 thousand, he estimated, and he would up his own contribution to right around 70 grand. The rest would need to come from the city. Its eyes wide open, the formerly sleepy seaside town said it needed time to think. Kauffman returned for the next meeting three months later with back-up: three specific options, including Boaz Vaadia’s beautiful but haunting Ba’al and Yizhaq, and his art dealer. The meeting began well, and everyone agreed on Vaadia’s work as a first choice, but the price tag remained an issue. The city could pony up $70 thousand, but a six-digit sum represented too much of a strain on city coffers. “We have limited funds in the Public Art Fund and we’re in the middle of putting art in the roundabouts,” explains David Smith, manager of long-range planning for the City of Sarasota. “So we really couldn’t open the entire public art fund for that.” Wanting to see the project succeed, the city suggested Kauffman could meet the shortfall with a drive for donations. Kauffman, without the time or inclination to make fundraising his third career, said he’d make it easier on everyone and just say no right there. Caught at an impasse, the deal seemed poised to die the slow lingering death of the almost. Then the art dealer spoke up. He could put up the 70 grand.

Today, walking east down Ringling Boulevard, approaching the intersection at Washington, Ba’al and Yizhaq are hard to miss, the pair of them perched on a sliver of road jutting into an intersection, looking out over the evolving Sarasota skyline with a geological stoicism born of Vaadia’s signature stratified style. With impassive faces and folded arms, they sit in silent judgment, attitude unknown. Behind them, rising to the clouds like the prow of a great ship breaking some wondrous fogbank, towering new construction from the architects of Apex-Studio Suarez only serves to heighten the sculptural figurehead at its base, as all sightlines—and roads—point to Ba’al and Yizhaq.

“One of the great things about public art is it’s not in a museum,” says Sam Alfstad. “It’s not locked away in somebody’s penthouse, it’s right out there for everybody to enjoy.” Public art holds a special place in Alfstad’s heart, and he likes to think it does in Sarasota’s heart of hearts as well. This is, after all, the place that made a home for Jorge Blanco’s The Runners and John Henry’s Complexus, as well as the infamous Unconditional Surrender, which, regardless of one’s stance, Alfstad says, does excite a reaction. “I don’t think there is any way to explain what that brings to somebody, versus going past another green bush,” he says. “It’s not just another billboard; it’s a piece of art that engages you.” 

And so, when the deal appeared to be floundering, Alfstad stepped in to say that his gallery could carry the weight and be a third partner—if the city would allow it. Importantly, says Alfstad, the gallery—a commercial entity—is the third partner, not an individual philanthropist. A partnership of this sort had never been done before in the history of Sarasota’s public art program and was therefore unaccounted for in the zoning code. But the city limbered up, preparing to be flexible. If the will and the wealth were there, the city would find a way. The code was officially amended in August 2017, allowing not only for multiple public art obligations to be merged into one, but for multiple parties to collaborate with the city for such a project.  And Alfstad’s already looking to the future; in fact, it’s where he’s had his eyes trained this whole time. “The whole point of this was as a possible model for the future, and a way to set something up to stretch the city’s resources,” he says. “The whole idea is to get the community and the construction services and the city to combine and create more art for Sarasota.” And art that announces Sarasota’s presence in the greater artistic community, and allows it to further join that great conversation. “It says we are important in the cultural landscape of this country and this world,” says Alfstad. “That we think it’s worthwhile to beautify our environment and market this as a cultural city.”

There remained one final hiccough—as public art, the sculpture would belong to the city, but it could not remain on privately held land, and the code had little flex in this particular area. Showing a continuing preference for blunt action, Kauffman simply cut off the offending 1,300 square feet or so of his property and gifted it to the city. Problem solved.