Coral Gables

Flower-like sculptures ... Art or driver distraction?

The larger of the two sculptures designed by Alice Aycock is at the traffic circle on Segovia Street and Biltmore Way in Coral Gables.
The larger of the two sculptures designed by Alice Aycock is at the traffic circle on Segovia Street and Biltmore Way in Coral Gables.

Public art has often created debate, provoked thoughtful discussion and improved the aesthetics of some locations. But two public artworks installed in Coral Gables over the summer have caused significant disapproval and criticism.

Some residents have organized to voice frustration about two sculptures installed on traffic circles on Segovia Street. They say the artworks are out of character for the City Beautiful and its Mediterranean style and they plan to lobby for the removal of the sculptures during a community meeting.

The $1 million flower-like sculptures of aluminum and steel were designed by Alice Aycock, a world-renowned artist who said she was inspired by the passion flower.

But residents like Olga Ramudo say the end result of that inspiration is ugly, too costly and not what residents want.

“Coral Gables is a Mediterranean, historic city and that’s what makes us different,” Ramudo said. “Those sculptures are not what our city’s all about.”

Those sculptures are not what our city’s all about.

Olga Ramudo, Coral Gables resident

She started a petition that has received more than 100 signatures and has been shared on the Gables Good Government Committee’s Facebook page. A poll on a local news site, Gables Central, has received nearly 500 votes with about 300 people saying they hate the sculptures, about 100 voters saying they love it and another 100 people saying they think it should be moved.

“The artwork in question is a hazard to drivers, potentially creating accidents due to the lack of visibility that it creates,” the petition reads. The sculptures sit at the center of traffic circles at Segovia’s intersections with Biltmore Way and Coral Way.

Commissioners have also received numerous emails and complaints about the artwork, likening it to Audrey II from the play “Little Shop of Horrors” or writing that “maybe the aliens will land and take it away, so we won’t have to look at it anymore.”

“Perhaps the rendering looked more muted, smaller or more appropriate. I cannot believe anyone realized just how garish and overwhelming the end result would be,” resident Grant Kasischke wrote in an email.

Aycock has worked in the art world for more than 40 years and is internationally known for her large, complex and elaborate sculptures.

She emphasized that the sculptures were carefully engineered to withstand up winds of up to 175 mph and that craftsmen worked nonstop to perfect the piece.

“Everybody gave this everything they had from the beginning of the design to the finish to installation to give a unique work to Coral Gables,” Aycock said. “It was meant not in any way to insult people or to diminish them.”

In 2014, she unveiled “Park Avenue Paper Chase,” which was a major piece featured along the titular street in New York City for about five months. Aycock also has permanent installations at Dulles International Airport in Washington, the San Francisco Public Library and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.

Locally, her installation “Whirls and Twirls on a Vortex of Water” was exhibited at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood in 2009 and is on display at the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill. Her work was featured during Art Basel in 2013, and she was a guest speaker during last year’s festival.

She has named everything from science fiction to amusement parks as inspiration for her past works. In her initial proposal for the Coral Gables piece, she said the sculptures were intended to reference “satellites, antennas, and mechanical robotic floral objects.”

But critics say the selection process lacked public input.

Aycock’s proposal was chosen out of a field of more than 180 applicants after being judged by a panel of five experts in public art including Silvia Karman Cubina, the director and chief curator of the Bass Museum of Art, and Carol Damian, former director of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University.

“I think it’s going to be a destination kind of artwork,” Damian said at the November 2014 commission meeting, before the Commission unanimously approved the installation, the Gables’ first major public art pieces since the 1920s.

$1 million Cost of the pair of sculptures

Dona Spain, the city’s director of historical resources and cultural arts, said that the city followed the law in publicizing the meetings and noted that the historic preservation board’s vote on the project in 2014 was televised. She agrees that the artwork is shocking, but she doesn’t think it’s out of character for the city.

“I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a piece of modern sculpture there,” Spain said. “I think people really just need to step back and give it time.”

Fine art professionals, including art advisor Lisa Austin, say it’s difficult to find a piece of public art that gets unanimous approval from onlookers and that if the critiques are loud enough they can shape the dialogue around an artwork.

“Even if you have a small group of people that have suddenly decided to get vocal about it, and it seems like there’s this groundswell of people that are against it, that might not be the case,” Austin said.

She noted that when a work by Pablo Picasso — an untitled, abstract steel sculpture — was first installed in Chicago in 1967, it was criticized but is now one of the city’s most popular public art pieces.

“The committee did their job in picking someone who’s well respected,” Austin said of the decision to choose Aycock’s proposal. “At some point it’s just a matter of public taste.”

Some residents like it, including Laurie Berry, who wrote in a letter to the Miami Herald that the sculptures are delightful.

They are soothing in the middle of a scorching summer afternoon and have made me smile each time I’ve driven by.

Laurie Berry, Coral Gables resident

“They are soothing in the middle of a scorching summer afternoon and have made me smile each time I’ve driven by,” Berry wrote.

The pieces cost $1 million and are part of the city’s Neighborhood Renaissance program, a $27-million bond program to fund various projects in the city. The project also received $40,000 in grant funding from the National Endowment of the Arts and $35,000 of in-kind horticultural services from Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden.

But most of the project’s funding is coming from the city, which will pay $50,000 a year for 20 years for the artwork.

Commissioner Jeannett Slesnick was not on the dais in 2014 and said she would not have voted in favor of the sculptures at their cost or at that location without more feedback from residents.

“To have a million-dollar mortgage that you’re paying off for having something that’s unattractive, at least where it is, frustrates me so much,” Slesnick said.

City Attorney Craig Leen said that moving the pieces would not be easy. The city’s contract with Aycock requires the city to wait six months before moving it unless Aycock agrees otherwise. “The art can’t be moved anywhere without that agreement between the city and the artist,” Leen said.

Ramudo is planning a meeting to discuss proposals that critics hope to present to the City Commission in October. The meeting will be held 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at The Palace at Coral Gables, 1 Andalusia Ave.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3