Tampa’s newest developments put public art on display for all

Admission fees to museums and other arts organizations can be a barrier for some people in Tampa and elsewhere. Add in a pandemic with its inequitable economic burden on those living in poverty, and access to the arts becomes an even greater challenge.

But with new private developments coming to town -- Water Street Tampa and Midtown -- along with the City of Tampa’s public art initiative Lights on Tampa, more public art is trickling in.
“Public art really reflects the values and ideals of a place: our ideas about culture and what we want to articulate in our communities. Public art is brought into urban design and layouts of cities to mark them as places of value and make them accessible to a broader public,” says Sarah Howard, Curator of Public Art and Social Practice at USF’s Institute for Research in Art. “Public art should create gathering spaces where people want to meet and be there in this social setting. I think great art can transcend the boundaries of whether you’re local or visiting; it should be able to speak to everyone.”
While the development projects are works in progress, some public art is already on view. Look up when visiting Sparkman Wharf at Water Street Tampa to see Tavares Strachen’s You Belong Here neon piece shining over the buzzing urban scene. In addition, developer Strategic Property Partners is displaying local artist Ya La’ford’s “Waterfrontier’’ immersive map mural adjacent to Bosco Sodi’s painting called “All the Mornings of the World’’ in their lobby. These works were selected as part of a partnership between USF’s Graphicstudio team and SPP to pick or commission culturally meaningful works to bring to Tampa.
While Graphicstudio recommended 20 artists to SPP, Margaret Miller, the Director of the Institute for Research in Art at the USF Contemporary Art Museum and Graphicstudio, explains that SPP had a well-established point-of-view and vision of what art in the public realm can do for Tampa and Tampa’s identity.
“Our vision is that art within the Water Street Tampa neighborhood will help create a welcoming environment that offers diverse experiences and perspectives for everyone. For us, it’s important to select public art that celebrates our incredible city and represents the cultural values of Water Street Tampa: inclusivity, diversity, connectivity, and community,” says Sam Stein, Senior Development Manager at Strategic Property Partners. “The three art selections at Sparkman Wharf were site-specific. They celebrate Sparkman Wharf’s rich history as a site for maritime trade, immigration, and cultural exchange, as well as reflect the vibrant sense of place, belonging, and community that this area has become for Tampa’s diverse residents and visitors.”
Beyond being a background for social media pictures, a piece like “You Belong Here” has an embedded message of inclusivity and integration. A big part of the success of public artworks such as these is its inherent approachability and accessibility.
“People like to see themselves reflected in the work. It’s a way they can connect to the work on a human level,” Howard says. “We’re seeing a renewed attention to public space because of the pandemic and because of political situations like our reckoning with race and protests. These are the only places we can really go that we feel safe and be in the civic world again.”

Incentivizing private investors to showcase art
A City of Tampa ordinance passed in 2000 requires that private developers reserve 1% of construction costs for procuring public art. While most decisions are made between the city and private companies, there is becoming a conscious effort to bring community voices to engage with the process.
“The selection process is so intense and is representative of all these different constituents. Being able to bring community voices into the process and have artists be responding to a site is a fuller, richer approach than just purchasing a piece that already exists,” Howard explains. “One of the projects that is coming to Water Street is a Jim Campbell project that’s part of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.''

Campbell's work will involve three video wall elements integrated into the plaza designed by landscape architect Nelson Byrd Woltz. The project is a three-way partnership between SPP/Water Street, the City of Tampa, and USF. 

"One way he is bringing in the local aspect is through the video content,'' Howard says. "Hopefully, we will be pulling content from our local area to have that connection to the imagery, whether we partner with the aquarium or someplace else to really tie it in.”

While Water Street has already unveiled a number of their new public art commissions, art at Midtown is still in the works.
“Public art selection is a work in progress at Midtown Tampa. There will definitely be impactful, awe-inspiring art throughout the 22-acre development that will captivate guests with a memorable experience,” says Margie Martin of Walker Brands.

Keeping Lights on Tampa alive
In addition to new art for private developments, the City of Tampa plays a role in bringing projects like Lights on Tampa alive. Starting in 2006, the aim was to bring light-based art throughout the Tampa area, whether it was permanent installations or pop-up art. Because COVID threw 2021’s Lights on Tampa celebration for a loop, this year’s event was staged as a self-guided tour of new light-based works. Artist Erwin Redl’s large-scale installation Circles Unity can be seen as you drive through the Channelside Tunnel, letting the LED rings that pulsate synchronously in various color patterns. At the Harbour Island Bridge along the Riverwalk, you can stroll through Andrea Polli’s Biobridge, recalling abstractions of Florida’s waters and the bioluminescence that lives in them. 
Without even having to walk into a museum, there’s something undeniable about the power of public art. In thinking about places like New York City’s High Line, which acts almost like a free outdoor art museum and garden that consistently rotates its art, it makes one wonder if The Tampa Riverwalk can also grow to that level by bringing internationally acclaimed artists here with temporary public art exhibitions.  
“Our riverfront is a huge asset. There has been a huge shift in downtown and the culture of the area. There are a lot of efforts to mark that space with busts and historical content, but I think there could be a more expanded role that contemporary art could play in that with the right partners, whether it’s something with revolving shows or programming. All of the public art doesn’t have to be permanent as artists are moving toward more ephemeral work,” Howard says. “It’s a great boon for the city to have works by international artists that are working on the highest level because it does place us within a larger context of what is happening nationally and locally as these signifiers of what kind of culture we’re producing in our city. Arts and culture play a major role in the economy and it can only enhance our community.”
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Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”