Firestarters: Top Agent of Change

SRQ Magazine

Beautiful sculpture can be found throughout Sarasota, and so can fine sculptors. But Virginia Hoffman, an artist who lived in Sarasota from the time she was 11 years old, has been frustrated at times that there isn’t always a connection between the two. A number of years ago, she became very upset when Sarasota City Commissioners were hiring artists from far outside the state to create works of art to station throughout the community She remembers a specific instance when Philadelphia artist Ray King was hired to sculpt a piece to stand outside City Hall. “He did work almost exactly like my work, and I was very unhappy,” she says. The incident inspired her to go directly to Commissioners and ask why a call to artists hadn’t even been issued, and why officials were not interested in seeing a local artist create something instead. She didn’t convince them to rescind the contract with King, but she did end up with a spot on the Public Art Committee for City Hall, a job she has held ever since. That particular slight was personal, she says, but her main focus is on giving local artists a grander position in a community renowned for the arts. That desire is being realized this year with the Intersections program, a sculpture competition of sorts where Florida artists will have work featured on the streets of Sarasota for a year, with one artist seeing his or her work purchased and made a permanent part of the City’s public art collection. Following up on similar efforts around the state, the competition will be the largest such sculpture competition put on by a city in Florida. “I’ve always had the desire to give local artists the first crack at anything,” Hoffman says. “Now that the economy is so bad, local hiring is on everybody’s tongue and has become the popular thing to do.” Of course, Hoffman has also made headlines this year for a fierce opposition against one particular sculpture. When the possibility first arose that Seward Johnson’s Unconditional Surrender, the eye-catchingly kitsch kissing sailor that now adorns the Bayfront, could become a permanent exhibition, Hoffman used her position on the Public Art Committee to launch a full-throated campaign against the piece. Copyright issues and questions about donation procedure have made the statue one of the most complicated of government matters facing City officials, but Hoffman is up front about her chief concern with the statue. It’s an ugly rip-off of a famous picture sitting in one of the best positions of any work of art within the City limits, she says. “There seems to be a growing culture war between those who are accepting of low-brow art and the local arts community that wants a higher aesthetic ideal,” she says. “I think Sarasota has set a world-class cultural standard, and a lot of forces out there are trying to take that away.” She fears the kissing sailor will become the main image visitors associate with Sarasota, rather than many of the more critically exciting pieces scattered around town. Hoffman seems to have lost this fight, though, as a majority of City Commissioners approved a deal to keep the statue in its current location for the next 10 years. But with the Intersections program, Hoffman hopes some of the human-scale pieces that will adorn major corners and public spaces throughout the area will remain in visitors’ minds instead. She expects the artwork will also increase traffic to local shopping districts, creating jobs both for local artists and retailers alike. By Jacob Ogles / Photography by Kathryn Brass