Live Active Cultures

The only thing not in short supply these days is the buckets of blood-red ink saturating our state and local finances, turning legislative chambers into economic abattoirs. As always, taxpayer-supported art is first in line for the sharp shock of the budgetary butcher blade. So, while alphabet-soup atrocities like the FCAT and MBI can count on comfortable funding, you may have a hard time finding a public-school arts instructor (or an opera company) in Orlando this time next year.

Rather than restating what is obvious to anyone left who reads a daily newspaper (both of you), I want to shine a light on a bright spot amidst this war against accessible aesthetics. The hulking brick-and-glass facade of the Orange County Administration Center (on Rosalind Avenue at Church Street) may not appear to be an inviting environment for an art excursion. But walk around to the rear entrance, where Roy Shifrin's 1987 bronze sculpture "Winged Runner" (companion to his more-famous 1976 work "The Leaper") stands with his absurdly over-muscled thighs balanced upon a "donated by SeaWorld" pedestal.

Once past the TSA-style security checkpoint (necessitated by the adjoining county commission meeting chambers), you'll notice a thoughtfully chosen selection from the Mennello Museum of American Art's collection of folk artist Earl Cunningham's work. The paintings, which span from the 1930s up to his 1977 death, illustrate the evolving vibrant colors of his Americana landscapes and sea-harbor vistas, rendered in his signature primitive perspective. These works are a small slice of the 400-plus that Cunningham created; an additional 50 paintings are part of the Smithsonian-organized traveling Earl Cunningham's America exhibit that recently returned from a national tour and were installed in the Mennello museum, through Aug. 2.

Finally, in the center's hallway, you'll find the first tangible project to come out of the tenuous trifecta of downtown venue developments. Ironically, it's not a byproduct of the prospective performing arts center, but of the Orlando Magic arena (aka Rich DeVos' Golden Pleasure Dome™) that's under construction. In exchange for public financing in the half-billion range, the Magic agreed to foot the bill for five "community recreation centers" — at $5 million a pop. In keeping with state and local guidelines for capital improvement projects, 1 percent of the budget for each center, or $50,000, has been set aside for public art; plus $35,000 was dedicated to a related gymnasium project planned for Barnett Park.

A commission that large would be a plum prize for any artist, even if the economy weren't imploding. So rather than dole out the dollars behind closed curtains, the Orange County Public Art Review Board held an open call last August for artist submissions. The selection process netted more than 125 applicants from across the country, which were then whittled down to 17 finalists. On April 3, Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs director Terry Olson hosted a pair of low-key presentations unveiling the winning proposals:

Ron Baron (Brooklyn, N.Y.): suspended sculptures fashioned from trophy parts; Dr. Phillips Recreation Center.

Stephanie Gassman (Sarasota): wooden murals; Meadow Woods Recreation Center.

Richard Heipp (Gainesville): 3-D lenticular collages; Curry Ford Recreation Center.

Martha Lent and Larry Moore (Winter Park): dimensional murals; Goldenrod Recreation Center.

Jefré Manuel (Orlando): photo-mosaic mural and courtyard trellis made from recycled basketball hoops; Silver Star Community Park and Barnett Gymnasium.

The big winner was Manuel, who had two proposals approved. He's been on a roll lately, securing multiple national public-art projects over the last year (most recently a series of organic-material gateway sculptures in Philadelphia), but this is his first hometown commission. Even the losers were interesting: Jeffrey Reed and Jennifer Madden's 9-foot-tall finger (spinning a basketball) was nixed amid questions of misinterpretation, but I'd love to see Bill and Mary Buchen's interactive metal percussion installations.

When and if the gyms are finally built, the real winners will be area residents, who'll get an ounce of arts exposure with their exercise. Groundbreaking is scheduled to begin this month, but the timetable (they planned to build a center every three months) has already been delayed and still sounds optimistic. Hopefully it will get off the ground soon, so we can say that there are at least five Floridian artists gainfully employed thanks to Mayor Buddy's billion-dollar gamble.

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