Live Active Cultures

Seth Kubersky tours public art in downtown Orlando

TANSTAAFL. For those in the audience who know your economic acronyms, that translates to: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." In these days of budget slashing and belt tightening, that tough-luck truism has never felt more accurate. But thanks to United Arts of Central Florida, for at least one week this month, a new acronym was in effect: TISATAFA, or "There is such a thing as free arts."

From Feb. 4 through 13, sponsors such as Bank of America, the Orlando Sentinel, the Orlando Magic and two dozen others, underwrite attendance at 220 events in 81 venues spread across four counties.

The only commitment required to secure complimentary tickets to an ArtsFest event is a few clicks of a mouse, so tickets for most of the popular performances on the schedule were gone just minutes after United Arts opened its virtual box office. Unfortunately, a number of free-pass patrons never show up, leading to "sold out" shows with empty seats. Next year, perhaps a lottery system (instead of the current first-come/first-serve) with a cancellation penalty could cure this problem.

In the meantime, if the show you want to see for free this weekend is sold out, try showing up anyway; if you arrive at the venue early, you might be able to snag a "no-show" seat, as unclaimed tickets are opened up at the door of each sold-out event. That's how I ended up attending Orange County director of arts and cultural affairs Terry Olson's guided walking tour of downtown Orlando's public art.

Olson's two-hour tour took 40-odd attendees to more than a dozen public artworks that thousands walk by every day. From the Orange County Commission chambers (which are currently hung with paintings by Maitland Art Center founder André Smith) we proceeded outside to inspect Roy Shifrin's "Winged Runner," a gift to the city from SeaWorld's old owners. After a brief discussion of the bronze statue's disproportionate anatomy, Olson apologized for the figure's unkempt appearance, explaining that budget cuts were keeping the county from doing proper preventative maintenance of the artworks. Sadly, this refrain would repeat throughout the tour; even Richard Hallier's "Girl With Doves" in front of the courthouse looks like she has leprosy.

In addition to Orlando's most frequently viewed artworks, we also visited a couple of its least visible ones. Unless you are an elderly evangelical, it's unlikely you've been on the 18th floor of the Orlando Lutheran Towers retirement home on Church Street. Which means you've never seen the rooftop sanctuary's stunning faceted glass windows from the inside (they can be seen glowing from the street at night), nor the ginormous pipe organ in the loft. And you'd have to be a corporate client of 5th/3rd Bank to have occasion to see its Robinson Street office lobby, where a series of Stephen Plunkett's abstract paintings are on display.

During the walk, Olson pointed out the Downtown Baptist Church stained glass and Don Reynolds' fading forest mural on the Central Boulevard parking garage. Soon we were sitting on the Lymmo free bus (for the first time in my sober life) taking the short ride down Magnolia Avenue to the library, where Christopher Janney's "Light Waves" is displayed on the western facade. As we were deciphering the code that triggers the interactive sound-sculpture's hidden sequence, a pair of modern dancers appeared out of nowhere and began improvising on the asphalt – it was a "pop-up performance" by Voci Dance, a part of the troupe's Great Urban Spaces series of Internet-announced micro-shows. (Since I'm married to the company's director, I can't say I was entirely surprised.) The dancers followed us across the street to the Orange County Regional History Center, where a couple of kids climbed on gator wrangler Francis "Bunk" Baxter (as sculpted by Scott Schaffer). That location also is home to one of downtown's "public art caches," part of a participatory treasure hunt that began in 2008 (visit and for details).

The tour wrapped up with visits to a couple of Orlando's most controversial pieces of public art, and to his credit Olson pulled no punches. In front of the Plaza Cinema, Olson pointed to the "Beaux-Arts" statues in the ultra-contemporary courtyard ("counter-point or clashing, depending on your taste") as products of the Public Art Fund, which developers must pay into whenever they begin work on a capital project. Down the block at City Hall, Ed Carpenter's "Tower of Light" is the poster child for the "negative connotations" public art has in Orlando, because of the way (in Olson's opinion) it was imposed without appropriate public input. Today the often-scorned asparagus is scarred with bullet holes and still awaiting new LED lighting (budgets, natch). For a finale, we inspected the tapestries and hammered-lead picture windows in the First United Methodist Church, followed by Dorothy Gillespie's multi-story mobile hidden inside the helix ramp of the Jackson Street parking garage.

Olson's amble was an excellent way to get acquainted with the unexpected expanse of Orlando public art, and I highly recommend attending if he offers it again. I only wish I'd snagged one of the scarce tickets for his guided boat tours this Saturday down the backyard canals of Winter Park. But there are still plenty of other free ArtsFest events through this weekend that don't require a ticket, so check it out online (, then go get some culture on the cheap.


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