St. Petersburg-based author Peter Kageyama (For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places and the follow-up Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places) was scheduled to be keynote speaker at the Florida Association of Public Art Professionals Conference in Sarasota in May, prior to its cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We spoke with him about the pleasures and perils of public art.
Q. What does public art do for a city?
A. Arts and culture are absolutely essential for emotional engagement with a place. They are what make a city fall in love with itself. Public art is a big part of that.
Q. Are you familiar with Sarasota’s public art?
A. Yes, I’ve been there many times, and you have a lot. I remember especially along your promenade [Bayfront Park, where the Season of Sculpture exhibitions also took place for many years].
Q. And in your city of St. Pete, there’s a lot, too.
A. St. Petersburg has done a phenomenal job in embracing arts and culture and making it our identity, from big things like the Dali Museum to the smaller Chihuly Collection to murals that take things to a whole new level. That’s actually an expression of a love note. A love note can be a public space. When we walk past a piece of public art, it says to us, “This is better.” Even if a piece gets a nickname that’s derogatory, that’s OK. We have one at Channelside in Tampa that people call the Exploding Chicken.
Q. Like the controversy we’ve had here with our bayfront Unconditional Surrender statue, aka the kissing sailor.
A. Right, that turns up on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and it’s a postcard from Sarasota. The worst kind of public art is the kind nobody notices. Create something that gets attention; it’s fine if they hate it. Sometimes the public art professional can feel handcuffed; there’s a pittance of a budget, and the public may not like a certain piece. But what they do is so important. Take the Sunshine Skyway bridge lights; they make people appreciate that bridge in a different way. It’s always been highly functional, but now it’s interesting and beautiful to look at. Our city is not just this functional mechanism.
Q. What can the average citizen do to make his or her city better?
A. I talk about this a lot in my new book, how our biggest problems are often a series of small problems. If you care about a place, start small. If we look at something big like the public school system, we don’t know where to begin to make it better. But you can get hyperlocal, almost in your own back yard. What’s the little thing you can do to make your neighborhood or block its best? It could be a community festival or garden, as long as it’s something you and your neighbors love. Maybe we can create a momentum.