Where art thou? Public artworks missing in Miami-Dade

Sep. 9--No one knows whatever became of artist Romare Bearden's etching The Train, last reported to be in Miami-Dade County's Family Health Care Center sometime before 1999. Ditto for George Tice's photograph Petit's Mobil Station, Robert...


Sep. 9--No one knows whatever became of artist Romare Bearden's etching The Train, last reported to be in Miami-Dade County's Family Health Care Center sometime before 1999.

Ditto for George Tice's photograph Petit's Mobil Station, Robert Rauschenberg's lithograph Unit (Buffalo) and dozens of other artworks that have gone missing from Miami-Dade's Art in Public Places program.

Miami-Dade has spent three decades -- and more than $33 million -- building one of the largest and richest art collections in Florida, destined to enhance courthouses, libraries, transit stations, the airport and the seaport.

But the collection of more than 700 artworks, praised by many as among the finest in the field, is in disarray:

--A county audit of the program is under way to determine, among other things, why dozens of artworks have been lost or stolen.

--Signature works by seminal artists have deteriorated, with no money and no plans to restore them, while others sit in storage, belying the notion of art in public places.

--At least 20 works that together cost more than $800,000 have been dropped from the collection inventory because they are either damaged or missing.

--Program administrators still rely on an inconsistent, incomplete inventory to track and manage the collection.

At the center of the chaos is the tax-supported program that is supposed to oversee these works. Supporters of public art say the program has strayed from its beginnings as a collection intended to beautify community spaces and educate residents about the value of art.

"Disappearance and neglect was never a part of the vision of the program," says Ruth Shack, a former county commissioner and member of the first Art in Public Places selection committee, established in 1973.

County officials say, in turn, that Art in Public Places has been hindered by inadequate funding, hurricanes, computer failures and insufficient staff -- and they do not foresee improvements soon.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez has proposed cutting the program's six-member staff to three and folding it into the Department of Cultural Affairs as a cost-saving measure.

"It needs general funds, which is not about to happen now," says Ivan Rodriguez, director of Art in Public Places, who has overseen the program since December 2000 and expects to retire this year. "That will make all the difference in the world. And everything falls in line with that."

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

The program is funded through a 1973 ordinance that sets aside 1.5 percent of public-building construction costs to underwrite art. It received $5 million last year and is projected to receive $1.5 million this year.

That money pays for the commissioning of new artworks, administrative salaries and the conservation of an extensive and aging collection whose most visible pieces are often outdoors in a punishing climate.

Over the years, however, program administrators have lost track of more than 10 percent of the collection -- at least 87 pieces. And although the missing art initially cost about $95,000 in total, comparable works are fetching much more in today's exuberant art market.

Experts in managing public art say Miami-Dade's inability to account for works is almost unheard of.

"It's really the rare case when [artwork] disappears," says Liesel Fenner, public art manager of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit arts advocacy group.

"I'm not aware of any [missing works in Broward]," says Earl Bosworth, assistant director of Broward County's Cultural Affairs Division, which maintains a collection of 205 public artworks.

Jill Manton, San Francisco's public art director and chair of the Public Art Network, a subgroup of Americans for the Arts, says missing art has never been a topic of discussion at PAN conferences and other meetings.

"Either it's not being talked about or it's not a common problem," she says.

HOW ART GOT LOST

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