Houston Artist Dixie Friend Gay's Public Art Project Accepted, then Rejected, in Florida

It all seemed like a go. Last year, Houston artist Dixie Friend Gay submitted a proposal for a public art project to go up at the Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport. She was among a handful of artists picked from around 300 submissions to fly to Florida and meet with a whole bunch of people -- artists, architects and representatives of the community, the county and the airport.

Then Gay received a letter from the county informing her that she had been chosen -- her proposal for 42 site-specific mosaic panels, to be installed on walls near the airport's restrooms, would become a reality. "Each terminal would have a set of images, and each one would be different, that dealt with the different aspects of water in Fort Lauderdale. It's considered the Venice of Florida," says Gay. "It' s just a beautiful city, and I am enchanted with it."

Gay has completed public artworks for Texas A&M, George Bush Intercontinental Airport and other local spots, as well as projects nationwide, including for the Port of Miami and the Indianapolis Airport.

For this project, cast glass, fused glass, handmade ceramics and other materials would be pieced together into mosaics inspired by the region's beaches, canals, still water and lily ponds.

The artist says the proposed works were a conceptual fit with the location on the walls outside the airport's restrooms. "It's not in the toilet," she says.

But when the plan went before the Broward County Commission board this week, it was rejected. The South Florida Sun Sentinel gleefully reported that the project was "flushed late Tuesday night."

A story from the Associated Press published in the Houston Chronicle stated, "The commission's 6-2 vote against the $424,314 project came late Tuesday. Commissioners said they didn't like that proposed artist Dixie Friend Gay is not local. She is from Houston."

Mary Becht, the director of the Broward County Cultural Division, said the proposed placement of the artworks in "restroom vestibule areas" was a cause for concern. "There was not agreement that this location throughout the airport was the best location for the art," she said. She also confirmed that with the economy doing poorly, there is a new focus on giving more work to local artists.

"This is not uncommon," says Julia Moore, public art administrator with Blackburn Architects, who worked with Gay on a site-specific project for the Indianapolis Airport. "There are a lot of places saying, 'Why aren't we hiring local artists? Why is this money going out of the community?'"

But Moore points out that even when an out-of-town artist gets a commission, a lot of that money still continues to circulate in the local economy. "I did 15 projects at the Indianapolis Airport, and I can go to each one and say, really the only money the artist kept was their 15 percent fee...So that's really not a very fair way of looking at it."

Gay concurs. "When I go to a location, if I can use local people and local fabricators, I do," she says. "Then, I'm spending money on hotel rooms, rental cars, flights in. Days off, I shop...I do put a lot of money into the economy when I go to do a project."

But with times so tough, it isn't just about money leaving the community. It's about people paying close attention to how money is getting spent. "Even though funds are set aside," says Becht, "it's really scrutinized to every detail at this particular time for every expenditure."

As for Gay, she has no hard feelings, and she isn't deterred from her desire to see her work go up both inside and outside of Houston. "I want to compete on an international level," she says. "I don't want to compete on a local level."

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