The seed that cultivated interest in Fort Worth’s public art program is estimated to weigh about 6 tons.
This is not a literal seed, but instead a towering 39-foot-tall red, steel sculpture called “The Eagle.”
Prominent 20th century American sculptor Alexander Calder crafted The Eagle in the early ’70s. To many residents’ dismay, it disappeared from its downtown Fort Worth home in 1999.
Despite its public setting at 500 Throckmorton St., the city did not own the piece.
Because it had been commissioned by the Fort Worth National Bank, ownership of The Eagle shifted when the bank changed hands to Bank One and then Loutex. A group of investors attempted to find a buyer who would keep the sculpture within the city, but failed.
The Eagle briefly perched in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art before being sold to the Seattle Art Museum as an anchor piece while the city developed its Olympic Sculpture Park, where the piece still resides today.
The piece’s unceremonious exit is partially credited for igniting a civic interest in developing a public art program in the city.
If you go
When: 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 15
Where: 1300 Gendy St.
Fort Worth, Texas 76107
Comment at the meeting or submit a written public comment in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Aug. 15, residents will have the opportunity to give feedback on proposed locations for future public art projects tied to the 2022 bond package.
When voters approved the city’s $560 million dollar bond package in May, four of the five propositions included public art funding. Proposition A, regarding streets and mobility infrastructure, allocated 1% of its improvement budget to public art. Propositions B through D, which cover parks and recreation, public libraries as well as police and fire safety, each designated 2% for public art. Proposition E, for natural areas and open spaces, earmarked 0% for public art.
Potential locations are tied to improvement projects within each of those funding areas. From the list of upcoming projects, public art staff looked at locations of existing public art works and recommended sites where they could fill in some gaps.
Fort Worth develops a public art program
In just over 20 years, the program has commissioned and completed about 90 projects. It now also is the caretaker of another 42 pieces that were either purchased or gifted by the city. And currently, 34 works remain in progress.
Fort Worth followed in the footsteps of other large Texas cities like Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston and established a public art program in 2001.
The stated mission was to commemorate the city’s cultural and ethnic diversity, implement artwork into infrastructure improvement projects and promote tourism and economic vitality in the city.
In 2002, the City Council selected the Arts Council of Fort Worth, now known as Arts Fort Worth, to manage the public art program. The group acts as connective tissue between commissioned artists, the city and public.
That same year, the city also appointed nine members to a newly created Art Commission, which serves as an advisory board to City Council.
The cattle drive and the flower
Dallas-based artist Karla García has spent the past year and a half working toward installing a sculpture at Trail Drivers Park in North Fort Worth.
Early on, she met with members of the community to learn about the park and how their lives intersect with it.
As the name of the park implies, the city — and the north part of Fort Worth in particular — has a long history involving cattle drives, which residents wanted to incorporate into her commissioned piece.
While at the park doing research on the site, García noticed a single dandelion on its own that stuck with her, and she decided to combine the two ideas.
“It’s kind of like a migratory flower with the seeds that move, referring to the migration of the cattle drivers that came through that trail,” she explained. “And there’s a lot of people that come from different places that have migrated and settled in this space. So to me, that was sort of like the perfect symbolism without really being specific about where everyone is from.”
Wanting to incorporate both elements of migration, she decided to replicate the seeded head of a dandelion. The stainless and brushed steel sculpture will rise out of a cement base with rods radiating outward in every direction. Each rod will have the repeating, rounded longhorn outline to mimic the wispy hair-like strands on a dandelion.
It’s García’s first time working on a piece of public art, and she praised Michelle Richardson, the public art project manager she’s been working with, for making the process run smoothly.
The length of time between project proposals and completion varies as the idea snakes its way through the project core team, public art staff, the City Council and community members.
Project managers like Richardson guide each piece of art through the process, helping artists connect with the city department where their project will eventually live, the council member who represents the district and community members.
“It’s important to think about who will be engaging with it? How will they be engaging with it?” Richardson said.
García’s early design was modified to round out the tips of the longhorn shapes for safety. It was also adjusted to include a cement base that will be 10 feet in diameter, which creates a buffer from the 8-foot-diameter metal flower. The platform will also help the park’s maintenance team maneuver their riding lawn mower around it with ease.
As project managers shepherd artwork through the different phases of approval, they do their best to anticipate needs before they arise to avoid roadblocks and delays. Given the volatile cost of steel, García and Richardson have created a contingency plan in their budget and spoken with their metal fabricator — the person who will bring the design to life — about potential adjustments.
“In the meantime, I’ve been working on paperwork for the mayor and City Council … I will be working on a commission contract that can be reviewed and ready to go so that when we’re ready to begin the commission there’s no waiting period,” Richardson said.
García’s final design has been approved. If all goes as planned, fabrication for the sculpture can start this fall.
The program’s funding source partially dictates new projects
When deciding on what new projects to pursue, longevity and maintenance are a top concern. Martha Peters, director of the city’s public art program, explained that is why the city commissions so few murals.
“They’re really temporary, unless there’s a real commitment for a piece to continue to be repainted over time,” Peters said. “And the few murals we’ve done, we put lifespan clauses in the contract to just tell the artist, if this gets to a point where it needs to be redone or maintained in a very expensive way, we may opt out of doing that.”
There are some workarounds that help increase longevity of a mural, like using auto body paint on metal or painting tiles and then adhering those pieces to a wall instead of painting the wall directly.
But more than the concerns about ultraviolet rays fading paint or asking the artist to do touch- ups every few years, Peters said, there is another reason the city tends to stay away from painted murals.
“The main thing that holds us back from doing what I call temporary public art is our funding source,” Peters said.
There’s a yearly contract between the city and Arts Fort Worth to manage the public art program, which includes some operating funds for its administration.
But unlike other cities that might use their hotel occupancy taxes in addition to bonds for public art funding, Fort Worth relies on bonds for public art and allocates hotel occupancy taxes toward other priorities.
By city ordinance, 2% of capital improvement funds are set aside to pay for Fort Worth’s public art program — unless otherwise amended.
Given that bonds, which act as an operational loan from residents to the city, fund Fort Worth Public Art projects, the program tries to only commission works that will last for the lifetime of the project it is tied to — like a new library or fire station.
However, the program’s master plan, which was updated in 2017, does encourage more temporary art, which the program tries to implement when other funding sources are available.
For example, grants from the Texas Commission on the Arts Cultural District Program and National Endowment for the Arts made it possible for them to commission 10 temporary works from local artists to display concurrently with a digital projection onto Pioneer Tower in 2021.
‘Some art you love and some art you don’t’
Fort Worth Public Art Staff are not trying to be arbiters of taste, which is why every step of the process includes multiple voices, Peters said.
Following the adoption of a new master plan, a so-called “core team” of five to seven community members who represent the area surrounding a potential commissioned work and are finalized by the district’s city council member, consult on the project from its initiation to public dedication.
They help interview and select artists as well as give input on a project’s preliminary and final designs.
But, Peters understands that not everyone will like every piece that comes out of the process.
“One way I like to explain it is if you go into the museum, any of our museums here, you’re going to see some art you love and some art you don’t. But yet they’re all valid works of art,” Peters explained. “Isn’t that enriching to your experience to see things that might challenge you?”
But the team hopes that, across the collection as a whole, people will find works they relate to.
They are working with the city of Fort Worth’s business equity office to collect data on the gender and racial or ethnic backgrounds of artists that they work with. Like other public art programs across the state, Fort Worth’s includes artists from North Texas and beyond.
“I think they’ve got a great collection and they do make an effort to include local artists, a great deal, and I think it’s so wonderful,” Letitia Huckaby, a Fort Worth artist, said. “But it’s also nice that they bring in pieces from outside of this area because it is a collection, and so you want that balance. I think it just makes it more vibrant, more interesting. But still, you know, honoring the artists that they have right here.”
Both Huckaby and her husband have created pieces for the public art program.
“Coming from a photography background, I always assumed public art was like sculpture, and that was so far from what I did in my normal practice that it just just never even crossed my mind to do something like that,” she said.
At the Ella Mae Shamblee Library, people can see her photography on the branch’s southeast windows and walk what she calls “a mosaic tile river” that starts outdoors and runs through the building.
“I definitely think it’s an important thing to have art in the spaces where we move and live,” Huckaby said. “A lot of individuals may not go to museums or they may not go to galleries, and so this is their connection to a sort of fine art experience. And so I think that’s always beautiful when you can touch people who might never ever see fine art in their regular walk of life.”
A different eagle
Calder’s towering, red eagle sculpture never returned to Fort Worth.
But, for a brief period in 2014, a locally created inflatable version moved across downtown.
The piece was a public art project from an arts collective called HOMECOMING! Committee and was meant to remind residents of the sculpture that helped kickstart interest in a public art program.
Its visit came as the city was considering an amendment to reduce public art bond funding in the transportation proposition from from 2% to 1%.
That amendment passed, as did one in 2018 and another in 2022.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.