Backstory: Clowning around on Florida's 'Culture Coast'

The dust-up over the life-size clown statues on sidewalks in this resort city got nasty even before pranksters made off with "When Pigs Fly" and "Ra Ra Shish Boom Ba," two of the 42-pound figures.

Long before the first molds were cast, the city's own Public Art Committee vexed municipal leaders by withholding its support, calling the idea of grinning fiberglass clowns on street corners a fulsome display of bad taste with no place on Florida's so-called "Cultural Coast." A portrait artist took to The Tampa Tribune op-ed page to knock his fellow Sarasotans for embracing their "inner Orlando." The Sarasota Herald Tribune, returning fire, accused the critics – local painters and sculptors, mostly – of anticlown snootiness.

"If Picasso can turn a bicycle seat into sculpture," the newspaper editorialized, "some clever soul can find a way to transform fiberglass clowns into sophisticated art."

Then came the vandals. Since the brightly painted, 6-foot-tall statues debuted on in October, at least two dozen have been attacked or kidnapped in what a police spokesman calls "random acts of criminal mischief." Clowns have been beheaded. Limbs have been snapped off. Fires have been lit between floppy clown shoes, turning fiberglass legs into bubbling goo. And two clowns were wrenched off their 300-pound concrete bases and stolen.

One, "Ra Ra Shish Boom Ba," a Moorish-themed clown with a fez, handlebar mustache, and elaborate ankle-length caftan, is still missing and may be, some think, at the bottom of Sarasota Bay. (The US Coast Guard has said that two crewmen stole the statue, and has paid $3,500 for a replacement clown.)

How a civic-minded public art project could have gotten this out of hand is a question a lot of people in this Gulf Coast city of 54,000 are asking. "Why would anyone do this?" asks Ken Shelin, one of two city commissioners who wore a red nose to a news conference for the exhibit last year. "And why would anybody do this to a clown?"

At first blush – or rouged cheek – the "Clowning Around Town" exhibit would seem as likely a flashpoint here as, say, a display of stylized surfboards along the beaches of southern California. Sarasota had until 1960 been the famed winter home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. John Ringling's bayfront mansion and circus museum remain big tourist draws, plaques in a local park honor circus greats, and there's still a Ringling Boulevard, a Ringling Causeway, and a circus- training program for schoolchildren.

And the Clowning Around Town exhibit was sponsored by Tidewell Hospice and Palliative Care, a large nonprofit agency here, which commissioned the statues and plans to auction them in May as a fundraiser for its programs for grieving and sick children.

But no sooner had city commissioners sent in the clowns than the pies started flying. The reasons for the exhibit's woes remain a subject of fierce debate here. But most people blame some combination of poor planning, clown phobia, and a growing population of affluent retirees with less of a soft spot for the city's circus past.

Gone are the days when working-class tourists flocked to Sarasota to watch acrobats somersault across Lido Beach on their Sundays off; when an out-of-makeup Emmett Kelly could be seen shopping at the local grocery; and when Gottlieb and Alfreda Fischer, "The Tallest Married Couple on Earth," ran The Giants Motel.

"Everyplace you went in Sarasota in those days, you could hardly go down the street without seeing something from the circus in the yards: a rigging, a trailer, a trapeze, a wire for practicing," recalls Jackie LeClaire, a member of the International Clown Hall of Fame who became a Ringling Brothers clown here in 1945, at age 16.

Nowadays, the landscape is dominated by peach- and salmon-hued condo high-rises where many entry-level units start at $1 million. "I feel like I'm someplace on the moon," says Mr. LeClaire.

The criticism and vandalism of the clown statues "has been sad for the clown community," he adds. "They can say all they want about Sarasota being artsy.., but Ringling Brothers put Sarasota on the map."

***

In a downtown park where many of the clowns are clustered, white-haired couples and children stop to gawk or pose for photos. "Anyone who doesn't like these are just goofy, grumpy people who are afraid to be happy," says Tonya Forestin, a stay-at-home mom admiring the figures with a friend one recent afternoon. "What could be bad about something that makes people smile?"

Plenty, say some local artists, many of them transplants from Northern cities. They were drawn to Sarasota as much for its climate and natural beauty as for a vibrant cultural scene that includes a ballet, opera house, and renowned museum of fine art, founded by John Ringling himself.

"It says something about us as a city," says Elizabeth Van Riper, a painter, sipping coffee with a group of fellow artists at a Starbucks across from a row of clown statues. "Is it stuck in the 1940s, or is it forward looking?"

Public art "is the city's wardrobe," Virginia Hoffman, a sculptor and former chair of the city's Public Art Committee, says from across the table.

"And," adds Beth Surdut, another artist, "do you really want it to look like Bride of Chucky fallen into Ronald McDonaldland?"

Though police say there is no link between the artists' criticism and the vandalism, the attacks on the statues have clouded what exhibit detractors say was an important debate over public art.

Frank Creaturo, a local painter hired as a clown repairman, says he has been called on to patch up 27 of the 50 clowns, which are shuttled to his downtown studio in moving vans. The attacks have been so vicious that he has had to mend some with the same Bondo putty that auto-body shops use on dents. His own artwork – abstract paintings and street scenes of old New York – has been pushed to the back burner. "People will pass by the studio and go, 'There's the Clown Doctor'," he says. "Forget about Frank Creaturo the artist. Now I'm being called 'The Clown Doctor'."

Then he excuses himself. A clown statue at the airport has been beheaded, and he has to go.

***

In recent weeks, the clowns have come under tighter security. Police have beefed up patrols. A local businessman has donated surveillance cameras. And Tidewell Hospice, the exhibit's sponsor, has hired a private security guard and clustered the statues in more central locations to deter vandals.

In December, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, published a front-page story on "coulrophobia," or clown phobia, and quoted a local psychologist's assessment that "clowns by their very nature are frightening beings that evoke fear."

The 50th and final clown statue, "Caboose," unveiled outside a local library last month, was designed with features less likely to incite coulrophobes, or at least pranksters who might see a simpering life-size clown statue as too inviting a target, especially after a night of heavy drinking.

"I just didn't want any big grins or any scary eyes," says Judy Robertson, the graphic designer who painted Caboose. She gave her clown heart-shaped lips, big eyelashes, and crystal blue eyes. "I wanted it to have a real good spirit."

Officials at Tidewell Hospice have met in recent weeks to discuss the possibility of ending the exhibit early, concerned about the effects of continued vandalism on prices at the May auction, where the hospice had hoped to raise $1 million. Asked whether she would stage a similar fundraiser again, Tidewell's president, Marge Maisto, smiles and, after a long pause, says, "Probably not."

As some now see it, the clown controversy is proof the circus never left Sarasota. "I'm sure John Ringling is probably looking down from above, just laughing like crazy," says Lou Ann Palmer, a three-time Sarasota mayor and former contortionist. "He may even have his clown nose on."

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