Fort Worth's newest piece of public art takes the "everything's bigger in Texas" stereotype to a whole new level.
As in almost 500 feet up.
Atop the massive radio communications tower at the city's Rolling Hills Water Treatment Plant, just south of Interstate 20 near Campus Drive, sit five large rings of steel fitted with bright LEDs. The smallest ring is 12 feet in diameter, the largest 50 feet.
The rings of light are visible for several miles each way on I-20 as well as on Interstate 35W.
Tens of thousands of motorists pass it each day, with most of them likely paying little notice because, while the sun is up, the tower looks like hundreds of others, albeit larger than most.
But local arts officials hope that people far and wide will take notice after the piece, called Night Song, is dedicated in August. The tower's location provides ample opportunity for it to become a new landmark.
Testing on the lights began Jan. 18-19, said Martha Peters, vice president of art with the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Fort Worth contracts with the Arts Council to manage its public art portfolio, which includes several dozen sculptures, murals and other pieces throughout the city.
The light installation was considered complete in May; the dedication is planned at Tarrant County College South Campus.
The city's public art budget for fiscal 2010 listed the cost of the project at $68,695 -- $20,000 from Fort Worth's 2004 capital improvements program and $48,695 from the Public Art Fund.
The project is being wrapped up as spending on public art has come under renewed scrutiny nationwide, with governments under pressure by voters to cut spending.
In Fort Worth, stainless-steel light sculptures along Lancaster Avenue downtown have stirred some controversy. That project cost $1.7 million, and public criticism over the dimness of the lights prompted more spending by the Public Art Fund to fix them.
As for Night Song, local officials and the primary artist on the project, Connie Arismendi of Austin, have high hopes.
Its inspiration was the RKO Radio trademark of movie fame from the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
The lights can be programmed to change colors and patterns. Arismendi has said she envisions colors changing with the seasons, with perhaps blue and aqua in summer to represent Texas springs.
She has said her motivation was simple: Radio and cellphone towers are everywhere. But, she asked, do they have to be ugly?
North Texans can judge for themselves soon.
'The gurgling toad'
Around the country, some interesting disputes are breaking out over public art.
In northern Virginia, maybe it was the fairy. Or it may have been the toad. But the combination of a fairy riding a toad as a finalist in a sculpture competition at a new federal defense complex -- and the $600,000 price tag -- set off howls of protest from already disgruntled residents, with local critics dubbing the artwork "the gurgling toad."
That fight has generated headlines and caused consternation in Congress.
It is the latest flap over longstanding efforts to set aside a percentage of government construction projects for public art.
From Fort Worth to Miami, Kansas City and Sacramento, Calif., efforts to place more art at public buildings and spaces is burgeoning, sometimes generating controversy and sometimes creating instant landmarks.
In Fort Worth, a 39-foot orange Alexander Calder sculpture, Eagle, was so well-known that for over 20 years people used it for directions -- "make a right at the Calder" -- and its sudden sale and dismantling in 1999 shocked the city.
The loss of the privately owned sculpture spurred the arts and business communities to get behind a city and county initiative in 2001 to set aside 2 percent of construction budgets backed by municipal bonds for art -- the highest rate in the country.
"Public art is a way you can reflect community history," said Peters, of the Arts Council. "There's just a sense that if you engage artists, then everything won't be the same. You're giving a city a sense of place."
As for the Calder, it resurfaced in Philadelphia for a few years, but was sold and now sits in a Seattle sculpture park.
Federal projects, by policy, have 0.5 percent of construction costs set aside for public art, while in 350 programs at the city and state levels, construction budgets typically set aside 1 percent for art. Miami's is 1.5 percent, while Sacramento matches Fort Worth at 2 percent.
"Public art creates a sense of identity of places we inhabit," said Liesel Fenner, public art program manager at Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group.
"It is part of our cityscapes."
That wasn't the reaction that Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., had to spending $600,000 on the "gurgling toad" at the Mark Center, a gleaming new multimillion-dollar office complex in Alexandria that towers over I-395, just a few miles south of the Pentagon.
Moran was already seeing red because the building was opening without road improvements or new access at an already congested highway interchange. When he learned that there was, however, money set aside for a sculpture and wall murals, including the toad, he was apoplectic.
"I consider myself one of the strongest supporters of the arts," Moran said as the issue exploded in the spring. "But at a time when we are fighting to prevent the traffic nightmare ... this is a very questionable way to spend $600,000."
Staff writers Bill Hanna and John Gravois contributed to this report.
Maria Recio is the Star-Telegram's Washington bureau chief. 202-383-6103