True story: Once after I wrote about a controversial piece of public art about to be taken down — a 36-foot abstract burst of yellow, black and white metal that sat on a busy downtown Tampa corner for decades — I got a call from a radio show in Canada.
Would I go on the next morning to talk about it?
Sure, I said, impressed by their interest in public art and maybe even in the artist who wrought this piece, George Sugarman. Except then they called back all disappointed. They had done some Googling and figured out that Tampa did not after all have as a point of city pride a statue of an actual chicken exploding, beak, feathers and all — even if the Exploding Chicken was what pretty much everyone called it. The indignity. Public art depicting blown-up poultry? What kind of town did they think we were?
Turns out we are the kind of town where even an Exploding Chicken, loved by some, derided by others and sent off into storage to await its fate in pieces like a fryer chicken, can find its true roost.
This is a classic Tampa story: As the city grew up and got more sophisticated, some among us apparently thought we were too good for the Chicken (actually an untitled sculpture aptly nicknamed years back by a newspaper columnist). It was a landmark (and a talking point) at busy Ashley Street and Kennedy Boulevard until new owners of the tall building there decided to donate it to the city.
But who wanted to stick taxpayers with what it would cost to take down and relocate an Exploding Chicken? "It was finding people that would do it for free" that was the challenge, says Bob McDonaugh, the city's administrator of economic opportunity. Was the Chicken toast?
I am happy to report that some of us get the Chicken, among them Frank Nelson, senior vice president and general manager with general contractor Batson-Cook. This company has done a few modest projects like, oh, the Pepin Heart Hospital, schools and skyscrapers. But no, he said. "I've never done an Exploding Chicken before."
His company and a handful of other like-minded companies and people volunteered and sponsored the move. The project manager with Nelson's company even did a 3-D computer model to make sure they put all the Chicken parts in the right Chicken places. And this week, as tourists looked on, cranes bobbed and workers in hard hats busily pieced it together in its new, more whimsical and more fitting spot: in the center of a traffic roundabout by the Florida Aquarium, the cruise port and Channelside's shops and restaurants.
"This thing really belongs here," one of the workers told McDonaugh.
When onlookers watching art reborn asked, Nelson explained it was the untitled Sugarman piece — though if they hang around long enough, they will surely see the Chicken in it. Next it gets freshly painted after those years in the sun, finally restored to glory.
When I ask, Mayor Bob Buckhorn says public art is critical to a vibrant downtown, and conversation about it, pro or con, can only be good.
Okay, but does he like the Chicken?
"It," says the mayor, "has grown on me."
So Tampa turns out to be a town that appreciates art for art's sake — and one that can even find a place for an Exploding Chicken.