By Jane Smith
As Boynton Beach maintains its role as a public art supporter, the city is juggling three arts-related issues.
In August, city commissioners hired a Boca Raton events firm, Zucker & Lewis Media Group LLC, to produce its fifth International Kinetic Art Festival. The firm will be paid $40,000. Next year’s festival is slated for March 6 and 7, instead of the first weekend in February. The extra month will give the event firm more time to find artists and organize the festival.
Boynton Beach also is on its second search for a public art manager. One candidate, selected in early September, dropped out at the last minute when she received a better offer that the city could not match, Kathryn Matos, assistant city manager, said on Oct. 8.
And in early November, the city will unveil the restored Community Heartbeat mural to be placed on the lobby windows of the new fire station in town. City commissioners and others will be invited to a small ceremony.
The juggling situation was created in early June after Debby Coles-Dobay, the city’s public art manager, was fired when she was blamed in the whitewashing of the faces of two Black fire chiefs from the Community Heartbeat mural. The mural is a collage of firefighters in action and at city events with a red heartbeat line running through it.
The change created an uproar in the local Black community at the same time as international racial unrest was growing over the May 25 death of George Floyd. The Black man died while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
The Boynton Beach mural was taken down on June 4, two days after it was installed and one day after the soft opening for the fire station.
From June 4 through 6, City Manager Lori LaVerriere interviewed Coles-Dobay, Fire Marshal Kathy Cline and then-Fire Chief Matthew Petty. “Coles-Dobay admitted that changing the skin color was her idea and decision,” according to the draft notes of Human Resources Director Julie Oldbury, who was present during the interviews. The original notes were hand-written and difficult to read.
Coles-Dobay denies the allegations in the HR notes: “I did not want any changes to be made to the mural. Fire Chief Matthew Petty and Fire Marshal Kathy Cline directed changes to be made. Documents were provided and approved by city officials,” Coles-Dobay wrote in an Oct. 18 email to The Coastal Star.
In late April, Cline and Petty were involved in last-minute discussions about the mural, according to Oldbury’s notes. Both said they wanted to have blurred faces of the 39 firefighters shown in the mural.
Cline, who had not seen the mural, expressed concerns about seeing identifiable firefighters in the station lobby. The mural “would then create a ‘why is this person on here, why am I not on here?’ issue,” she said.
Cline also objected to the mural because as the city’s fire marshal she is responsible for fire safety. The mural’s placement in the fire station’s lobby windows was not letting enough light through to see inside the building or out onto the street, she said.
In addition, Oldbury’s notes reflect that Petty said he had concerns about the circumstances under which the two Black chiefs left the city. He asked, “Is that pressure? No, that’s me voicing my concerns before I’m being requested to give an approval.”
Petty admitted he failed when he replied to an April 23 email from Coles-Dobay about the mural, “Looks good, approved, moving on.” He said he had not looked at the latest rendition of the mural before replying.
On June 6, Petty and LaVerriere agreed he would step down as fire chief.
Since then, the city Arts Commission on June 11 decided to try to restore the original mural. Releases were sent to all 39 people in the mural asking for permission to use their images.
Thirteen responses were received. Twelve approved of having their images in the mural and one did not.
The city’s second Black fire chief, Glenn Joseph, who retired in November 2019, asked that his image be removed. Joseph did not want to be in the mural because he had worked only a few years for the city.
Former Deputy Fire Chief Latosha Clemons, who is Black, did not respond to the second request. She sent a text message to The Coastal Star on Oct. 5, saying, “I had consented when I issued the photo to be on the mural and also when I stated that little Black girls can pass by and see who they can become.”
Clemons, a Boynton Beach native, grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the fire station. She still lives in that area after retiring in March with nearly 24 years of service.
The reprinting of the mural will cost about $1,400, Nicole Blanks, public art assistant, told the Arts Commission members on Oct. 8. In addition, Matos told the members they will receive invitations to the mural unveiling.
Also on Oct. 8, Matos received recruiting ideas for the public art manager position from the Arts Commission members. She said the city received about 100 applicants for the opening, but most were not qualified.
“If you’re only getting two serious candidates out of 100 submissions, maybe the ad wording can be improved,” said Martin Klauber, an alternate member.
Member Susan Oyer said, “Our position is so unusual that it requires the person to be knowledgeable about public relations and marketing, along with knowing about art and public art. Maybe advertise in New York City?”
For the kinetic art festival, Valerie Zucker, a principal in the events firm, came to the September meeting of the Arts Commission to hear its ideas. Her firm has an extra month to plan for the event.
Submissions are due Nov. 1. Highlights will include the formal dedication of Ralfonso’s kinetic piece, Reflections. It sits at the northeast corner of Seacrest Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, serving as the gateway feature to the city’s Town Square redevelopment.
Zucker hopes that Ralfonso will attend the VIP reception on March 5. In addition, she wants to have companies sponsor some of the programs, such as the kinetic sculpture kits for kids.
“We’re not reinventing the formula for the kinetic festival,” said Courtlandt McQuire, Arts Commission chairman. “Art will bring the people.”
He said Coles-Dobay made a lot of the decisions, from the artwork displayed to the type of music played. “Now, we will work with Valerie.” Ú