Cultural Quarterly
Spring/Summer 2009
Volume XXII, Number 2
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Jaap Vos Helps Create
a Sense of Place through Public Art

By Leon M. Rubin

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When Jaap Vos was growing up in the Netherlands, he never thought about the concept of public art – because art was already everywhere around him.

Growing up in Europe, art was everywhere around me. Visits to museums were part of growing up but I never gave it much thought, it was just there. You don’t realize you miss it until you get to a place where you don’t see it.”  

After earning a master’s degree in environmental science from Wageningen University in the Netherlands and a Ph.D. in regional planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he joined Florida Atlantic University in 1995 as an environmental planner.  He is now an associate professor at FAU and director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning.

If you’re an environmental planner, this is the place to be,” he says.  “We are in this urban area sandwiched between two unique ecosystems, the Everglades on one side, the coral reefs on the other side…  It’s a really exciting place.”

From his vantage point in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Vos soon became interested in public art from a professional perspective.  “I wanted to know how art can contribute to a better quality community… how it can contribute to a sense of place and make us slow down and smell the roses… how it can improve the way we experience our surroundings,” he states. 

“I think that art is too often used to make up for things that are ugly and poorly designed.  But it should enhance an experience of place.  It creates landmarks and gathering places,” he continues.  “In Amsterdam, you tell your friends you’ll meet under a certain statue.  It becomes an icon.”

Vos became a member of the Broward Cultural Council’s Public Art and Design Committee in 2005 and now serves as vice chair.  He is a strong supporter of not only the committee’s mission, but also the process it goes through to select each new work of public art that receives funding through Broward County.  “It’s tremendously collegial, a mutual learning process,” he says.

Serving as the chair of two ongoing artist selection panels has given Vos the opportunity to experience this process for two very different projects - a highway gateway for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and an outdoor art installation for the Edgar P. Mills Family Success Center in Fort Lauderdale.

With the airport gateway project, “We were looking for an iconic statement,” he explains.  “We’re trying to create a sense of place in an airport, to show people you have now arrived, but also that you are now leaving the airport and being welcomed to Fort Lauderdale.”  At the same time, however, the gateway will be seen by people rushing to the airport to catch flights and worrying about getting to their gates in time.  “It becomes more about the function of a piece of art in a larger project, rather than just about the art itself.”

The challenges are different for the Mills Center, a social services facility that assists county residents with concerns such as economic stability, health care (primary, mental health and substance abuse), homelessness and housing.  “People who go there are possibly not in the best place,” Vos observes.  “It’s fascinating to balance the interests of the art professional who wants artistic freedom, area residents who are looking for a more decorative piece and clients that want an identity and a sense of hope.

“You need to look at what the artist is really saying, listen to what the client is saying and see what works best,” he continues.  “It could and does lead to compromise.  It doesn’t favor the extravagant, bizarre sort of stuff, which in public art isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Ultimately, it leads to making really informed decisions about art and its place in the community.”

Through his work with the Cultural Council and in other outside interests, Vos has clearly demonstrated that he cares about Broward County and South Florida.  He is the university’s representative to the Broward County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Community Involvement Roundtable and the Broward County Adopt-a-Waterway Program, an alternate member of the Water Resources Advisory Council and a board member of the Florida Earth Foundation and Kids Ecology Corps.

At FAU, his main interests include environmental planning, environmental justice and sustainable development.  He focuses his research on the relationship between Everglades restoration and urban development in southeast Florida and has published articles about community participation, environmental justice and equity in planning.

Planners, he says, “are people who try to make decisions about the future and to address problems that don’t yet exist.  What appeals to me about planning is that it is visionary.  It is about creating ideal places with a balance between environment, economy, quality of life and other factors” – including public art.

“We need to be sensitive to how art fits into the community; its role in the urban fabric.  Sometimes it needs to be subdued and sometimes it needs to be extravagant.  The function of art is to make you stop and think for a second.  It can make a place significant; it can make us wonder.  Art can give a city its identity and a sense of place that says this place is unique,” Vos says.

“I have found that this is one of the more interesting committees I have served on,” he adds.  “I get a lot in return.  It makes you look at things differently.  It has been a tremendously positive and enriching experience.”