As John F. Kennedy said, “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in Wilton Manors. Walking down Wilton Drive, the city’s main thoroughfare, it’s almost impossible to believe that 30 years ago it was a desolate, crime-ridden area lined with shuttered storefronts, trailer parks, and was so seedy that it had armed guards stationed at the door of the local grocery store.
As is so with the history of so many downtrodden neighborhoods, then the artists and gays arrived. First came a trio of gay bars/clubs; Chardees, an elegant supper club, The Otherside a women’s bar and then, the place that tipped the scales and changed the city’s history forever, Georgie’s Alibi (now Alibi/Monkey Bar.) Soon trendy restaurants and shops followed. Artists were attracted by the low rent. Then gay men started buying the small, ‘50s-era ranch houses, too small for today’s families, but perfect for a couple or a single person.
Now Wilton Manors is a thriving community and one of the most desirable areas in Broward County. The storefronts are mostly filled (still a couple of places that seem cursed or never bounced back from the COVID pandemic) and the streets are lined with art.
That is a direct result of the cooperation between artists, the city of Wilton Manors, and a dedicated group of citizens and organizations. Those organizations include the Island City Art Advisory Committee, Art Gallery 21, Sculpture Walk Wilton Manors, and Wilton Art. Their efforts have resulted in various pieces of art, projects, and exhibits. Constance Ruppender, one of the founders of Art Gallery 21, located in the Island City Cultural Center said, “There was no public art scene when I moved here in 1987. Murals being painted, that was something that was unheard of even 10, 15 years ago.”
“Sort of anything goes [with art here],” said Ken Stone, president of Wilton Art. “But I will say though, any time we do a project we’re in touch with the city manager [Leigh Ann Henderson]. We’re always involving her and asking questions before a project.”
In addition to Wilton Manors’ monthly Art Walk, held on the third Saturday of every month starts Oct. 21. It brings area artists and craftspeople together to highlight and sell their art, Wilton Manors has an extensive collection of public art. The city budgeted $10,000 for art, used to help support projects spearheaded by individuals and groups, including the Wilton Drive “Rainbow Bridge” painting, the manatee sculpture at Justin Flippen Park, and the latest addition, Thunderbunny, a 13-foot-tall glass mosaic bunny rabbit sculpture created by artist Hunt Slonem. Unlike most of the public art, the iconic bunny sculpture is only in Wilton Manors for a limited stay. It is on loan from Fort Lauderdale’s New River Fine Art.
Before the city makes any more major moves, staff members are working with the Broward County Cultural Division to create a comprehensive public art policy, so efforts won’t be “piecemeal,” said Assistant City Manager Pamela Landi. “Public art is a really important cultural amenity in our city. I think it’s part of our values,” she said. “We are extremely lucky in that we have several outside volunteer art organizations that contribute to art and culture.”
Thunderbunny is just the latest and most visible public art in Wilton Manors. Steven Teller created a nearly 3,000-sq.-ft. mural enlivens the walls of The Pride Center and The Residences at Equality Park. Visible from Dixie Highway, the murals have transformed the Equality Park campus into a vibrant public art destination. There are, literally, dozens of pieces of public art scattered throughout Wilton Manors, and exploring that art has never been easier. The In Plain Sight Art & Culture Map can guide you to more than two dozen murals, sculptures, distinctive architecture and design, and other curiosities, all in one central location in the heart of Wilton Manors.
The concept for the In Plain Sight Wilton Manors art guide originated with Hunter Stephens, a Wilton Manors resident with a strong interest in art and design and promoting public art. Hunter surveyed the entire City of Wilton Manors, mapping, cataloging, and photographing significant artistic points of interest throughout the city. He sought the advice of countless longtime residents, local business owners, local arts and historic organizations, and city officials to help refine ideas and give shape to the In Plain Sight art guide.
The online version of the map can be found at inplainsightwm.com, hard copies are available at the locations below: select local art galleries and shops, most guest houses, City Hall, Hagen Park Community Center, and Sullivan Public Library. There are also several art galleries in Wilton Manors including Art Frenzie, Art Gallery 21, Claudia Castillo Art Studio, Gallery XO, Intu Blu, HOTspots Happening Out Art Gallery, and Wilton Collective.