It began with a figurehead.
The wooden carving of a woman washed up on the shore of Virginia Beach after a ferocious March 1891 dragged the Dictator, a Norwegian bark carrying lumber from Florida to England, to the bottom of the sea. Five of the crew members were lost, along with the captain’s wife and 4-year-old son.
The figurehead was erected at the beach with the woman, now called “The Norwegian Lady,’’ looking out to sea. For 62 years, it endured winds and waves as a memorial to the lost lives, until a hurricane in 1953 finished off the battered relic. It was replaced by a bronze statue of a woman, still looking across the waves, in 1962.
That statue was probably the first piece of public art in Virginia Beach, a youngster of a city which only incorporated in 1963.
Virginia Beach has always been tied to the sea, a haven for seamen, pirates and sunseekers. And so the newest public art installation also refers back to the Atlantic Ocean, the 35-foot-tall creation of stainless steel, “The Wave,’’ which anchors the resort area six blocks north of the Lady.
Since the city does not have a public art fund, a group of residents from the arts, business and government began Public Art Virginia Beach Foundation in December 2012, and commissioned “The Wave” by artist Jeff Laramore.
For most of the city’s history, public art was funded in Virginia Beach by donations, organizations or businesses. The Naval Aviation Monument, a collection of bronze figures at 25th Street depicting eras in US Navy flight, was commissioned by the Hampton Roads Squadron of the Association of Naval Aviators. The towering sculpture of King Neptune at 31st Street was funded by donations, spearheaded by the Neptune Festival organizers.
In the 1980s, the city initiated a percent-for-art program, with a percentage of a development project donated to public art. Several popular installations came from the program, including the kinetic stainless steel sculpture “Pennant’’ at the Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library. By 1990, that program was dormant.
In 2010, Public Art Virginia Beach Foundation arose to fill the void. With the success of “The Wave,” the organization's next project is to commission a sculpture near Shore Drive's Lesner Bridge.
The Foundation is working with the City’s Public Art Committee on further artistic endeavors, and the continuing projects are part of the Virginia Beach Arts Plan 2030 and Envision 2040 report for the future of Virginia Beach.