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Nashville Scene To Make a City Beautiful

Why public art is important for Nashville

By Donna Dorian Wall

MAY 15, 2000:  My husband likes to tell the story of how, one day when he was in Vanderbilt Law School, his New York-bred roommate expressed a desire to see a bit of Tennessee. So my husband took him on a scenic tour of the area. Driving down to Franklin, he made his roommate a $5 wager that in the center of town they would find a public square, that on the square there would be a monument to the Confederate dead, and that the date inscribed on the monument would be sometime after 1900.

Although that particular monument actually dates to November 1899, my husband was for the most part right about his hunch. Although he had never been to Franklin, he knew that it would be like so many other old towns in Tennessee, with a monument commemorating the Confederate dead--indeed, a work of public art--placed in its central square.

We frequently take such statues for granted today, but they represent just how lasting and important public art can be. Poverty-stricken after the bitter defeat of the South, local citizens struggled for more than 40 years to collect the funds to erect these works as a means of embodying their common grief. Indeed, this is the power of public art: It unifies people by giving shape to their histories and hopes, their tragedies and triumphs. In modern America, such art now finds its expression in contemporary, often abstract styles, but its function remains essentially the same: to establish a sense of place and, through the discovery of a common visual language, help a community find itself.

As Nashville continues to grow and evolve, the issue of public art becomes increasingly important. As more public artworks are introduced into the city, they can help us maintain our unique identity even as they point toward a promising future. But this issue is timely in another, much more practical sense: Mayor Bill Purcell's recent endorsement of the Percent for Public Art Ordinance may well ensure that public art becomes an integral, inevitable part of the city's continuing development.

"The very notion of public art is something of a contradiction in terms," writes Jerry Allen, a nationally recognized public arts consultant and artist who was invited by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission (MNAC) in 1996 to make recommendations on how the city could administer a public arts program. "In it, we join two words whose meanings are, in some ways, antithetical. We recognize 'art' in the 20th century as...the epitome of self-assertion. To that, we join 'public,' a reference to the collective, the social order."

The goal, then, of public art is to find a process and a means by which these contradictory impulses can be successfully fused. This is no easy task. Each project that comes up for consideration must undergo an extensive process to evaluate if a complex set of requirements are met. Does the work reflect the history, the architecture, the culture of a place? Does it respond appropriately to the economic, social, and physical conditions of the city and site in which it is to be located?

The heterogeneity of America today makes for an almost endlessly rich and intricate culture, yet somehow public art has to articulate a common vision for that diverse whole. No wonder Jennifer Murphy, the consultant overseeing the public art component of Nashville's new downtown library, refers to public art as a form of community therapy. Nor is it surprising to learn that the history of public art is pockmarked with controversy and failure.

The Percent for Public Art Ordinance is Mayor Bill Purcell's first major piece of legislation. On April 18, the provision passed its second Metro Council reading on a voice vote. If passed by Council on a third reading on May 16, the bill will mandate that all future Metro public buildings (including parking lots, schools, and major renovations) must set aside 1 percent of their total budget for public art. This initiative wouldn't just make public art an essential part of all city construction budgets; it would also guarantee that when building projects go over budget--as they often do--the monies designated for art can't be eliminated to cover the difference.

The most notable misconception about such ordinances is that public art would take monies away from other essential commodities. This isn't so. Public art funds won't be added onto a project budget (for which all monies are obtained through government bonds), but instead will be part of the original request.

As with other public-art ordinances across the country--Seattle's is the most often cited model--Nashville will still be able to accept private donations for public art. The city government looks forward to "a great public/private partnership," says Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine, who began working on the Nashville ordinance during Phil Bredesen's administration. "We want to encourage artists and citizens to come forward and give.

"It's an interesting phenomenon," Steine continues. "When the public can actually experience things, it has a tremendous stimulating effect. When the first greenway project was placed in Bellevue, everyone in the area thought the world was going to come to an end, but now every neighborhood wants its own greenway. I think you'll see the same with public art."

At the moment, Metro currently has no major construction projects planned. This makes it the perfect time to discuss and vote on Purcell's bill--arguments about specific ventures can't sidetrack the discussions. Meanwhile, the prognosis looks excellent. According to Steine, the ordinance--which needs the backing of 21 Council members--has broad-based support and will most likely pass with somewhere between 27 and 33 votes. Should this occur as anticipated, Nashville will become the first city in Tennessee to institute a bill of this kind.

Percent-for-art programs in America date back to 1934 and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, although dozens of public art works were sponsored by the federal government well before then. But in the years since, the U.S. government has alternately embraced and trampled on such programs. In a society that tends to focus on the bottom line, politicians have frequently mounted attacks on government-sponsored public art programs as a form of excessive spending.

When poorly administered, as they were during the late 1940s and early 1950s, public art programs have fallen victim to apathy and to public criticism. But in 1961, President John F. Kennedy resurrected a federal interest in public art when he assembled the Ad Hoc Committee on Government Office Space to examine the scarcity and mediocrity of public administration buildings in Washington, D.C. In part, the committee's influential 1962 report found that "The belief that good design is optional...in fact invites the least efficient use of public money."

The findings eventually led to a National Cultural Policy articulated by Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, which the Johnson administration capped with the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. Two years later, the NEA adopted an active Art in Public Places program specifically to address and grant monies for public art. In recent years, however, financial support for these programs has been significantly curtailed, falling to the opposition posed by Sen. Jesse Helms and his colleagues. This has left the Art-in-Architecture Program of the General Services Administration the federal government's only major commissioner of public art.

Although the federal government has often reneged on its support for percent-for-public-art policies, more than 200 American cities have embraced such ordinances since Philadelphia instituted the first metropolitan initiative in 1959. In fact, no city has ever voted such an ordinance down. Consequently, city-instituted percent-for-public-art provisions remain a major vehicle for commissioning modern public sculpture today.

The origins of Nashville's current public-art initiative date back several years to May 1995, when then-MNAC chair Diane Neal appointed a citizen's committee to investigate the potential for public art in Nashville. By that October, the committee presented a series of recommendations to then-Mayor Bredesen. The proposal languished on Bredesen's desk for 11 months, at which time an unusual legislative entanglement came to light It turned out that Tennessee was the only state that wouldn't allow its cities to use government obligation bonds for art and artist design. (Legislation changing this policy would not be passed until April 1998.)

In October 1996, Bredesen responded to the proposal, asking that MNAC plot out a planning process and bring him recommendations on how to proceed. He also asked that the commission focus attention on the placement of public art at three specific sites the arena, the yet-to-be-built football stadium, and in the park at the foot of Music Row; soon after, the forthcoming downtown library was added to the list of sites. The directive enabled MNAC to test a number of methods for the selection of artists and allowed the city to learn a number of important lessons as well.

With the benefit of several years' hindsight, we're now able to see what worked and what didn't. Without funds specifically earmarked for public art at the arena, for example, possibilities evaporated when rising operating and maintenance costs came to light. Likewise, the stadium budget didn't include monies for public art, although consultant Jerry Allen had recommended that $250,000 be set aside for design fees and implementation.

Believing that public art was essential to the success of the stadium project, Hawkins Partners, the landscape architectural firm responsible for designing the grounds, requested financial support from the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA). Urged on by the mayor's office, specifically by Bredesen's chief of staff Christine Bradley, MDHA allocated $15,000, primarily for artist fees.

To make way for the stadium, industries that had been located along the riverfront for generations were required to move. Landscape architect Kim Hawkins' concept was to pay homage to that passing history. As workers cleared the stadium site for construction, hundreds of industrial relics were gathered from the area and earmarked for recycling. Hawkins, though, saw these relics as much more than trash: She saw them as possibilities for the making of art. When Ingram Materials Company offered to contribute materials to the project, Hawkins, with the help of MNAC community liaison Sandra Duncan, went about selecting the most interesting pieces--enormous gears, valves, and the like--which were then turned over to Nashville-based artist Joe Sorci, a former steelworker. His sculptural forms now artfully punctuate the riverfront greenway sidewalk.

The idea was a good one, but with only $15,000 available, the project never went far enough--in spite of the thousands of man-hours donated by Hawkins Partners and Sorci.

The development of a public art project for the third site on Bredesen's list has also been fraught with problems. Literally a day before the former mayor stepped down from office, he announced that the city would accept a $2 million anonymous gift for the construction of a statue and a fountain in the park at the bottom of Music Row. The work was to be designed by Alan LeQuire, sculptor of the statue of Athena at the Parthenon.

Although $2 million is an enormous amount for a work of public art, LeQuire's project ran into financial trouble late last year--mid-December when MDHA looked into the issue of maintenance. The $2 million donation covered design and implementation of the sculpture, but the fountain had an additional $1.1 million price tag, and MDHA estimated that yet another $1.1 million would be needed to run and maintain it over the next 30 years. Accordingly, MDHA asked that LeQuire raise funds for both. When he couldn't do so within the allotted time period, MDHA refused the fountain, although plans for the sculpture remain in place.

If LeQuire's proposal had followed the usual steps taken to implement a public art project, a maintenance budget would have been scrutinized long before the city accepted the project. But without standard guidelines and procedures in order, Metro was left to figure out all the attendant issues on its own, and in the scramble it wasn't able to address them in logical order.

In fact, each time the issue of public art has come to the attention of local government in recent years, Metro has been left in the position of reinventing the wheel. That's why the Percent for Public Art Ordinance is so important. As Kim Hawkins explains, "The best thing about the ordinance is that public art now will automatically be part of the vocabulary. Before, we always were having to educate everyone about public art, but it's always easier to do things the normal way."

Bredesen's attempts to place public art at these three sites can be read as cautionary tales. Each project ultimately failed, or at least failed to meet its original goals, either because of the lack of secure funds or the absence of clearly defined review procedures. In fact, it's likely that none of the problems would have arisen if the ordinance had been in place. Purcell's initiative, which has been championed by Paulette Coleman, current chair of the MNAC, will go a long way toward assuring that Metro will have both an administrative arm and a set of procedures to review public art in the future.

In spite of their failures, the three projects do offer important learning experiences. As library consultant Jennifer Murphy argues, when it comes to public art, "It's better to be a turtle than a hare." Opportunities might have been lost, but at least no money was misspent. And there's still the chance these projects might be improved upon in the future. Hawkins, for example, hopes that monies from the Percent for Public Art Ordinance might eventually be used to create a gateway piece at the stadium--one of the proposed ideas that fell by the wayside when funds turned out to be limited.

If the city can learn from its mistakes, it can learn just as much from its recent successes. Two projects are particularly instructive Red Grooms' "Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel" in Riverfront Park and the commission of public art for the new downtown library. Both point to some of the key guidelines that should be followed in the public art process.

Alexander Calder's "La Grand Vitesse" (1969) in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the so-called "Chicago Picasso" (1967) are prime, early examples of how public art by prominent artists has brought attention and a heightened cultural image to a city. As a Nashville native and an internationally renowned artist, Red Grooms was the perfect choice to do the same for Nashville. Long before the carousel idea came up, he had explored a number of possibilities for creating a work for the city. But the carousel was the right project for the right place at the right time.

Thanks to a 1986 retrospective exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum, Grooms had become a household name in Nashville. More than ever before, locals were familiar and comfortable with his work. That helped pave the way for public acceptance of the carousel when the project came under discussion several years later. This is an important issue: Public art (particularly abstract pieces) tends to leave a segment of the population baffled. Even today, the "Chicago Picasso" is riddled with the question, "What is it?" The question is not necessarily a bad one, but if a sculpture becomes an object of community ridicule or resentment, its success is in jeopardy. For this reason, educating the public is a crucial part of the process.

By 1993, Grooms was something of a local hero, and his national reputation was firmly in place, following major exhibitions in New York at the Whitney Museum, the Marlborough Gallery, and Grand Central Station. At a dinner celebration after the Grand Central opening, Grooms got to talking with Will Byrd, an entertainment producer who came to know Grooms through Ben Caldwell, Byrd's father-in-law and one of Nashville's prominent arts patrons. As Byrd talked of the entertainment shows he sometimes produced at state fairs, Grooms began imagining his own version of an art park--including a carousel--along Nashville's downtown riverfront. By that fall, the two men had taken the idea to Mayor Bredesen.

Although Bredesen thought an art park was too ambitious, the mayor took an immediate liking to the idea of a carousel and said the city would be able to contribute a site for it along the riverfront at the foot of Broadway--where years ago Metro had intended to place a work of public art.

Siting the carousel along the riverfront became even more appealing to Byrd and his wife, Trudy, after Jerry Allen's talk at MNAC's 1996 forum on public art. (Since then, the annual forum has brought an impressive lineup of nationally recognized public artists to Nashville, including architectural muralist Richard Haas, neon sculptor Stephen Antonakos, Seattle public artist Jack Mackie, and, most recently, sculptor Sam Gilliam.)

"Allen helped us to think outside the box," says Trudy Byrd, who with Christie Hauck spearheaded the fund-raising efforts for the $1.75 million project. "He made us realize that public art doesn't have to be placed next to a building. It can just as easily be located in small, intimate places or along a wall as it can be sited in a park, where it can play a part in the surrounding natural environment."

Such is the case with the carousel. Not only has it contributed to the ongoing reinvigoration of Nashville's downtown, it also serves as a highly visible icon that helps connect people to the city. For one thing, the carousel is located near the site of Nashville's first settlement, Fort Nashboro. Grooms seized on this historical resonance by outfitting the carousel with figures from state and local history. As a result, the carousel gains meaning from both its setting and its construction, even as it points to the city's current and future identity as an entertainment center. This is exactly the kind of thing public art should do.

The "Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel" may have already become an asset to the city, but its success wasn't necessarily guaranteed from the outset. With no art ordinance yet on the books in Nashville, there were no established guidelines for implementing the project. And outside of Bredesen's wish to limit the original art park concept to just the carousel, Grooms' project never underwent any official governmental scrutiny.

But in this specific instance, all the right ingredients were in place: The carousel was enhanced by Grooms' intimate understanding of both the community for whom he was working and the site on which his work was chosen to stand. That made public approval easy to attain. And while there were no formal processes in place to explore public consensus on the project, the fund-raisers' ability to raise the $1.75 million from a wide range of private and corporate donors, combined with Metro Council's approval of the land donation, can be read as an object lesson in how the private and the public sector can work together to introduce works of public art into the community.

While so much could have gone wrong--and it is worth noting that the carousel has already encouraged the appearance of much less competent public artworks divorced from the public selection process--it's difficult to imagine a more successful work for the site. Says Cheekwood Museum of Art director John Wetenhall, speaking about public art in general, "At the end of the day, the work has to stand on its own." This one certainly does.

On the other hand, many in the public arts arena believe that community participation in the selection of a public artwork is essential. "Public art is based on a collaborative approach," Jennifer Murphy says. "The selection process allows the public to be involved in the making of art. Artists listen to the public, and therefore are able to craft a form that brings together the many thoughts and views of the community." Such was the course by which public art was commissioned for the new library, which now stands as one model that Nashville can follow under the new ordinance.

In 1996, Metro Libraries director Donna Nicely knew she was setting a precedent when she and the Library Board voluntarily chose to use monies from the library construction budget for public art. "We understood that the library was not to be just a big box that houses books, but a place of refreshment where one can experience learning and culture," she says. "We wanted to push the envelope for what that place could be and what the city could be, and create something that would endure."

Essential to the library's plans for public art was the combined support of Mayor Bredesen, the MNAC, and the Library Board from the beginning. This guaranteed protection of the most vulnerable item in the construction budget throughout negotiations. Although it was first proposed that 2 percent of the library's $50 million budget be used for art, when that 2 percent was whittled down to approximately 1 percent, $500,000 still remained for commissions and implementation, to which another $100,000 was earmarked for administration.

This isn't to say there were no setbacks. Originally, the Library Board and the MNAC envisioned that the building would be co-designed by an architect and a lead artist, with the latter overseeing a team of artists and designers. Although this procedure has a proven track record, when architect Robert A. Stern won the building commission, he felt that his design for the structure was already so fully articulated that he did not want to redesign it with a yet-to-be-chosen artist.

On Stern's insistence, the administrators went back to the drawing board and hired Murphy, a well-versed public arts consultant. Together with the library's art committee, of which Stern became a member, she helped select specific areas that could accommodate art, including the library doors, the bookstack frieze panels, and the walls at the top of the grand staircase.

Eighty-seven people responded to the call for artists, out of which 16 were chosen: 11 from Nashville, two from Ashland City, and one each from Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Guilford, Conn. (As is often the case when percent-for-art programs are generated by a city or state, the emphasis here was on including local artists.) The library also accepted a private donation when Nashvillians Noah and Judy Liff provided a significant work by internationally acclaimed book artists Anna and Wolfgang Kubach-Wilmsen for the entrance to the building.

Public art is not intended for a museum setting; rather, it is intended to inform--and to be informed by--a sense of place. Thus it challenges artists to grapple with issues beyond technique and personal aesthetic Now they must also possess a knowledge of building codes, architectural terminology and requirements, long-term maintenance, and how to work with everyone from electricians and plumbers to structural engineers. "We are not here to alter aesthetics," Murphy explains, "but aesthetic vision must alter to marry function."

With the acceptance of the Percent for Public Art Ordinance, the establishment of comprehensive public art guidelines will fall to the MNAC. "For the most part, the process and the administration will be an all-new experience for most Nashvillians," MNAC executive director Tom Turk explains. "There will be a call for artists, as there is with any commission, but after that, the selection of artists will go through a lengthy review process by a board of approximately seven members that will include people from the local community in which it will be placed, as well as architects, artists, and others fluent in the arts from different backgrounds and different zip codes.

"That process will examine every aspect of the project, from how the work will reflect the community, the specific site, and the surrounding architecture and environment, to how it will fit into any redevelopment plans and be installed and maintained over time. The commission will help local artists make their way through this process, just as, along the way, it will find it attractive to work with artists who have already gone through the ropes."

In many instances, the motivation to site public art comes directly from the artist. In Nashville, examples proliferate throughout the city. Russell Faxon, known for his figurative bronze sculptures, recently worked with the Bank of America to place a sculpture of Chet Atkins at its branch office at Fifth Avenue North and Union Street. Likewise, artist Steve Benneyworth collaborated with the Hillsboro Village Association to place a piece at the corner of 20th Avenue South and Belcourt Avenue. Working in conjunction with Metro Parks, the MNAC, and the local community, Benneyworth is now also in the process of locating a 24-foot-tall steel and copper sculpture in Elmington Park on West End.

Private institutions have played a part as well. Vanderbilt University's Department of Cultural Enrichment director Donna Glassford oversees an extensive public arts program at Vanderbilt Medical Center. On the medical campus, works by nationally recognized artists including Fletcher Benton, Bernar Venet, Dale Chihuly, and Jim Dine, along with those by Nashville's Alan LeQuire, Lanie Gannon, and Rob Ogilvie, serve numerous functions, from beautifying the grounds to doubling as pedestrian landmarks to entertaining visitors in the waiting room of the Children's Hospital. The Frist Center for the Visual Arts has also shown its commitment to public art; a recent call for artists to design two projects for the building brought close to 50 proposals.

The benefits of public art are perhaps most notable in neighborhoods that have undergone revitalization, such as 12South, where redevelopment was spearheaded several years ago by MDHA, Hawkins Partners, and a group of investors, 1221 Corporation. On a shoestring budget, neighborhood children and senior citizens decorated trash cans with colored telephone wire, and public art consultant Susan Knowles oversaw a competition among students at Belmont and David Lipscomb universities to design benches and banners. Although numerous projects were set aside for lack of funds, the community and the project administrators collaborated well together. "Today, public art is what most clearly defines the neighborhood," Kim Hawkins says.

Currently, at least two notable neighborhood revitalization projects are in the planning stages. Hawkins Partners, working in conjunction with Metro Public Works and the Tennessee Department of Transportation, has composed drawings for the redevelopment of the Shelby Street Bridge, which will be transformed into a public promenade, perhaps by the winter of 2001. The New York- and L.A.-based Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates has recently presented an MDHA-funded master plan for Fifth Avenue of the Arts, which the Nashville Downtown Partnership has initiated to help turn Fifth Avenue into an arts district. Here, public art is seen as a key component in invigorating the area, linking the array of cultural centers that line the avenue with those now and soon to be under construction.

Over the last decade, many more public art programs and projects have been undertaken, and many others--including an urban design center for the city--have come under serious discussion or are being planned for the future. All have helped to build the necessary consensus for Purcell's Percent for Public Art Ordinance. "We couldn't push through the public art initiative without building support in the private and business sector first," Turk says.

Nonetheless, cautions Cheekwood's John Wetenhall, "Percent for art is just a guarantee that money will be set aside, not a recipe for success." Although Nashville is certainly late in joining the public arts arena, the city is now in a position to accrue benefits from its slow coming of age on the issue. This it can do by continuing to learn from its own experiences and by looking to and participating in the complex evolution of public art in cities across the nation.

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