Treble Clef Removal Highlights Void in Art Policy

It's past time for the city to create a funding source for public art

The beginning of November marked the end of the Dogwood Arts Festival's Art in Public Places exhibition. And over the past few weeks, dozens of large-scale sculptures that have dotted downtown since April have begun to disappear. The temporary exhibit has been with us for the better part of the year. And retrieval of the pieces is leaving a conspicuous void. In addition to the removal of those works on loan, the city finally took down the deteriorated treble clef statue at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive.

Presumably, the Art in Public Places event will return next year. But the treble clef, in its original form, seems to be gone for good. Whether you liked it or not, downtown has lost some of its aesthetic interest with the removal of one of its few pieces of public art. The city has hinted at replacing the sculpture with another work, but there are mixed messages out there when it comes to those plans.

The city's press release stated that there "will be opportunities for public input before any decision is reached concerning any future art placed in the site." But some indications of what to expect—or perhaps what not to expect—may already be surfacing. That same press release said that the "bronze plaques at the base of the sculpture, which contain the names of area country music performers and donors, however, will be preserved, restored and reinstalled as part of a new configuration. That will take place sometime after the city completes the ongoing Gay Street Streetscapes Project." So it seems that should something go back in its place, it will maintain the country music theme embodied in the original. Either that, or we'll have something with a bunch of plaques around it that makes no sense.

But what might that something look like? Another tidbit came in the form of a blog entry by Rick Emmett on the city's 100 Block Construction Blog the day the treble clef was removed: "My understanding is that a new statue will be commissioned possibly using some of the old trolley rails." When questioned about where he heard this, Mr. Emmett replied that it was from "a conversation I had with Mickey Mallonee about her hopes for a statue in the area and the requests she had from some sculptors for the rails to create a statue." Mallonee is the city's director of the Office of Special Events, and the administrative contact for Knoxville's Public Arts Committee.

Less than a week later, however, any notion of the city commissioning anything in the foreseeable future was called into question by Chris Barrett's story on the sculpture's removal in Metro Pulse. He quoted David Butler, vice-chair of the Public Arts Committee, as saying, "We have the luxury of a long conversation since there's no money at this point." Asked last week if the committee had entertained ideas for the sculpture's replacement, Mr. Butler responded that the committee had "several possibilities floating around right now for the former treble clef site; nothing definite, and no timetable."

All of this offers more questions than answers. With concepts already circulating among city officials, what level of input on a replacement can the pubic expect to have? And with no money, how can anything be commissioned anyway? It seems we've got an empty pedestal with no formal concept of what to do with it, and no money to fund it if we did.

This doesn't speak too well of the city's commitment to bringing Knoxville up to pace with Tennessee's other largest cities, which have successfully implemented programs to enhance their downtowns through the funding of art. On the contrary, the removal of the treble clef marked a net decrease in public art since the city first took up the issue nearly two years ago.

In Nashville, one penny of every dollar budgeted for new buildings and major renovations is earmarked for public art, and in Memphis a similar 1 percent of the construction budget for public projects is channelled into funding public art. The concept isn't unheard of in Knoxville. One percent of the construction budget for the Knoxville Convention Center was dedicated to the art inside it. But that was only for that project. Consider that with similar legislation here, the Gay Street Streetscaping project's $3.5 million budget would have yielded $35,000 that could have been available toward the treble clef's successor. Instead, there isn't one thin dime.

It's past time the city got with the program and created a funding source for public art like every other major city in the state. Sure, the economy's in rough shape. But the Great Depression saw the greatest increase in spending for public art in the nation's history. Hey Knoxville, can you spare a dime?