Years ago, behind a plate glass window on Gay Street, a lanky cowboy astride a bucking horse was neatly tucked away. The near life-sized bronze statue by Frederic Remington entitled “The Bronco Buster” is among his most famous. And as many times as I walked by the reproduction, it nearly always startled me to suddenly see him just inside the window of what is now the Art Market Gallery—gripping his horse and reins, frozen in a moment of frenzy.
When the building was being renovated, the statue was moved outside to the sidewalk, alongside a receptacle used to collect the debris from the construction, and was surrounded from time to time by building materials. Eventually, renovations were completed, the receptacle was removed, and the sidewalk was once again cleared to pedestrian traffic. But “The Bronco Buster” stood tall in the saddle, and there he has remained ever since.
Last year, a controversy arose over another piece of statuary nearby. A remnant of a Dogwood Arts Festival program that had been placed on Gay Street by its owner had acquired a new paint job. It depicted the World Trade Center with a jet mere seconds from impact. Some downtowners took offense to being confronted by its unsettling imagery, juxtaposed on a plastic bear.
I was the one who contacted the city, whereupon much hand-wringing ensued. Removing the bear, it was thought, might tread on the First Amendment. Yet city codes forbid placing obstructions on the sidewalk without a permit. I inquired whether I would be given the same consideration if I were to place a few concrete deer or maybe a lawn gnome outside my building on Gay to spruce up the sidewalk there. And thus the city issued a moratorium on further sidewalk art installations.
It was one of many growing pains for a downtown experiencing a resurgence. Just how would the city address public art? Until recently, there were no policies or procedures regarding placement of artwork. Besides the aforementioned bear, several other products of Dogwood Arts Festivals haphazardly dotted downtown sidewalks. Even city-owned statues such as the Rotary Club piece now in Krutch Park and the suffrage-themed statue on Market Square assumed their places in the urban fabric without any stakeholder discussion.
So the city wisely chose to create a task force to make recommendations toward establishing a Public Arts Committee to oversee such things. After meeting a few times, the task force delivered its recommendations to the mayor in February.
According to Bill Lyons, the city’s Director of Policy and Public Communications, legislation to create this committee has since passed City Council, members have been appointed, and an organizational meeting was held last Thursday.
One of the first considerations for that committee will be “The Bronco Buster.” While the city ordered owners of the various bears to remove them, it allowed the horseman to remain. One reason cited for this was the “scope” of removing it. That is to say, the thing is heavy. Otherwise, I have no doubt that one of our enterprising street people simply would have picked it up and shopped it around. My understanding is that it’s quite valuable.
But it is, after all, essentially abandoned. The city doesn’t own it. And its owner has done nothing to secure it. It’s simply been left on the sidewalk. If a more resourceful collector were to roll up one night and cart it off, I suppose the owner could report it stolen. Even an illegally parked car isn’t anyone’s to take, except the proper authorities.
Our lone cowboy’s life on Gay Street has been an interesting one. He has, of course, served as both backdrop and prop for many photos—often with the subjects teetering atop the cowboy’s saddle. He’s suffered the indignity of having ketchup and mustard smeared on him. But perhaps most interesting is the compulsion people have to adorn him with various items of clothing.
For example, for a few days the cowboy wore red pumps over his boots. And his horse has gathered various pieces of lingerie from time to time. There was the red satin bra that blindfolded him for a time, as well as a number of panties, tights, and other articles of clothing stretched variously about him on occasion.
But I have a feeling the cowboy’s days are numbered. If donated to the city, the Public Arts Committee will determine a permanent site for his location and see that he’s better secured (he’s not attached to anything right now). Or perhaps its owner will realize that public sidewalks are not private sculpture gardens and remove it to his own property.
Either way, the status of Gay Street’s lone cowboy, who has stood as silent observer to downtown’s renaissance, is about to change. Whether he rides off into the sunset or becomes a permanent part of our city, he’ll remain tall in his saddle forever atop his raring steed. And I hope he’ll remember fondly the renewal of downtown that he has witnessed.