As the treble clef sculpture at the intersection of Gay Street and Summit Hill has made the transition from unattractive to unsafe over the past few years, it served to motivate Knoxville to more fully consider public art. Along with the somewhat controversial downtown “art bears,” the sculpture—of which many were fond—brought attention to the fact that just two years ago, Knoxville had no policy regarding or even defining public art. That has since been remedied. But the bigger issue now may be that minus the treble clef, Knoxville is a city with little public art to call its own.
In January of 2008, Mayor Bill Haslam formed a Public Art Committee, and assigned that group to develop a policy on public art. Largely with language borrowed from the policies of other cities in the Southeast, a policy was formed and enacted in May of last year. But with law enforcement and emergency medical staffing at risk of budget cuts during this recession, public art is not high on the city’s or taxpayers’ priorities.
There is no list of artists and patrons waiting to claim the space soon to be vacated by the treble clef. (As it happens, the timing of the treble clef’s removal has been determined by the fact that there is now heavy construction equipment capable of the task working at that intersection.) And there is no other existing city-owned public art in danger of collapsing at the moment. (Much of the art on display at Krutch Park, for example, belongs to Dogwood Arts Festival, and is part of its rotating annual exhibition.)
“We have the luxury of a long conversation since there’s no money at this point,” says David Butler, vice-chair of the Public Art Committee and executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art. “And that’s probably a good thing, so this gets done right.”
Butler came to Knoxville from Woodstock, Kan. He says the landscape there was the opposite of East Tennessee’s, and offers some insight into different communities’ perceptions of public art and even the need for it.
“Woodstock is this conservative, Republican city that for some reason is run like Berkeley,” says Butler. “They had a great public art program. I think one reason why is that it’s this sun-baked, flat landscape that kind of needs enhancing. East Tennessee is so gorgeous that we haven’t made as much of an effort.”
Of course, Asheville and Chattanooga have very similar landscapes. And it’s from the established policies of those cities that the Public Art Committee has crafted Knoxville’s policy. The language of those policies, mind you, does not prescribe media or content or style—it tends to simply explain redundantly how such choices will be made by the community. The policies don’t say what is “appropriate to context” or “technically feasible,” they offer guidance on the manner such questions might be asked and answered.
“Mostly what I’m hearing from people is that we’re so far behind the curve, there’s widespread concern,” says Butler. “Maybe it’s good to start with a blank slate. The best process is often the one that you create to suit your own situation. We’ll make something that suits Knoxville better as a result. It’s the local food sort of idea.”
Butler considers Knoxville’s public art policy a work in progress. Conspicuously absent is a funding mechanism.
“Ultimately, if we’re going to have public art, there’s got to be some money behind it,” he says.
The Public Art Committee and the task force that has been providing input are formed of appointed and elected officials, arts professionals, and community organizers and activists. The idea is that these people, with public input, will decide how to spend money collected from the larger population, some of whom may have no interest in art, or at least no interest in paying for it with their taxes.
“I think that could be mitigated by a process and a committee that includes a good cross-section of the community,” says Jeff Chapman, member of the Public Art Task Force and director of the Frank H. McClung Museum at University of Tennessee. “You’ll never have 100 percent agreement. But if you have a committee that is broad-based, the result should be art that the city appreciates. It’s like the symphony—some people just want to hear Mozart and Beethoven.”
And Knoxville tends to be more of a Kenny Chesney kind of town, with a limited palette of orange and white. The process by which the city decides how to adorn its public spaces promises to be worth watching.
“I’m no expert,” says Chapman. “I’m an archaeologist.”
Then what, in future epochs, might archaeologists find under the dust where Knoxville once stood that would flatter this generation?
“A downtown laid-out with open public spaces, with art that enhances the public experience,” Chapman says.
We have the policy. Now all we need is the art.