citybeat (2007-41)

Bureaucrats and Contrarians and Bears, Oh My

City Beat

Knoxville is still working on a policy for public art. Slowly.

The fiberglass â“art bearsâ” left over from the 2001-2002 Bearfoot in the City program never sparked any controversy. But an addition to their ranksâ"the Sept. 11 bear placed on the sidewalk of attorney J.D. Leeâ’s office on the 400 block of Gay Streetâ"did stir up some trouble when it appeared in May, in part because of its explosive imagery but also because it underscored Knoxvilleâ’s lack of a policy for art in public spaces. City officials said then that theyâ’d work on guidelines and suggested a formal policy might be in place within six months.

Four months later, theyâ’ve finally started: An 18-member committee made up of representatives from Knoxville government and the art community met, for the first time, on Sept. 27. But now officials say they canâ’t predict when the guidelines will be established, suggesting it may take a year, or maybe even longer.

â“Weâ’re going to look at what other cities have done and read over all that,â” says the cityâ’s director of policy development, William Lyons, who is on the committee. â“Itâ’s all too new to say what the next step will be. Weâ’re going to be here a while. It took some of these other cities a year to decide what to do.â”

Michael Haynes, one of several downtown residents who objected to the bear when it showed up, says a single committee meeting in four months just isnâ’t enough. â“Iâ’ve repeatedly asked about the status of this, as recently as last week, and was just told that theyâ’re studying other policies,â” he says.

The images on the bearâ"one tower of the World Trade Center smoking, a plane about to fly into the second, and the legend â“The Renewal and Awakening of America. Sept. 11th, 2001â” underneathâ"were a small part of the problem, Haynes insists. The proliferation of large-scale sculpture on Market Square and in Krutch Park the last couple of yearsâ"and the large-scale Remington reproduction next to it in front of Leeâ’s officeâ"has happened without any guidelines, leaving open questions of liability and maintenance, not to mention who decides what can be permanently exhibited in public space and what canâ’t, and what standards are applied.

â“I donâ’t particularly like being confronted with that imagery on a daily basis, and I donâ’t think that fiberglass bear represents Knoxville as a particularly sensitive city,â” says Haynes. â“But thereâ’s already an ordinanceâ"you canâ’t just leave things on a public sidewalk. When the bears were first installed there was an oversight process.â”

The cityâ’s initial response was an immediate moratorium on further installations and the announcement that a committee would be formed to explore the tangled knot of issues that a public art policy would have to address. But Haynes still doesnâ’t understand why itâ’s taken so long for the city to get started. He says he didnâ’t know about the Sept. 27 meeting, even though heâ’s been in touch with Lyonsâ’ office about this specific issue.

â“I havenâ’t heard about the meeting,â” he says. â“The last I heard, they regurgitated the same thing about the First Amendment, a moratorium, and formulating a policy. ... I donâ’t want to be cast as a contrarian in regard to a particular piece of art. Itâ’s not just whatâ’s on the sidewalks. Itâ’s that theyâ’ve been sloppy when it comes to this stuff. Thatâ’s the bigger picture.â”

But Lyons argues that the bigger picture is all the more reason for careful planning. â“Iâ’d like to see something in place sooner rather than not,â” he says. â“But this will be a fairly lengthy process. Thereâ’s no deadline.â” â" Matthew Everett

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