Downtown Unbeared

As public art policy finally moves forward, Knoxville says goodbye to its least adorable bear (and the rest of them)

Breathe easy, Knoxville. The scourge of unregulated statuary may soon be kaput, if the city's recently formed Public Art Task Force has anything to say about it. No more half-sunk canoes or bucking broncos except those with city sanction—all the result of a series of recommendations released by the task force last week.

Those recommendations are the first step in the long process of eventually creating a city policy and a seven-member "Public Art Committee" to oversee new proposals for public art and to review existing public art.

What won't get a review, though, are those downtown "art bears." According to Bill Lyons, the city's Senior Director of Public Policy and Communications and a member of the task force, business owners responsible for the bears will be getting notice to remove them "within the week." Once they receive notice, they'll have 30 days to take them down.

Those bears, after all, are the sculptures that got this whole public art policy thing going. Well, one of them at least: the now-infamous 9/11 bear in front of attorney J.D. Lee's office on Gay Street, which appeared last May sporting a semi-glossy Sept. 11 attack paint job by Powell artist Kathy Wilder-Brown.

Since there isn't a fully-formed policy, or even a committee yet, the city is using a sidewalk obstruction ordinance to enforce the de-bearing. But, says Lyons, it won't enforce that law to all sidewalk-blocking sculptures, not even the Remington Bucking Bronco that also sits in front of Lee's office, not 10 feet away from the offending bear.

"What do they expect us to do with them? Hide them, blow them up or what?" says Lee, a lawyer who for the past six years has represented the families of 9/11 victims in federal wrongful death lawsuits.

That sculpture won't face review until there is a Public Art Committee and an ordinance in place. Which raises the question: Why that sort of selectivity? Is this whole thing just about getting rid of that one bear? Lee says he will comply with the city, but he wishes the sculpture were given the same review process under a formal public art ordinance.

Lyons is reluctant to say that it's about the controversy; instead, he says, it's the fact that the bear was part of a larger art program (2001's Bearfoot in the City) that has expired.

"Had (the bronco) caused controversy when it was initially put there, we might be looking at it differently," he says.

Almost immediately after the 9/11 bear first appeared, the sculpture sparked a controversy that captured the passions of dozens of Knoxvillians, who, via the online forum Knox Blab, debated the merit of the shocking but cuddly critter and its right to be there. Downtown resident Michael Haynes was particularly opposed to the bear; he complained to the city about the sculpture.

"That sort of revealed the larger issue that we really had no one looking after art downtown, which explains why statuary was starting to pile up in Krutch Park, in Market Square," Haynes says. "The Veteran's Memorial was slated to go into World's Fair Park, things like that."

City officials finally got seriously thinking about the need for a real policy, placing a moratorium on all public art until one was put in place.

On Feb. 28, the task force, a 15-member body appointed by Mayor Bill Haslam, finally presented a list of recommendations for the management of public art installations in the city of Knoxville. The recommendations, drafted over a series of meetings between November and February and modeled after policies in other cities like Nashville and Chattanooga, were approved by Haslam Tuesday and will now go before City Council, which, if all goes to plan, will eventually create an official ordinance.

Number one on the list is the formation of a seven-member Public Art Committee. This committee, which would be made up of artists, art patrons, and at least one City Council member, will be responsible for enforcing the policy. The recommendations also list a set of potential criteria like artistic merit, budget, and feasibility for selection, maintenance, and removal.

Artist Wilder-Brown says she's troubled by the fact that her work set this all in motion.

"I hate it. It hurts me, to think that my piece has caused the removal of so much wonderful artwork," she says.

It's the task force's position that a policy will help encourage the donation and installation of high-quality artwork in the city, but Wilder-Brown says she worries that a public committee will keep controversial art out of the city, allowing only for artwork that's "acceptable to everybody."

But Lyons says she shouldn't worry about that.

"The idea is to encourage art and not to be limiting. That's going to be laid out in the final policy," Lyons says. "We want there to be more."