The Artful Dodge: Why Won't Knoxville Commit to Public Art?

Remember the art bears? It all started with them.

In May 2007, an artist in Powell painted one of the many bear sculptures that were scattered around sidewalks downtown. The 9/11 memorial scene she painted depicted an airplane headed for the World Trade Center. The bears had been hunkering down since 2001's Bearfoot in the City program, but it wasn't until the 9/11 paint job that many residents began to question exactly what kind of art we wanted in our public spaces. Who got to decide?

As it turned out, the city had no policy at all on public art. So, a month after the 9/11 bear appeared, then-Mayor Bill Haslam appointed a task force to address the issue and to work more generally at coming up with a plan to deal with public art. (And, in March 2008, it finally employed a sidewalk-obstruction ordinance to remove the controversial bear.)

The task force recommended that a Public Arts Committee be appointed in order to create a city policy and put it into action. The citizen committee was formed—enlisting artists and those involved in the arts, as well as a couple of City Council members, all unpaid—and policy was crafted based on the policies of cities like Cincinnati, Asheville, and Nashville. That policy put a structure in place that enabled the committee to either approve or disapprove of any proposed piece of art that would occupy public space.

After the task force gave notice to the other bear owners to remove them and the committee put a policy in place, it had to address the removal of two more of downtown's few permanent sculptures, and two of the most visible. A copy of the classic Frederic Remington bronze sculpture of a cowboy sitting atop a bucking bronco had been placed by its owner on a city sidewalk. It was removed. And the treble clef sculpture at the corner of Summit Hill and Gay Street had begun to deteriorate beyond hope of redemption and needed to come down. Left behind was an empty pedestal that still remains.

So besides expunging several bears, a horse, and a very large treble clef from the city's art collection, what has Knoxville done to advance public art? And what has the Public Arts Committee achieved in the five years it's been around?


Norman Magden, chair of the Public Arts Committee since its beginning and a professor of art at the University of Tennessee, has a hard time naming the committee's accomplishments. "One thing we have done is to look at what art the city had and make an inventory," he says. Is this list available?

"I can't give you a comprehensive list because we're still trying to track down the information," he says. "In the past when works were given, nobody really documented it. There was not any kind of procedure. But now when pieces are gifted we have a process by which we'll archive them and catalog them."

The other main accomplishment that Magden names is "making sure the works that have gone in[to the city's collection] are acceptable." He estimates that the committee has approved about a half-dozen pieces.

That's not very many accomplishments for a five-year-old committee. Still, Deputy to the Mayor Bill Lyons, who helped form the committee under Haslam, says that "it is functioning as intended." He says it was originally set up simply as a "mechanism" for dealing with the placement of art in public places. Insofar as that goes, "it's doing what it's supposed to do," he says.

But shouldn't a Public Arts Committee do a little more? Couldn't it actually acquire more public art for the city?

"Our mission does include being proactive and developing spaces and finding artists and works to put in those spaces," Magden says. "But of course, that costs money. We've been more reactive than proactive."

The city hasn't funded the committee in any way. For the past two years the committee has solicited Community Improvement 202 funds, which are dispersed by members of City Council. This year the committee received those funds from four Council members—Duane Grieve, Nick Della Volpe, Daniel Brown, and Marshall Stair—making up a total of $1,400, its entire operating budget.

"When we formed the committee, we figured maybe later we could revisit and give it a funding stream," Lyons says. "That's sort of phase two in this. We just haven't gotten there yet."

When funding for public art comes up, inevitably the economy bears down on the discussion. "This is a tight budget world right now," says Magden. Lyons talks about "competing interests." But this hasn't stopped other cities from continuing to fund public art, placing at least some importance on its social value and potential economic benefits. As Knoxville continues to work towards better public spaces and a more people-friendly environment, it makes sense now to address our public-art needs.

"A good public-art program is the outgrowth of a healthy cultural sector, and maybe Knoxville is just now getting to that point. Greenways, schools, urban design, downtown development—it's all connected," says David Butler, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art and member of the Public Arts Committee. And public art is a particularly important component, he says. "It highlights what's great about a place. It sends a signal to people living here that we value this place enough to make it beautiful."

But will the city of Knoxville ever care enough about public art to support it?


At a one-day stopover in Chattanooga several months ago, I was deeply impressed by the amount and quality of sculpture that I saw. I whiled away an entire afternoon walking around and admiring the city's public art, which both accentuated the natural beauty of its landscape and lent magic to some of its otherwise scrappy patches of old warehouses. Inevitably, my wanderings led me into local shops and restaurants at which I spent money. It struck me that in a weak economy, perhaps public art is one of the lowest-impact, smartest ways for a city to make itself attractive and to inspire loyalty in its residents. In other words, great public art could make a city both worth visiting and worth living in, which means that tourists and residents would invest themselves, financially and otherwise.

How did Chattanooga pull it off? It was simple, really. When the city undertook to redevelop 129 acres of its waterfront, it allocated 1 percent of that budget to purchase public art. That enabled the city to "immediately do something significant," says Peggy Townsend, director of Public Art Chattanooga. (Like Knoxville's committee, Chattanooga's is an unpaid citizen committee appointed by the mayor.) Beyond that, Townsend says that her city has been successful in acquiring public art only because of a diversity of funding sources both public and private, and that two-thirds of its current program is funded by grants from private sources.

Nashville adopted a public arts ordinance in 2000, commonly known as a "percent for art" tax, that sets aside 1 percent of certain capital improvement project funds for the commissioning and purchase of art. Asheville has done the same. Even Kingsport, Tenn., with a population of less than 50,000, sets aside .75 percent of capital improvement projects for art.

"If Kingsport can do it, so can we. We act like we're terrified of spending money," Butler says. "This is a prosperous community. There's no reason we can't have public art."

However, he also says that a percent for art tax would never happen here. Magden says he doesn't know "what the climate is for that here." Lyons says that there have been internal discussions about a tax, and that it is something the city "may well revisit in the next year or two." No one is actively pursuing such an initiative, which, even if implemented, has its shortcomings. For example, the funding for public art would necessarily be in direct ratio to the money spent on the construction of new public buildings.


Liza Zenni, Public Arts Committee member and executive director of the Arts and Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, would like to see a more active stance on the committee's part despite the lack of funding.

"You can get a pile of money and decide how to spend it, or you can develop a plan that's exciting and compelling and attract money with that plan," she says, sitting in her office on Gay Street. "We've never had an arrow that could be launched." She slaps one hand against the other and moves it soaring off into the air in front of her.

For starters, she believes that the Public Arts Committee members should walk around the city and look at options for public art, a simple thing they've never done together. Then they could identify businesses that might have an interest in those places, and go to City Council with a presentation of the top five public art opportunities. In other words, they would share a vision, a clear plan, an exact budget, and a timeline in order to get the first commissions moving.

"I'm frustrated when we wait for things to come to us," Zenni says, adding that she has been "the agitator" on the Public Arts Committee. "A beautifully situated piece can communicate what I call the joie de vivre, the joy of life."

When asked how much public input has gone into the city's quest for public art, she makes two zeros around her eyes and looks through them towards me.

Townsend says that in 2001 before any public-art plan was developed for Chattanooga, a series of public forums were held in which more than 500 citizens participated. She believes this was a key component in getting people interested, engaged, and invested. "We have citizen involvement and engagement in shaping our community. Chattanoogans are ready and willing to be part of the conversation."

Knoxvillians might be ready and willing, too, but they have never been invited to the conversation. And city government continues to shy away from truly valuing it, though Lyons says that he personally thinks public art is very important. Way back in 2009, when the treble clef was dismantled, Butler was quoted in a Metro Pulse report as saying, "Ultimately, if we're going to have public art, there's got to be some money behind it." No wonder he looks a little put out, then, repeating the same thought four years later. "The city has got to make a commitment," he says. "Somebody has got to drive it, it has to be somebody's job." However, there remains no one employed by the City of Knoxville to advocate and fund-raise for public art, and the Public Arts Committee continues to make little progress, according to its own members.


The Dogwood Arts Festival's Art in Public Places program is the sole reason Knoxville isn't almost entirely lacking in new public art. Most of the public art you see downtown is part of this program, which essentially picks up the slack for the city. The program does receive minimal funding from the city, Lyons says, "but mostly they're benefiting us."

Zenni agrees. "We as a city owe Dogwood Arts a great debt of gratitude," she says. Three of the "about a half-dozen pieces" that Magden mentioned had gone into the city's permanent collection since the Public Arts Committee's inception were donated to the city by the program's Collectors Circle, a group of wealthy individuals who pursue the acquisition of some of the program's best pieces.

Eddie Mannis (who, until recently, served as deputy to the mayor) and Bart Watkins, two local business owners who wanted to further the art scene, launched the program in 2007. Each year, the previous collection is dismantled and a new collection is installed. The sculptures come from all over the country and are funded mostly by private donations, says Lisa Duncan, executive director of Dogwood Arts. "We won't have this art unless the community supports it," she says. (For $3,000, an individual or a business can underwrite a sculpture.)

In addition to giving multiple artists a chance to show their work, a rotating exhibit is good, she says, because if people hate it, it will be gone within a year. (Rest assured that the giant phallus that stood on Gay Street last year is no longer erected there.) This year there are many colorful, happy, whimsical pieces that, though not challenging in the way that perhaps the best art is, generally give a feeling of energy and movement to the city, including a particularly fun one called "Midsummer" at the forlorn Cradle of Country Music Park, where the treble clef once stood.

I sit on a bench in Krutch Park and enjoy the graceful "Lovearch," of a man and a woman pushing off the soles of one another's feet and bending over backwards to press their hands on the ground. Its blue rippled surface echoes the pool of water below it. Next to that, "Power Surge" expresses fluidity, like a Chinese kite billowing in the wind.

As a contrast, I ponder the squatty, angular "Stargazer," made of fabricated and brushed aluminum, blindingly reflective in the sun. I ask a passerby—Daniel Snider, who walks through Krutch Park every day on his lunch break from his job at the downtown public library—what he thinks of it, and his answer surprises me.

"At first I thought, ‘I don't really like this,' but as I walk by it every day, I've grown to hate it. It's provocatively ugly," he says.

That's just one person's opinion, of course, and no single person's opinion can count for much in weighing out the value of art. There will always be those who love or hate or are indifferent to any particular piece. Because public art by its very nature is "in the streets," as Magden says, the decisions made about it don't always please everyone; many were left feeling bereft at the loss of the treble clef while many jumped up and down. I don't find the sculpture quite as horrific as Snider does, but it does seem jolting, a little out of place in its surroundings.

Jason Brown, this year's co-chair of Art in Public Places and a professor of sculpture at UT, calls this kind of art "plop art"—sculpture that is made in one place and sent to various places around the country. He would like to see Art in Public Places grow into "more experimental, site-specific work." We are standing in the UT Gardens, where many of his students' sculptures currently are on display.

Nine large pieces of Tennessee pink marble are staked into the ground among tall native grasses. A mockingbird swoops down and lands on a twisted piece of steel with protruding branches that echo the cypress tree growing next to it. The sculptures here are made from salvaged local marble and steel from scrapyards like Gerdau. Many of them have been made to suit the landscape. For those that haven't, the landscape has been made to suit them, making them what Brown calls "site-adapted" or "site-aware."

There is something gentler here, more subtle about these sculptures, as if they sprang, self-propelled, from their immediate surroundings. Brown says that too often public art "alienates the people who end up inhabiting the space most of the time." He says that usually artists are coming from the outside, without knowing a place.

"The best-case scenario [for public art]," he says, "is that it works directly with the community, with an emphasis on community involvement and ownership."

These student pieces would be impressive anywhere, not just on a college campus. They are site-aware, which in turn makes the visitor site-aware. They create intrigue about the surroundings.

Local artist and Public Arts Committee member Albert Baah says that, "This city has great artists and we should support them more."

The UT Gardens offer a glimpse of what Knoxville's public art could be if it looked a little closer to home.


A remarkable thing happened at last month's Public Arts Committee meeting. SJ Van Der Berg and Jayne McGowan, organizers behind the Artist Alley Revamp Project (see sidebar) came seeking approval for their next alley project, the revamp of Marble Alley off Summit Hill between State Street and Central Avenue, a historic area that the developer Buzz Goss has plans to revitalize as a pedestrian connection between downtown and the Old City. The two presented the project somewhat sheepishly to the committee, emphasizing the success of the first project.

"Where exactly is this alley?" asked one committee member. Slowly, the committee warmed up to the idea. "Let's give them $500," Zenni said. A small grant could help the artists purchase materials, and the committee had just received $1,400 in 202 funds from City Council members. Albert Baah piped up that it would be good to show that the committee had done something.

"We've been around a long time, and it's gotten stale," he said. A motion was passed and seconded. Everyone present said "aye." The Public Arts Committee, for the first time in its five years of existence, officially funded an art project. Everyone seemed satisfied.

Meanwhile, Visit Knoxville announced last week its plans to create a mural on the side of its building at the corner of Summit Hill and Gay Street. Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville, says that when she learned of the Artist Alley Revamp Project, she became inspired and the tourist organization became "very engaged in that conversation." They plan to launch a greater Knoxville Mural Project that will incorporate several buildings throughout downtown and include a walking tour.

As yet, the organization has not welcomed public input. Bumpas said they would like to unveil the first mural—a design concept submitted by muralist Bobbie Crews that will emphasize Knoxville's arts, music, and culture—before welcoming ideas from the public.

For what might be the most conspicuous mural ever painted in Knoxville, the Public Arts Committee had no say in it.

"Since the wall is not city property, we have no jurisdiction," says Magden.

Murals painted onto privately owned buildings are not regulated at all by the public arts ordinance, even if, like this one, they are extremely visible in the public space. So, right now, it's anybody's guess what downtown's most prominent mural will end up looking like.

"We had to start somewhere so that we could show what our vision is," Bumpas says. "Then the community can see it, and they'll want to become engaged."

In her proposed budget, Mayor Rogero has allotted $150,000 for public art in the Cradle of Country Music Park, which Butler says is "an encouraging sign." Finally, the empty hole left behind by the treble clef will be filled. That came along with other budget allocations like bike lanes, maintenance of parks and greenways, and anti-blight initiatives. The city won't speculate on what might go in the park, but it does say there is talk of a water feature, and that the Public Arts Committee will direct a public input process.

If it does, that will be a first for the committee. "It's important that public art be really public," David Butler urged at the most recent committee meeting. In keeping it really public, the committee will need to consider, for instance, that communication tools like e-mail and Facebook exclude low-income residents who may not have frequent access to the Internet.

Zenni, too, believes that if the Public Arts Committee is going to gain allies and build momentum, it is going to have to welcome more public input. Even if they are not able to offer funding for a certain project, "we could identify potential artists in our midst." Who knows what energy and ideas might be sparked, what partnerships might be formed?

Will the city of Knoxville open up the long-awaited conversation about public art, or will it continue its artful dodge?

"Obviously we think public art is important," Lyons says.