Thursday, September 6, 2007

Art For Everybody

Apparently the grand plans for public art in Nashville have hit a snag:
A month after Metro installed its first publicly funded sculpture, the city’s Arts Commission appears to be patiently biding its time until Mayor Bill Purcell leaves office and a new Metro Council convenes to, again, ask the Metro Parks Board for permission to install a significant series of sculptures on downtown’s public square.

So far, only Alice Ayock’s Ghost Ballet for the East Bank Machineworks on the Cumberland River’s east bank facing Lower Broad’s eastern terminus has been erected.

Say what you will about Ghost Ballet, it's at least a start. Nashville’s lack of public art gives it a provincial, hayseed image. It’s not the hallmark of the progressive city Nashville wants to be.

I’m not sure what the problems between the Metro Arts Commission and the mayor’s office have been, but this quote from Public Art Committee Chairman Jeff Ockerman sure can’t help:

”... our community doesn’t understand public art — even our so-called art ‘experts’ don’t, and from that perspective I wouldn’t trust local opinions — especially because Thomas Sayre [one of the chosen public square artists] is nationally-recognized...”

Ouch. The truth hurts, Nashville.

The fact that we couldn’t put Musica in a public roundabout without inspiring outrage of the “look, Vern, they’re nekkid!”-type was embarassing. How about, “look, Vern, the sculpture is way too big for the site, and there’s no way for the public to interact with it because it’s located on a traffic island!”

And what’s up with all this art at the airport? When I’m at the airport I’m either rushing to a flight or rushing to get home. How about putting this stuff where we all can enjoy it? The catfish and guitars were cute, but since Chicago started the whole craze with their “Cow Parade,” dozens of cities have done similar projects. It wasn’t exactly original. And don’t even get me started on that garish monstrosity off I-65 that’s supposed to be Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (OK, to be fair, the last one isn’t “public art,” since someone with more money than taste decided to erect it himself.)

Chicago knows how to do public art. During my visit last week, I was impressed with all the varieties of public art on display everywhere, on virtually every street corner and in every pocket park. The art is accessible and, most importantly, it engages the public. It’s a draw in itself.

A perfect example is Cloud Gate (artist: Anish Kapoor), in Millennium Park. It’s an amazing thing to see in person, and a huge draw with the public. I had fun just watching everyone interact with the mirrored surface, taking pictures of themselves or their kids or the distorted Chicago skyline.

Another fun piece of art is Crown Fountain (artist: Jaume Plensa). The fountain's two 50-foot glass block towers spill water as they project video images representing Chicago's ethnic diversity. The kids love to play in it, and everyone laughs when the video mouths "spit" water.

When I asked why art is so prevalent on the downtown Chicago streets, I was told that it’s city law. Developers erecting new skyscrapers must either put a piece of art in front of their building or contribute money to a public art fund. I don’t know if this is true, but I thought it was a fabulous idea.

Nashville has precious little public art, and it's a shame. For an example of how art can enhance a neighborhood, just check out the Dragon at Dragon Park. It’s artistic, colorful, and kids love to climb on it. It’s the centerpiece of the park (seriously, who calls it Fannie Mae Dees Park, anyway?). You can touch it, interact with it, have your children play on it.

This is what public art should be. Not some static thing that you look at from across the road or from an opposite river bank, but a tangible thing that you can interact with, that becomes part of the fabric of city life.

Will Nashville "get" it? I hope so.