Well, public art is a controversial topic in a number of ways. Who should pay for it? Should public funding be used? How should it be selected? Whose are and which topics are worthy of display in the city? Knoxvillians hold varied opinions on all the above. We have a significant number of citizens who would feel that tax dollars should never be used for something so silly as art. We have a number of others who, I suspect, would want to be sure that any art purchased with public funds fit their idea of “appropriate” for the public display. One good thing about our history is that, perhaps because of the divided sentiment held locally, we aren’t saddled, like many southern cities, with a bunch of statues honoring civil war figures of questionable ethics, regarding which we must desperately try to rationalize their display. A proposal to force developers to fund new public art has gone nowhere.
We do have some interesting public art permanently displayed. The suffragists depicted on Market Square salute Tennessee women, Lizzie Crozier French of Knoxville, Anne Dallas Dudley of Nashville, and Elizabeth Avery Meriwether of Memphis who fought for the vote. Installed in 2006 and privately funded, the reaction to this statue has surprised me since I moved downtown. It isn’t the kind of thing I thought anyone would pay attention to, yet, I almost always see someone looking at it, reading the inscriptions and photographing it, which tells me that more public art would add texture and interest to tourists and local people alike. It may be fortunate they were not fighting for temperance because another common gesture people seem inclined toward is leaving them a seasonal libation to enjoy.
The coolest sculpture downtown has to be the Rowing Guy. He’s actually, properly, called “The Oarsman” and was sculpted by David Phelps and installed in 1988. He appears to be very earnestly rowing his way out of the concrete of the city, though taken from a different perspective, perhaps his boat is sinking in the concrete. It’s hard to say if he’ll win the battle or lose it, but for many years he has continued to fight the battle at the corner of Gay and Church Streets.
There are a number of other sculptures, particularly on the courthouse lawn and a couple of others scattered about that are noteworthy. The image of William Sergeant who led the campaign to eradicate polio in Knoxville is a kindly image and fits nicely with the park with its playful child on the lap of Mr. Sergeant.
Possibly my favorite is Audrey Flack’s “Beloved Woman of Justice,” which can be viewed in the Whittle courtyard. It’s a bit more abstract than most of the downtown sculptures and a bit more interesting.
Of course, at the moment there are many other sculptures downtown and I’ll blog about some of those later, perhaps. They are temporary and are in place as part of the annual Dogwood Arts celebration. Unfortunately, they were for sale, and are, presumably, to be claimed soon by their new owners. I’m hoping we keep some of them.
One final sculpture worth mentioning is the one that no longer exists: The Treble Clef. It used to sit at the beginning of the 100 block of Gay Street at the intersection of Summit Hill. Originally intended as part of the Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour, it was removed after it began rusting. It is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it was a very cool sculpture. More so than your average tribute to a person or single event, it captured a vibe, paid tribute to a spirit, acknowledged the muse that has flowed through these city streets. Second, they named a park after it once it was gone. The area surrounding it was expanded when a section of State Street was permanently removed. Who names a park after a sculpture that has disappeared? Could we please have our Treble Clef back?