In November 2001, Memphis City Councilman Brent Taylor, and Shelby County Commissioners Marilyn Loeffel and Tommy Hart, took umbrage at one of nine public artworks sponsored by the UrbanArt Commission (UAC) for the new $70 million Central Library. Their aim was to have an offensive quotation removed from a public walkway because it expressed a sentiment which they deemed to be out of step with wholesome American values.
The irony grows sweeter considering that the offending "Workers of the world, unite!" is excerpted from The Communist Manifesto, which sparked the revolution that eventually birthed the school of Soviet realism whose precepts were unknowingly co-opted by Taylor, Loeffel, and Hart.
A pious group of Memphians led by one William W. Wood of the hastily organized Shelby County Coalition to Save the Memphis Library began a biweekly vigil to pray over the wicked artwork. The same group sent out scorching mass e-mails comparing the presumably elusive UAC with Osama bin Laden and labeling the board and administration of the Memphis/Shelby County Library "a special branch of the CIA."
Toss in the eccentric patriot in a red, white, and blue suit who makes regular protest pilgrimages to the site and you have all the ingredients for an old-fashioned dog-and-pony show. Even The New York Times got in on the action, noting that "The cold war may be over, but Marx and Engels have nevertheless managed to create a small political furor in this old river city."
The backlash came as a complete shock to Brad and Diana Goldberg, the Dallas-based husband-and-wife team responsible for designing the artwork. They intended that their piece function as "a metaphoric record of important events and knowledge that have shaped Memphis, the Mississippi River Valley Region, and the rest of our world" since the beginning of recorded history.
It was less of a shock to local political columnists who practically stumbled over one another to spank Taylor, Loeffel, and Hart for striking such a provincial pose. Susan Adler Thorp aptly observed in The Commercial Appeal that "Tearing down the Iron Curtain and destroying communism were simple tasks compared to accommodating [their] need for political opportunism, and logic."
The furor brought publicity to the UAC but not exactly the kind the ambitious, relatively new group had hoped for -- or deserved. Which raises other questions: Just what is the UrbanArt Commission and what does it do?
The UAC was formed in 1997, when Memphis Redbirds maven Kristi Jernigan, now chairman of the UAC's board of directors, suggested to county mayor Jim Rout and the Greater Memphis Arts Council (GMAC) that the Mid-South was in need of an organization specifically dedicated to the creation and placement of public artworks. Shortly thereafter Carissa Hussong came on board as director. In order to pursue grant money the commission could not readily apply for under the umbrella of the GMAC, the UAC became an independently operated not-for-profit in 1999.
"The Greater Memphis Arts Council is a 'United Fund' for the arts whose primary goal is to raise money for all local arts organizations," Hussong explains. "The UAC is a very different sort of thing. Its mission is to promote and facilitate public art and urban design in our community -- art that is integrated into the architecture or is a permanent part of the environment." The UAC and the GMAC continue to work closely with one another, especially on projects built around art education in public schools.
"Of course I was a little surprised and concerned," says Hussong of the public's initial response to the library artwork. "But no project can ever please everybody. That's just the nature of art. Look at the Calder sculpture in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That's one of the earliest examples of public art and it was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. It was ridiculed. People just couldn't believe how much money they had spent on it. Now it's on the city letterhead. It's finally been embraced. This is just one of those things that happens, you know? Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes you have to allow an artwork time to reach its full potential."
Efforts have been made to satisfy ongoing concerns about the library's offending quotation without compromising the integrity of the artwork itself. But Hussong readily admits that in this delicate endeavor the UAC has not been entirely successful. She hopes that a comprehensive brochure providing detailed commentary on each of the new library's nine installations will help clear things up a bit.
"You don't want people to be offended by the artwork," she says, "and that's the word [the artwork's opponents] have used to describe the way they feel about it. And that's just so difficult to hear when you know very well that there was no intention of doing that. [Their] feelings are their own interpretation of the piece. Because if it really did take a political stand, as they claim, it would certainly have been inappropriate. And I don't think the UrbanArt Commission would have approved it. And I certainly don't think the library board would have approved anything that inappropriate for a public setting."
On a brighter note, Hussong notes that at least one overwhelming positive has emerged in the midst of this Bolshevik brouhaha: a sudden interest among politicians in the process of creating public art.
"They want to know how we did it," Hussong says. "And while we don't want things to get to a point where [a government representative] has to say 'I approve' or 'I disapprove,' we are always looking for people to serve on committees. They can certainly recommend panel members from their districts and become involved in that respect. We want community involvement."
"It's not like public art is some kind of new idea," says Jim Williamson dryly, a hint of dismay in his voice. Not long ago his firm, Williamson Pounders Architects, enlisted the aid of the UAC while working on a design for Ballet Memphis. He flips through a yellowed textbook, past baroque museums, sturdy seats of government, and magnificent cathedrals. Eventually his index finger comes to rest on a sinewy line drawing: a Roman temple crowned with statues of men and women whose features are so perfect they could never exist outside the context of myth.
"As you can see," he says, tapping the picture, "the idea of integrating art and architecture has been around for a very long time. It's really not until the early 20th century that architects got away from the idea of incorporating works of art into their buildings. The early pioneers of modernism were looking to make a minimalist, functional machine with no decoration. And after only 75 years of this kind of modernist thinking it seems that a lot of people have largely forgotten that art is a major part of architecture."
He contrasts the temple drawing with a photograph of the Ballet Memphis building, which, thanks to the UAC's involvement, boasts its own impressive crown of idealized figures: five metal dancers floating weightlessly above the building's entrance.
"Of course, you have to realize in our region nothing is very ancient," Williamson says, adding that in Memphis, an area of no great economic renown, informed by a frugal, decidedly Protestant aesthetic, it's not all that surprising that there has been no real tradition of public art. And where there is no tradition of public art, public support is significantly diminished. This is a situation the UAC hopes to rectify.
"There must have been a great need for this sort of thing. Look at all of the projects the UrbanArt Commission is involved with," says local artist and gallery owner Pinckney Herbert. "I'm constantly surprised at how much they have taken on -- how much they've actually done in the few short years they've been around."
As an active member of the Memphis arts community for many years and having worked with the UAC both as an artist and a committee member, Herbert has developed a few opinions of his own about public art.
"There's that famous saying," he says. "About how inspiration is only 2 percent and the rest is all work. Well, that other 98 percent, that's what public art is most of the time. WORK. As an artist I didn't particularly enjoy all the committees and meeting with contractors and dealing with the city and the UrbanArt Commission. You aren't in the studio and there are a lot of balls to juggle and a lot of people to satisfy. There are a lot of different hats you have to wear and you become a different animal. And if you are going to do public art you just have to be prepared for that." He adds, however, that the hassles of producing public art are more than mitigated by its potential rewards.
Regarding the terrazzo floor he and fellow artist Alonzo Davis created for the interior of the new library, Herbert says, "Moneywise, if you break it down per hour, we didn't make anything at all on the project. But we weren't worried about the design fee. We were just proud to have done a piece for the library because we know it's going to be a part of our legacy. And I also know that if I were to apply for another public-art piece in some other city I would have a much stronger chance of getting it simply because someone has already given me their stamp of approval."
Hussong echoes Herbert's comments on the committee-centric nature of the public-art beast. There are indeed many people to satisfy and many hats to be worn, but, she says, until the library incident the experience has been a relatively painless one. She ascribes the relative ease of the process to the dedication of the UAC's diverse selection committees. "We usually have a representative of the client, an arts professional, an artist, a UAC board member, and the project architect on the selection committee," she says. By forming selection committees that consider artists' submissions from a number of perspectives, both practical and artistic, most potential problems are addressed before the final draft goes to the client for approval.
"When it comes to contacting artists, the UrbanArt Commission has a certain expertise and years of experience that we just don't have," says MATA's director of Planning and Capital Projects, Tom Fox. Fox has worked closely with the UAC developing station stops for the Madison Avenue rail extension. "They are able to reach out to a large number of artists and choose the best ones for the project. It just makes things easier for us, no doubt. And it makes the stations more visible and visually appealing."
When questioned about the long-term impact of public art on the local economy, Hussong answers in a way that is at once circuitous and confident. "It's hard to quantify the economic impact of urban art in that way," she says. "It's really a quality-of-life issue and people are becoming more and more aware of the importance of how well, or not well, their city is designed. You think of Paris and you think of all the wonderful fountains, right? Well, we deserve some of that too. That's the kind of thing that might help a corporation decide whether or not it wanted to move to Memphis. And if it's done properly, public art doesn't have to be very expensive at all."
Of course, whether or not public art is "done properly" is a matter of opinion. And Hussong must consider the feathers that have been ruffled by the library controversy. The UAC would like to see the enactment of local "percent for art" legislation that would mandate that 2 percent of the budget for any public construction be earmarked for public art. But such legislation would require the support of the city council and county commission.
"Two percent is not an insignificant number," Jim Williamson says. "But it's nothing compared to the electrical system or the mechanical system or the actual structure. It's maybe the cost of landscaping or the difference between having a stone floor or a concrete floor."
Cost-effectiveness aside, the percent-for-art plan could be either delayed or defeated without the cooperation and support of local governing bodies. But Hussong remains optimistic. She believes the legislation is in everyone's best interest. "Pride is one of the issues that always comes up in Memphis," she says. "[It's said] we don't take pride in our city. Public art can help create that pride and it can illustrate that pride."
Consider the differences between The Pyramid and AutoZone Park. The former, a white elephant adrift in an ocean of asphalt, was "finished" -- thanks to poor judgment on the part of our civic officials -- without flourish and on the cheap. Now after only 10 years of service it faces the real possibility that a new downtown arena will render it obsolete.
It's not just the Grizzlies who don't want to play there. U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson has recently raised the idea that the basketball Tigers might also abandon the Pointed House. And many touring bands have derided the structure's awful acoustics. Given the option of playing a new arena, there's little doubt where major bands will prefer to play.
On the other hand, AutoZone Park, the richly detailed temple to our national pastime, boasts every imaginable comfort, including a bounty of all-American artwork courtesy of the accused communists at the UAC. The park's tremendous crowd appeal has induced even diehard county dwellers to visit downtown on a regular basis.
Such is the effect of good design. And such is the legacy the UAC hopes to create for Memphis. As Winston Churchill once said: "First we build our buildings and then they build us."
As you jog or walk or roll or stroll along the Riverwalk you are likely to encounter a large, dangerous-looking metal object located on the bluff. It looks a great deal like an exploded toadstool. It's one of a proposed three artist/architect-designed shade structures originally intended to be built along the cobblestone walkway connecting Jefferson Davis Park and Tom Lee Park.This structure, by artist John Medwedff, is not located along the cobblestone walkway because the cobblestone walkway has yet to be completed.
Artists Jim Green, Don Merkt, and Gary Sweeney worked with project architects Looney Ricks Kiss to create AutoZone Park's colorful plaza. A giant baseball cap shelters a batter staring down a fastball that never comes. The sounds of the voices of baseball -- announcers and umpires -- are courtesy of aural artist Green.
It's still called Ballet Memphis, even if it is way out east off Germantown Parkway. The building's modern design by Williamson Pounders Architects and sculpted metal dancers by artist Brian Russell help make this elegant performing-arts facility stand out in an otherwise commercial area.
Hope and Healing Center
The Hope and Healing Center boasts five artworks installed by the UAC. There is a peacefully trickling waterwall by Zoe Ayn Strecker, a glass curtain by Gordon Huethe, and tiles in the swimming pool area designed by Carol DeForest, Alonzo Davis, and Kay Lindsay. There is also a meditation chamber that is, for lack of a better word, positively meditative. It was designed by Jim Hirschfield and Sonya Ishii of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
A young library patron enjoys the ambience of the nearby enchanted forest.
According to UAC director Carissa Hussong, every time she asked anyone about what Cooper-Young meant, they responded, "Architecture." So artist Jill Turman Brogdon constructed 12 steel structures which were based on actual buildings and houses from the neighborhood. The structures were erected on a railroad trestle crossing Cooper and form a gateway to the community.
The Art of Learning
Bruce Elementary School incorporates art into many aspects of its curriculum. Artist Scott Adams developed mosaics from children's drawings with the theme of "learning through the arts." A mural at Farmington Elementary School installed by the UAC was also a collaboration between artists and students. It depicts a number of endangered aquatic animals.
Violence is Bad
Funded by clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger and created by artist Larry Walker, a mural at Fourth and Crump keeps Dr. King's dream alive. The theme is nonviolence.
The Central Library
Everyone knows about the Marx quote on the walkway. Well, check it out and then go see what else is there. There are a magnificent glass sculpture in the lobby, beautiful terrazzo floors, an enchanted forest, an equally enchanted reading room, murals, and more. It is without a doubt the UAC's showcase.
The UAC is currently working to make Memphis a "City of Lights" with the downtown illumination project. They are creating gateways to Soulsville U.S.A. in conjunction with the rebuilding of Stax studios. The multiple works they are installing in the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts will steal the library's thunder, while a fence at the Northeast Police Precinct is getting a facelift. The UAC is also working with MATA to design railstops for the trolley along Madison Avenue and with local artists to create a movable collection of Memphis artwork. And that's just the beginning.