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.
Last September, the Arts Commission approved a $350,000 purchase of a series of artworks for the square, and, thinking the matter was done, found itself caught off guard when Sandra Duncan, who heads the Commission’s public art program, saw that she had been placed on the Parks Board agenda in January to request final approval for the art.
The Commission thought it had received final permission from Parks to install the art in April 2006, before the art was chosen, but the Parks Board is adamant it only gave “conceptual approval” to the project. In May, the Board placed a one-year moratorium on any new permanent installations in the square.
“We were more or less stopped in our tracks — and much to my chagrin — because I thought we had gone through the whole entire process. But we were stopped.” said Nancy Saturn, the Arts Commission chair, in a recent interview. “And the reason I haven’t been as exercised about it is that we’re about to have a whole new situation in our city, a new mayor, a new Council, and I believe we will find a way to restart.”
Saturn said she wishes Purcell, who championed the Public Square, had shown more support for the art.
“The official word was that it [the moratorium] was through Parks, but I’m certain that the Mayor, for me, has always had his finger on every bit of the pulse of our city, so I have to feel that he had his finger on the pulse of this, but I have no way of knowing that,” Saturn said. “But I do feel that we were stopped in a way that we were not stopped on the Alice Aycock — so you have to read between all the lines I imagine.”
The concept of ‘approval’
The Parks Board held only one vote to approve the Ghost Ballet sculpture, which technically sits on Parks property, an approval that it gave more than a year before the sculpture was selected and unveiled by the Arts Commission.
Metro attorney Tom Cross, however, said he thinks the Board nevertheless kept to the requirements of the public art ordinance when it demanded two votes on the public square art, emphasizing the Parks Board made first approval “conceptual.”
Former Metro Councilman Jim Shulman — who has expressed some sympathy for the Arts Commission — said he considered filing legislation to deal with Parks-Arts dispute this spring, approaching Arts Commission representatives with his suggestion. He was asked to hold off.
“I went to representatives of the Arts Commission — they asked me to wait based upon the fact that a new mayor was coming into office,” Shulman said.
Did Purcell delay project?
Jeff Ockerman, who chairs the city’s Public Art Committee — an entity technically separate from the Arts Commission, which selects public artworks and presents them to the Commission for final approval — appeared to express concern that Purcell was working to delay the project in a May e-mail to Arts Commission executive director Norree Boyd.
“My very cynical take is that the Mayor is stringing you along so the MNAC [Arts Commission] loses whatever opportunity it has to appeal [the moratorium]. I'll be very interested to hear what he tells you,” Ockerman wrote Boyd in an email obtained by The City Paper through the Tennessee Public Records Law.
“If the projects for the Public Square aren't going forward, Metro owes an apology not only to the artists but to the Public Art Committee members and the Selection Panel. I would hope the Mayor would offer this, but I don't expect it. Perhaps you can make that suggestion – but I don't believe the apology should come from the MNAC or its Executive Director,” Ockerman continued.
In an interview last week, however, Ockerman said he does not feel there was “any real concern” with the mayor himself. It was a matter, Ockerman said, of simply working with the Mayor’s office to try to reach an accord with the Parks Board.
“Clearly we didn’t reach a resolution. We’re kind of at an impasse,” Ockerman said, adding he believes the mayor has a role in mediating between departments.
Sandra Roberts, Purcell’s spokeswoman, was adamant Purcell had nothing to do with the moratorium.
“I think the mayor is very comfortable with the process for establishing public art, and he’s got great faith in the Arts Commission. He also has great faith in the Parks Board and their ability to set policy about the parks that they govern,” Roberts said. “The last thing the city needs is a mayor who votes thumbs up or thumbs down on a proposed piece of public art.”
Deputy Mayor Curt Garrigan, the Parks Department former assistant director for planning and facilities, confirmed this week he met with three Arts Commissioners — Ockerman, Jane Alvis, and Joseph Presley — in March to discuss the matter at the commissioners’ request.
Garrigan said he helped draft the moratorium document before he joined the Mayor’s Office early this year. Garrigan added that he told Duncan last fall the Commission would have to request final approval for the art.
Before the moratorium was passed, Parks Director Roy Wilson sent an email to two of Purcell’s staffers — Garrigan and Chris Koster, who is now a Parks employee — regarding the art. Wilson sent what appears to be a set of talking points on the subject on the morning of the April 3 Parks Board meeting, asking, “How’s this for starters?”
In one paragraph, Wilson emphasized the relatively large size of the Commission’s selected art: “The Arts Commission's proposed art involves 17 separate pieces, fog machines, light displays, etc. This would considerably ‘crowd’ the square and we need the time to be more selective,” Wilson wrote.
But Wilson said his communications with the mayor’s staffers were simply routine updates provided to the mayoral liaisons to the department.