Volunteers appointed to public boards and city officials involved in Metro’s public arts program appeared to avoid both media inquiries and public meetings that would cast the program in a bad light.
In addition, one leading city arts official, Public Art Committee Chairman Jeff Ockerman, in city e-mails obtained by The City Paper, expressed his doubts about the ability of the Nashville public, presently, to understand the public art program.
E-mails obtained by this newspaper through a public records request indicate Ockerman and others in Metro avoided press scrutiny over a series of public artworks for downtown’s new Public Square selected last fall by the Metro Arts Commission after the Metro Parks Board this May blocked the art.
Following this summer’s installation of Nashville’s first artwork funded through the city’s public art program, downtown’s Ghost Ballet for the East Bank Machineworks, and following the decision in May to temporarily halt the installation of new public art, the Arts commission is awaiting the election of a new mayor and Metro Council before proceeding with the city’s public art program. The program diverts 1 percent of the proceeds of all general obligation bonds issued by the city for construction projects to a fund for public art.
Ockerman, a local attorney and former Metro Councilman, in an e-mail to Arts Commission executive director Norree Boyd and to Arts Commissioners Jane Alvis and Joseph Presley in June, said Nashville Scene writer Christine Kreyling called him regarding a story on the Public Square art.
“She’s having trouble getting the hard details she wants and needs in order for her to get her editors to approve a story on this issue. She was obviously hoping I’d give her something, but of course I couldn’t,” Ockerman wrote.
“Interestingly, she mentioned that she’d heard that the art projects selected weren’t ‘all that good.’ I responded on two fronts: first, 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; second, I said we had a very small pot of money to use for what are, in fact, three different projects, and that of course restricts the scope of the works; third, the disbursed art was restricted to Tennessee artists — and we don’t have a great pool to choose from,” Ockerman wrote.
In a May 7 e-mail to Arts Commission member Will Cheek, Ockerman said he was avoiding City Paper phone calls.
“Bill [Harless] is calling me and I’m avoiding him........he’s got a story for tomorrow. Have you spoken with him?” he asks.
Alvis, who was Mayor Bill Purcell’s legislative liaison to the Council when the legislative body established the public art program in 2000, did not return several telephone calls last week regarding this story. This May, she refused to answer The City Paper when asked if Purcell or anyone representing his office had spoken to her about the proposed Public Square art between the time the Arts Commission selected it in September 2006 and the Parks Board halted it in May 2007.
Purcell, despite suggestions by some Arts Commissioners that he helped block the art, has said he had nothing to do with the moratorium.
Ockerman, in an interview last week with The City Paper after the public records request had been completed, said that in his e-mail regarding Kreyling’s questions, he was writing about local understanding of how city public art programs work technically.
“Nashville hasn’t had public art,” Ockerman said. “What we’ve had for the most part is privately commissioned art that goes in public places — for example, the statues around the new symphony hall. … But the public art program … is publicly funded, and it goes through a selection process, and it creates conversation within the community about art and the value of art, and on top of that, it’s got the economic factor that it brings people to places, attracts them to places to look at it.
“I think public art needs to be discussed by the public, and the more you have it, the more it gets discussed.”
He emphasized that Arts Commission members are selected by the Metro Council, an institution elected by the public.
Parks Department Director Roy Wilson also, apparently, tried to limit media involvement in the situation.
“After Tuesday’s Board meeting, Norree Boyd of the Arts Commission called to request that both our Boards meet before our next meeting to discuss the art proposals,” Wilson wrote Parks Board member Susan Short Jones in an April e-mail. “I told her I did not think that was a good idea. I also expressed my concerns with how her Board members attempted to strong arm Park Board members before Tuesday’s meeting, almost to the point of intimidation.
“I let her know for both Boards to meet will require posting the meeting which may attract the media and, depending how the meeting would go, could result in some unwanted press attention to the process, especially if it was not a productive meeting.”
Last September, the Public Art Committee refused to make its meetings public as it selected the Public Square art from a pool of semi-finalists and refused to provide the media any preview of the then-undetermined art before the Arts Commission met to take a final vote on the art.
Boyd said then the committee meetings were closed and the artists’ proposals unavailable for public viewing because the two final artists were being selected through Metro’s contracting-procurement process that legally prohibited access by the general public.