Last May, I went to New York with a friend to see the Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My research in grad school all led to one portrait of Marie-Antoinette by the queen’s court painter, and it was in the exhibition. I would see it in person for the first time there. Our trip was like a pilgrimage. My heart and mind were so laser-focused on the portrait, I forgot how beautiful the city is in spring.
One afternoon, we decided to cut through Central Park between destinations. Rounding the southeast corner of the park near the Plaza Hotel, we came upon Isa Genzken’s Two Orchids (2016), a temporary installation of the Public Art Fund (a private organization operating in the public space). Its towering height, 28 and 34 feet respectively, and stylized flower shape exuded a whimsy reminiscent of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and its outlandish occurrence amid the Manhattan hustle-bustle made it very popular among passersby, including myself. It also reminded me of sculptor Will Ryman’s Rose on 65th Street (2011) on permanent view in front of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts here in Nashville. At the time I was in New York, I had only lived in Nashville for a year and was still getting to know its art scene (and still am), so I wondered then what kind of public art my city collects that I could champion and enjoy back at home.
The rising prominence of public art in Nashville reflects the rising cosmopolitan status of the city. I remember visiting Music City as a child with my parents in the early ’90s. Back then, the most popular destinations included Barbara Mandrell’s recording studio on Music Row and any visitor center with a DIY map of the houses of country stars. My dad still tells the story of watching Johnny Cash pull out of his home driveway in Hendersonville. Over two decades later, the city’s offerings are significantly more diversified. Love it or hate it (and there are many subscribers to both camps), the Nashville of today is growing as fast as developers can flip an empty or dilapidated lot. The Nashville Business Journal actually maintains a “crane watch” of active construction projects in Davidson County, which currently numbers about 190. Nashville is now home to international corporate headquarters, James Beard Award-tapped restaurants, major cultural institutions in the performing and visual arts, and 1.8 million residents—up by a million since the year 1990. Another million are expected to arrive by 2035.
I use these numbers to reinforce a point: the incoming residents of our region, with their mixed bag of ages, skills, socioeconomic backgrounds, and nationalities, represent more diverse needs for housing, transportation, and cultural attractions than Nashville has ever seen. A city’s cultural life, specifically, is thought to be one of the most crucial factors in creating a thriving arts ecosystem and retaining talent. So, how does Nashville measure up? Whether or not you believe it’s a city government’s responsibility to “enrich” or not, it’s happening. Besides partially funding the usual suspects of museums, theaters, and symphonies, Metro Arts, the arts branch of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, oversees Nashville’s public art program, which is gaining momentum but quantity doesn’t always equate to quality.
A public art ordinance approved in 2000 funds Nashville’s percent-for-art program, which allots one percent of certain capital improvement and new construction budgets for the commissioning and purchase of artwork. The ordinance has resulted in 40 permanent works and counting. By comparison, New York City’s permanent public artworks (including monuments) number in the thousands and date to as early as the 19th century (not to mention the Public Art Fund, a private organization that has presented 400 temporary projects in its 40-year history). And such peer cities as Austin and Portland maintain decades-old, hundred-fold collections, and double the investment in capital improvements of Charlotte and Nashville.
Because Nashville’s bread and butter has traditionally been music, visual art is often slighted. To its credit, Metro Arts is trying to adjust the disparity. As a former grant writer at a large Nashville arts institution, I’ve had a front row seat to the constant discussion of Nashville’s creative vitality across a national spectrum, and to the government arts funding process. Last year, I watched Metro Arts executive director Jen Cole passionately petition the Metropolitan Council for more funding during a budget hearing, but the council is only willing to approve small, incremental increases in the city’s operating budget. Director of public art Caroline Vincent says,““Admittedly, visual artists do not typically enjoy the major attention that the music industry has in Nashville, but in its short history, I think our public art collection has become a strong symbol of the artistic vibrancy in Nashville—in its many forms.” I agree.
Almost 50 percent of the city’s public art collection is by Nashville artists, who are complemented by more widely known artists, such as Alice Aycock, Lawrence Argent, and Christian Moeller. Equally as balanced are the types of projects, ranging from bike racks and transit shelters to decorative garden mosaics and art for art’s sake. Metro Arts commissions six to 12 works a year, depending on the complexity and scale of each project.
Nashville’s most visible works of art sit, naturally, along major thoroughfares, sure to catch the eyes of tourists exploring the nearby Riverfront Park and Broadway honky tonks. Aycock’s Ghost Ballet (2007), for example, was the first public work I noticed as a newcomer. The Americans for the Arts award-winning piece — a giant pair of semi-circle steel trusses, painted red and swirling vertically in the air — adorns the east bank of the Cumberland River as an homage to the area’s industrial past Moeller’s Stix (2016), at 70 feet Nashville’s tallest and most expensive commission to date, is composed of 27 red cedar poles painted in stripes of red, orange, blue, and green. Positioned in the ground at irregular angles, the poles jut out of the Korean Veterans Boulevard roundabout connecting downtown to south Nashville.
A personal favorite is Nashville artist Buddy Jackson’s Emergence (2013) in Hartman Park. Cast in water-impermeable concrete, the beautiful face of an African American woman measures 3½ feet wide by 8 feet long by 5 feet high. The park is in Bordeaux, home to a primarily African American community that was one of the hardest hit in the 2010 flood. The earthy brown tone of the sculpture creates the illusion that the face, its serene expression a metaphor for the neighborhood’s strength and resilience, is emerging from the bare ground. I knew of Jackson first as a painter and photographer (not to mention Grammy Award-winning art director), which I have to say won me over to his sculpture. His elegant aesthetic bestows an air of high art to a collection that leans heavily towards elements of civic design.
Circling back to Genzken’s Two Orchids, I discovered Nashville artist Jessica Eichman’s City Irises (2012) while researching the reach and impact of Nashville’s public art collection for this story. Commissioned as a bike rack, City Irises is in Hermitage Park—not really in the city, but close enough. It is located in the suburbs near former President Andrew Jackson’s home (“the Hermitage”) and shares a grassy knoll with a public library, playground, and pavilion for outdoor events. Referencing the Tennessee state flower, the three-part metal sculpture stands ten feet high by six feet wide, and its glossy, bright green stems and purple flowers pop from a distance, set back off the beaten path but viewable from the main road.
Connecting the dots between Two Orchids and City Irises, I noticed the prevalence of flowers in public art. Flowers are so common in visual culture, they are often overlooked. I drive past Ghost Ballet and Stix all the time but, distracted by errands, to-do lists and traffic, rarely have I invested more than a moment’s glance, but I know they’re there. Like flowers, public art is there to enjoy, despite our seeming imperviousness. In fact, maybe that’s the point. More than a status symbol or a touchstone of progress, public art is, ideally, a part of something. It should assume the environment it inhabits so that it reflects the diverse population it is meant to enrich. In Nashville, public art is beholden to the poetic duality of standing out and blending in.
Elaine Slayton Akin is an arts writer and nonprofit professional in Nashville by way of Little Rock. She is a member of the Inter-Museum Council of Nashville. Her writing has been featured in Nashville Arts, Arkansas Life, Number, and At Home in Arkansas magazines.