I went to the Knoxville City Council meeting Tuesday night with the intention of speaking about the issue of installing a new public sculpture in the Cradle of Country Music Park at the intersection of Gay St. and Summit Hill Drive in downtown Knoxville. I registered to speak, but left the meeting when I learned that only three speakers on each side of the issue would be allowed and I was number six.
The resolution before the Council was whether or not to delay the project to study ways of keeping the park’s large trees that were scheduled to be removed to accommodate the new sculpture. The Harvey Broome Group of the Sierra Club, led by Maggie Longmire, had gathered more than 1100 signatures and arranged for three speakers to ask that the trees be kept because of their essential importance to downtown’s environment. Will Skelton, a longtime nature activist, poet/musician R. B. Morris, and Axel Ringe, conservation chair of the local Harvey Broome chapter, spoke in support of delaying the project to study ways to keep the trees.
James Taylor, a member of the public arts committee, which selected artist Marc Fornes’ sculpture as the winner of the RFP, Duane Grieve, executive director of the East Tennessee Community Design Center, and Liza Zenni, director of the Arts and Culture Alliance, under whose umbrella the sculpture was commissioned, spoke against delaying the project. Zenni’s comments, in particular, consisted in declaring that so many people had put so many hours into the project already it must be the best it could be. It was, in effect, the equivalent of saying that 10 people at chess boards in a public park, fiddling with pawns and knights until kingdom come, would make one of them a chess master.
Zenni’s intention all along was to ignore the reason for the park’s creation and appropriate the area as a component of the Gay Street 100 block arts district. Her RFP documents had instructed artists submitting proposals that they need not consider the name of the park or anything about music in their submissions. As director of an agency that should promote both art and culture, Zenni breached her responsibility by failing to look out for country music culture.”
Ringe came loaded with data about the need for more trees downtown, not fewer, along with the difficulty of getting young trees to survive in congested downtown environments. But Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon had essentially preempted all of the speakers by hastily calling a news conference to announce that a revised plan and been worked out to save four of the five trees .
Addressed by only Morris,, was the need to put back in place the reason why the park was created in the beginning – commemorating the importance and history of country music in the 100 block of Gay Street and the music venues along Vine Avenue that were destroyed during the era of urban renewal that wiped out the predominantly Black neighborhoods and businesses around the Civic Auditorium and where the downtown loop now runs, along with the entertainment district of Vine Avenue and the current path of Summit Hill Drive.
Putting the music history back into the park should also not be printed signs. but current technology with interactive panels that would allow visitors to listen to musicians, like the great Chet Atkins, play the country music, and hear broadcasts of the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, along with stories told by people who went to the clubs and other venues on Vine Avenue.
I actually like Fornes’ sculpture, despite the fact that it is not an original, iconic work specific to the site as called for in the RFP, and in spite of Zenni’s intentions. It is a close sibling to a Fornes sculpture in Lubbock, Texas, down to its design for a flat site, although History of Country Music Park occupies slopping land. There are lyrical ideas in the sculpture that connect directly to music, reflecting components of rhythm, melody and story-telling, all in an abstract, modernist way. But ways that express the essence of country music that restoring the park to its original intention would emphasize. All one has to do is title the piece “Sing me a Story” to get its musical relationship. Throughout history, the arts have served to support and enhance one another.
At the least, a new abstract sculpture avoids the kitschy nature of the original, poorly made treble clef.
Harold Duckett holds degrees in both art history and architecture. He wrote about performing and visual art for the Knoxville Journal, Knoxville News Sentinel, KnoxTNToday and for a national publication for 36 years. He is a Knox County Master Gardener.