Beyond the Urban Trail

What place does “art” hold in Asheville, Western North Carolina’s premier city?

Tourists flock to see the opulence and artistry of Biltmore House. They clamor for mountain crafts during Bele Chere and stroll our many galleries on select Friday evenings. They continue to debate whether the Federal Building’s “Passage” sculpture is a worthy piece of taxpayer-supported art — or is it “art” at all? They twang the old fire bell on Market Street, late at night (and, sometimes, stick condoms on the bronze fiddle wielded by one of the “Appalachian Dancers”). And, in winter, they drape a protective muffler ’round the neck and shoulders of “Past and Promise” — the little girl who eternally sips at the fountain just east of the Vance Monument.

Despite the cruder reactions to art, its presence in Asheville — and the commitment of its residents and City Council to preserving it — is “a mark of the emergence of a mature community,” argues Asheville Art Museum Director Pam Myers. A member of the city’s relatively new Public Art Board, she heads up a citizens’ committee charged with creating a master plan for Asheville.

“How do we make good use of public funds? How do we match that with private dollars, and engage the public and the artists? How do we engage a dialogue about art?” These are questions Myers posed in a June 13 conversation with Xpress.

Such weighty concerns reflect the Public Art Board’s ambitious agenda: creating a master plan, maintaining and protecting the existing public art, raising money (both for that stewardship and for new art), deciding what projects to consider in the immediate future, and encouraging public input in the process. That’s the word from chair Tucker Cooke (the head of UNCA’s art department), who spoke with Mountain Xpress briefly on May 25. Asheville City Council, at the suggestion of longtime Council member Barbara Field, created the board in 1999. Said Cooke: “I would like [the board] to help Asheville become a city of art. [It’s] already getting a reputation for art.” He mentioned Asheville’s many galleries, the Urban Trail, local architecture, the local scenery — all part of the fabric that makes the city an arts destination.

And, like Myers, he reflects on the philosophical considerations the board faces: “I’m interested in art as part of the matrix of the city, not just as random pieces plunked down here and there.”

At a May 25 organizational meeting of the Public Art Board, Cooke showed slides of ancient Greek cities, observing: “Art is integrated into the architecture of the Acropolis. The whole city is a work of art.” Asheville could aspire to that, he went on. Cooke then switched to slides of existing public art: Dirck Cruser’s “Energy Loop,” a metal sculpture at CityCounty Plaza that entices kids to climb and slide along its sweeping form; a real little boy sipping alongside the bronze girl of “Past and Promise”; the Thomas Wolfe memorial angel at Pack Place, which draws literary enthusiasts; and Albert Paley’s controversial “Passage,” which invites debate.

“I’ve had students say they hate that piece of rust,” said Cooke about the latter work. He described a class visit to the piece, enhanced by the observations of a homeless man on hand that day who, told the work was sculpture, said, “Is that what it is? It don’t mean a damn to me.” But at Cooke’s urging, the homeless man peered up at its craggy points, as if looking for outlines of animals in the clouds. “There’s something to it, after all,” the man concluded.

There is something to it, and it’s bigger than our usual perception of art, Myers mused, a few weeks after the meeting. “We’re viewing public art as what’s in the public space. But public art can as well be a garden as a sculpture,” she said. Public art can also be something temporary, such as UNCA’s revolving display on the quad (where sculptures are placed for a year at a time), or the ever-so-short-lived ice sculptures made (and melted) at Bele Chere each year, continued Myers– or, even, a festival itself.

Public art can also include art on private property that happens to be viewable by the public — such as the memorial sculpture adjacent to Beaver Lake. It can even be part of the infrastructure, such the artist-designed manhole covers in Phoenix, Ariz., that display Southwest Indian motifs, Hojun Welker pointed out. For the past few years, Welker has served as Asheville’s Urban Trail coordinator. (For the uninitiated, the Urban Trail is a downtown art project funded entirely by grants and donations. Among its more prominent pieces are the “Appalachian Dancers,” the giant iron on Wall Street, the jaunty shoppers around the corner on Haywood, and the Art Deco tile on the sidewalk in front of downtown’s Wachovia Bank.) With the advent of the new board, Welker became Asheville’s public-art administrator, and the Urban Trail was pulled from the Public Works Department and reassigned to Parks and Recreation.

The change made sense, says Parks and Recreation Department Director Irby Brinson. “It fit into [our] department more than any other. We are stewards of [Asheville’s] public places,” he avowed. Many of those places, argues Brinson, could be enhanced by the addition of art. The newly renovated Municipal Building, for example (which houses the city’s Fire and Police departments), is a likely site, and so are the many gateways into Asheville — such as Patton Avenue as it crests the hill, presenting an initial vista of the city, he suggested.

Public art “is not just a downtown thing. [It’s] a communitywide thing,” continued Myers, pointing out the board’s broader mission for art in the city — and its relationship to a statewide program that former Rep. Marie Coulton pushed for in the late 1980s: Artworks for State Buildings.

Coulton, who received special recognition at the May 25 meeting, said she got the idea for the project while attending a national conference of state legislators in Seattle some years back. “The public art there blew me away, and I said to myself, ‘We’re going to have something like that in North Carolina.'” In 1989, the North Carolina General Assembly set aside a small percentage of building-construction budgets for artwork. (With her typical forthright style, she added that some folks with “Jesse Helms mentality” repealed the program in the mid-’90s.)

At the local level, we find Asheville City Council setting aside 1 percent of its capital-projects budget for public art, Welker noted later. That commitment dovetails with the sunset of the Urban Trail project, which is set to have its final piece in place by the end of next year, she explained: While the trail is set in downtown Asheville, future projects advocated by the Public Art Board will likely reach into all corners of the city. To get things going, City Council has set aside seed money — about $50,000 per year — and the board will seek matching grants and donations.

The board’s goal is to raise three times the city’s contribution, said Myers. “The [success of] the Urban Trail leads us to believe that’s possible,” she observed.

Notwithstanding the Urban Trail’s success, however, can the Public Art board avoid the kind of controversy that has surrounded “Passage” (which was funded through a federal arts program), or the the Pack Place sign (funded by a Janirve Foundation grant last year)?

The most recent public-art squabble erupted in nearby Waynesville, where some folks have questioned the artistic value of a large metal sculpture titled “The Cow Catcher.”

“We’ve got to go see that,” Myers commented to Welker during the organizational meeting, before remarking, “The works [we approve] can foster controversy [or] heal wounds … and present opportunities for exchange, for dialogue. … I’m not sure that means that none of [the art approved by the board is] going to be controversial.”

Both Myers and Welker spoke about an inherently challenging function of some art: “pushing the edge,” and making us question and think. But both women also stressed the need for public involvement in the process. To this end, board members have set up citizens’ committees for drafting a master plan, considering special projects, and addressing stewardship needs. These committees (and board meetings) remain open to anyone interested in public art.

“Our goal is to create an action plan that can [draw] everyone on board,” promises Myers, reflecting on the bigger picture of art in our lives: “What are the core values of the community, and how are they connected to creativity? That’s the bottom line.”

Well, one of them, anyway. But Welker also stresses art’s ability to draw visitors and help drive the local economy. “What happens every time [the city] hosts a gallery walk? Every restaurant downtown is packed,” she remarked, adding that Asheville has been cited in national magazines as an art destination.

And while we’re at it, why not inject a bit of artistic flair into local infrastructure? This suggestion came from Myers, who concluded with yet another question to ponder: “Can the [new I-26] bridge over the French Broad River be designed as a work of art? Let’s find out.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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