Asheville City Council

One critic called it a sex toy. A fan termed it “sophisticated.” But sculptor Ida Kohlmeyer titled her work “Conversation Piece #4C.” And while Kohlmeyer’s art may be abstract, her choice of name for this piece has proven prescient — suddenly, it seems, all of Asheville is talkin’ art.

At the center of the storm is the city’s tentative plan to purchase Kohlmeyer’s work for public display. The issue dominated the Asheville City Council’s July 22 formal meeting, with representatives of the city’s Public Art Board trying to secure Council’s approval to buy the sculpture. Art Board chair Dr. Barbara Cary explained that while the sculpture carries a $55,000 price tag, the city would foot only part of the bill (as stipulated by the board’s charter). The late artist’s namesake foundation, noted Cary, has contributed one-third of the funds toward the purchase. The Art Board has already raised an additional $18,000 from private donors, and the city’s share (roughly $18,000) would come from funds already appropriated for public art.

Cary, however, prefaced her comments about funding with a brief reminder of the Art Board’s mission, noting that Council had charged the group with “making recommendations … for the acquisition of high-quality art works that reflect Asheville’s unique heritage; that will be visible and accessible to as many residents and visitors as possible; and that will promote Asheville as an art-destination city.” The Kohlmeyer piece, chosen after a lengthy search, is an “artwork that any art-savvy city would be proud to own,” she declared.

But Council members had a few savvy questions for Cary. Both Holly Jones and Jim Ellis inquired about the brightly colored sculpture’s vulnerability to the wear and tear that necessarily accompany outdoor display — with Ellis going so far as to ask what would happen if a vandal took a hammer to the piece. Cary responded that the sculpture’s quarter-inch-thick aluminum skin would make it “easy to maintain,” explaining that you could wax it periodically like a car, so graffiti could be removed. As for the hammer-wielding vandals, Cary assured Ellis that dents could be hammered out, and other repairs made, the way you would with “your Plymouth.”

During the public hearing, Buncombe County resident Walter Plaue chastised Council for even considering spending money on art at a time when the city was reducing its funding to some “charitable organizations,” calling the entire proposal “fiscal irresponsibility.” He went on to characterize the sculpture as being of “questionable value” and warned that buying it would “bring scorn to the city.”

A bit later, Chad Nesbitt took the microphone and, with a devilish grin, told how he’d recently seen an object similar to the sculpture on a cable-TV show called Real Sex. “Before the city starts buying sex toys,” said Nesbitt, it should consider giving the money to the local motion-picture industry, which has a better chance of producing jobs.

After the public had sounded off, Council members weighed in with their opinions. Mayor Charles Worley started things off by reading a statement prepared by absent Council member Joe Dunn. Although he was out of town — and thus unable to vote — Dunn nonetheless wanted his opinion on the matter read into the public record. “Art is very subjective and brings out emotions,” his letter noted. “And it is not my place to judge art.” But Dunn went on to say that he didn’t support the proposal because of the city’s budget woes — noting, in particular, that he couldn’t approve funding for art at a time when Helpmate (a local nonprofit that assists victims of domestic violence) was having its city funding cut.

Despite his promise not to judge art, however, Dunn did, asserting that “this piece of art does not reflect the region’s culture.” He ended by suggesting that the Public Art Board should have considered a local artist “so that the money could be kept here” — and not go to New Orleans (where the late artist made her home).

Council member Carl Mumpower prefaced his remarks by noting how difficult he’d found it to make a decision on Kohlmeyer’s piece. But Council, said Mumpower, “is asked to vote for a reason.” That reason, he explained, is to ensure that Council would be a “good steward of the public’s money.” Mumpower also worried about how the abstract piece would be received by the community, noting, “Art can stimulate, but it can also alienate. I’m concerned that we might be alienating people unnecessarily.” And he, too, suggested that the city “has a large pool of local artists … who I’d like to see us spend our money on.”

Holly Jones, however, wholeheartedly supported buying the sculpture, maintaining that “a lot of people want to see it here.” She also noted that the sculpture would be the city’s first piece of public art done by a woman — a prospect Jones described as “exciting.” (In fact, there are several Urban Trail installations done by women artists.)

Jim Ellis, meanwhile, praised both the sculpture’s appearance and its impact on the community — even before its arrival here. “I haven’t been to a store where people aren’t talking about it. We thank you for raising awareness,” he told Cary. But Ellis added that because of the controversy surrounding the abstract sculpture, he couldn’t support its approval until the Public Art Board has shown “due diligence” in securing what Ellis called “community buy-in.”

And as members of the public anxiously counted noses in an attempt to predict the outcome of the vote, Mayor Worley came out swinging in support of the sculpture. Worley started off by noting how “this isn’t about liking or disliking the piece — no matter what piece is selected, some people are going to like it and some won’t.” He also took on those who criticized the funding of art during tough economic times by pointing out that the funds “were set aside years ago,” adding that “we tend to look at these things in isolation and forget how they relate to the goals of the city.”

Waxing philosophical, Worley spoke of Asheville’s unique “sense of place” and the way art contributes to it. He reminded his audience that Asheville’s status as an arts destination helps recruit not only tourists but also companies seeking to relocate. “This is not just about the acquisition of art; it is an investment in our future,” he declared.

Council member Brian Peterson quickly followed Worley’s remarks with a motion to approve the sculpture’s purchase. The motion passed on a 4-2 vote, with Mumpower and Ellis in the minority. Where the sculpture will be placed in the city has yet to be decided.

The clock is ticking

The upcoming Aug. 12 formal meeting of the Asheville City Council is shaping up to be a humdinger. With an agenda chock full of controversial issues, the City Council might have to take a dinner and a breakfast break during this marathon legislative session. On the menu is a hodgepodge of beefy items, including:

• A public hearing on the potential sale of public property (in the vicinity of Pack Square) to the Grove Park Inn as the site for a high-rise building.

• A public hearing to consider an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance allowing more flexible application of development standards in residential zoning districts. The amendment could make it easier to build multifamily residences — a major factor in increasing the city’s supply of affordable housing.

• A public hearing to consider revising the city’s minimum housing code — another affordable-housing issue.

• A final vote on the decision to approve the purchase of an Ida Kohlmeyer sculpture for display as public art.

Be there or be silent.

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