The politics of art

Western North Carolina has earned wide repute for its diverse and high-caliber arts scene. Whether one looks at venerable institutions like the Penland School of Crafts and the Southern Highland Craft Guild (which stand in the forefront of today’s crafts movement), at cutting-edge galleries and studios that range from the elegance of Blue Spiral to funky digs in the River District, or at individual artists and artisans across the region working in virtually any medium imaginable, when a stranger asks, “Got art?” we can shout the answer: “You bet!”

The Fine Arts League of Asheville graduates students trained to depict the human form in the classic/realist style while, across town, tattoo artists inscribe the human form with roses and dragons and the geometry of crop circles. We’ve got chain-saw sculptors and diamond-cutters, weavers and lithographers, super-realists and fauvists, decoy carvers and marble sculptors, watercolorists and photographers.

Coupled with the region’s stunning landscapes and exceptional architectural legacy, it’s easy to see that the local art scene — both historic and current — has made WNC a destination for both artists and art lovers. We all know to play on our strengths, whether we’re seeking employment, playing tennis or pitching woo. Emphasizing the arts here in WNC is a no-brainer, and the Urban Trail is probably the best-known example of public efforts to link tourism and the arts.

Toward this end, the Asheville City Council established a seven-member Public Art Board in 1999, charged with drawing up and implementing a master plan to guide the city’s acquisition and display of art in the community. In addition, public funds were set aside for bringing this vision to life. In August 2001 (after two years of deliberation), the Asheville City Council approved the Art Board’s master plan, which included clear guidelines for how to proceed in acquiring public art.

The plan reads, in part: “In order to ensure that public artworks reflect the character, aspirations, and attributes of Asheville’s residents, the Public Art Board will seek extensive and various community input. Asheville’s individual residents and/or neighborhood associations, civic leadership, business and corporate community, special interest groups and community leaders will be extremely important in the public art process. By the time a new work is unveiled, Asheville citizens will have seen the initial designs and had an opportunity to talk with and question the artist and the various committees involved.”

The plan goes on to describe various ways in which art works will be acquired: “Artists participating in Asheville’s Public Art Process shall be selected either through an open competition, where they are asked to submit evidence of their past work; a limited competition where a limited number of artists shall be invited by the Public Art Board to submit credentials and or proposals for a specific project; an invitational competition where a very small number of artists are invited to submit credentials and/or proposals for a specific project; direct selection where the Public Art Board may elect to make a direct selection in which they contract a specific artist for a particular project; or a mixed process including any combination of the above approaches.”

Although any art acquisition made by the city is noteworthy, the first purchase under the new program necessarily sets a precedent. And the first acquisition proposed by the Public Art Board — “Conversation Piece #4” by Ida Kohlmeyer, slated for a final vote at City Council’s Aug. 12 meeting — raises serious questions about the board’s adherence to its own master plan.

For most of this community, news stories emanating from Council’s July 15 work session were the first public notice of the intended purchase, suggesting that the board had failed to seek “extensive and various community input.”

And given the master plan’s emphasis on both local feedback and soliciting bids from artists, the decision to look beyond the WNC community to purchase an existing work by a deceased artist seems to contradict the spirit, if not the letter, of the plan.

Given the strength of WNC’s art scene, why isn’t Asheville shopping for art closer to home? Council members Joe Dunn and Carl Mumpower raised this question at City Council’s July 22 formal session.

The Public Art Board has a mandate to solicit public input. When Xpress conducted an informal survey of Asheville artists and gallery owners, well over half of our respondents immediately asked why the city didn’t turn to local artists. And while a tiny minority supported the purchase in principle (because they liked the idea of public art), only one person expressed appreciation for this particular piece.

We must concur with Council member Jim Ellis, who voiced doubts about the degree of community buy-in on this acquisition. Although the Art Board held an April 28 meeting for it reported attendance of “approximately 15 people,” that hardly qualifies as “extensive and various community input.”

Considering the Art Board’s neglect of local artists and failure to solicit local opinion, Xpress votes “no” on this purchase — at least until meaningful public input has been sought. The board also needs to explain its reasons for kicking off this program with a nonlocal acquisition — and artfully skirting the master plan.

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