Art Outside

Art Outside

This newspaper has long viewed so many of Nashville’s problems as being inextricably tied to its miserably built environment. Sacked by urban renewal in the 1950s, and razed by developers ever since, Nashville is lacking in so many of the things that apply to successful urban organisms. Our neighborhoods have virtually no sidewalks. We view retail and residential as anathema to one another. We have never met a new road we didn’t like. And those who have directed our city planning policy have, for the most part, not had all their paddles in the water.

Part of establishing a strong downtown—which is where you really have to start if you want to build a strong city—involves making it a place where people want to go. Mayor Richard Fulton placed much attention on revitalizing Second Avenue, building Riverfront Park as a destination, and constructing the downtown convention center for conventioneers. Mayor Phil Bredesen orchestrated large capital projects—an arena, a football stadium, and a glorious library. Mayor Bill Purcell, meanwhile, is asking Metro Council to do something no less important, but on a much smaller scale. He is asking that the city create a dedicated source of funding for public art.

Public art does many things. Most obviously, it lends the city an air of dignity, makes the city look better, and tells its residents and visitors that it takes itself seriously. But public art inevitably results in something of much more tangible benefit. It creates the sort of sitting places, eating places, and places of rest and relaxation that lend great cities a sense of ease, livability, and graciousness. If you have ever taken a lunch break next to a sculpture by Henry Moore in a little pocket park in a city somewhere, you suddenly know why cities are great places in which to live. The same goes if you have ever seen a Claes Oldenberg sculpture in a city plaza, or marveled at an outdoor Richard Serra metal construction, or, for that matter, ever walked down any street in Rome. Simply put, public art makes downtowns places you want to be.

Nashville has virtually no public art. Aside from one or two of its high rises, our skyline is architecturally undistinguished as well. Compared to many cities, our downtown lacks the sort of tiny alcoves where you can sneak away, undisturbed, as the machines of the city grind on all about you. It is often in these places, and not in the big stadia and arenas, that downtowns acquire their flavor and personality. And it is these places that public art can help create.

Mayor Purcell is asking Metro Council to approve what is called a ”Percent for Public Art“ ordinance. It would set aside 1 percent of any general obligation bonds used to fund the construction of new public buildings. That 1 percent would then fund the public art projects. In terms of oversight, the ordinance would make the Metro Arts Commission responsible for setting guidelines for the art projects.

According to the mayor’s office, Seattle became the first city in the country to adopt such an ordinance in the 1970s. Since then, dozens of others have also implemented similar measures. Nashville should follow the lead of other cities and adopt this ordinance. It will be a better place for it.


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