Nashville’s got some rich folks running around, but when someone forks out $2 million to build a public sculpture and fountain out of the goodness of their heart, heads still turn.
The question everyone wants answered is: Who gave the gift? Five days before he was scheduled to leave office, former Mayor Phil Bredesen announced an anonymous donor had given the city $2 million to build a sculpture, called “Spirit of Music,” at a traffic circle at the entrance to Music Row. To be designed by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire, the bronze and stone sculpture, complete with shooting jets of water, will pay homage to country, jazz, gospel, and classical music. When the work of art was announced, Bredesen expressed hope that it will help make sense of the confused mish-mash where Music Row intersects Division and Demonbreun streets.
When Nashvillians learned of the gift, few were wasting time coming up with suspects. Most immediately latched onto Bredesen and his wife Andrea Conte.
“They had talked about making a gift to the city,” said one government source close to the former first couple.
Of course, Bredesen and his wife are clearly capable of cutting a check of that magnitude. Adding to the argument that they made the gift is that it came only days before Bredesen left office. The announcement was, as he described it, his “last act as mayor.” The artistically inclined mayor, who has been known to pick up a paintbrush himself, also told the Scene in an exit interview that he regretted not having done more to promote public art in the city.
But Bredesen denies making the donation up and down. “I am not the donor. Andrea is not the donor. We have nothing to do with the donor.” After some additional small talk, the former mayor, who is dabbling in some business interests, said he had to go “clean out his sock drawer,” and hung up.
According to Bredesen press secretary Mark Drury, the gift hinged on hiring Alan LeQuire, who is best known for his sculpture of Athena at the Parthenon, for the job. The gift had also been in the works for a while, at least two years.
LeQuire, who is a man of few words, added to that reputation when he spoke to the Scene. “I can’t help you with that,” he said. “I’m sworn to secrecy.” Other potential givers floating across the rumor circuit include Reba McEntire and Narvel Blackstock, who are to own the Ritz-Carlton Hotel being built near the traffic circle. Jenny Bohler, spokeswoman for the couple’s Starstruck Entertainment, said such a gift would be news to her. “I don’t know anything about that,” she said.
Some are elated that at last the city will have a major piece of public art. But others are taking shots at the way the public was not involved in the decision. The site, after all, will stand in the middle of a public right-of-way and will be developed with some public funds.
As far back as October of 1996, Bredesen asked the Metro Nashville Arts Commission (MNAC) to make a series of recommendations about four potential public art projects for Nashville, including one for a Music Row “icon.” The MNAC report established three overarching imperatives for Nashville’s public art: that it be “of the highest quality possible,” that it be “properly maintained over time,” and that “local artists must be part of the process from the beginning.” The commission specifically recommended that the Music Row project be “advertised regionally or nationally,” and that “up to five finalists” be paid an honorarium to develop a specific artwork design for the site.
Of course, virtually none of those recommendations was followed. One MNAC member, who asked not to be identified, expressed concern. “I’m disappointed that the process which was solicited by Mayor Bredesen was circumvented by Mayor Bredesen. But there’s no use crying over spilled milk. We’ll fix it the next time.”
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