Update: upon my return home from the tire store, I realized that I lost a check. Said check had been inadvertently discarded and was found in the garbage in, amongst other things, a few dozen shucked oyster shells. I bullshit you not.
I was all set to write about US-27 and the remarkable occurrences we’ve seen over the week. I’m still in the process of digesting what has happened and trying to figure out what it really means (I think I have a pretty good idea, but time will tell). I will write about that soon, but in the meantime, I’ll share a bit of my weekend.
I was asked to participate in a Sunday morning panel for the Mid-south Sculpture Alliance. Yes, my thoughts exactly, things must be pretty spare in the sculpture world if they’re asking me to be on a panel. But seriously, it was a very good session. The session was called Contemporary Focus: Creating the Future. My fellow panelists were two architects: Tom Bartoo (a local), and a young man from Baltimore whose name escapes me (nice guy, full beard). We were asked, in essence, to weigh in on with our thoughts on the future of public art and its role in city building.
I am a fervent believer in design. I think that everything we build, especially as it relates to the public realm, should not only serve a purpose, but do so in a way that contributes to the visual quality of place. For instance, when I was at the design studio, a great deal of time and effort was spent designing things such as pedestrian lighting and water towers. The raison d’être of infrastructure elements is to “do something”, in those cases providing illumination and storing water. If these elements are designed well, they accomplish their primary mission in a way that also contributes to the visual quality of their environment. We took the concept a step further to create elements that not only served their purpose and looked good, but did so in a way that was unique to Chattanooga. Sure, it might be simpler to buy these things off the rack like every other city does, but the marginal cost of design and fractional increase in price were more than offset by the quality of the final product. This is a good thing, and a concept that the city embraced for some time. Designing infrastructure in a way that is visually pleasing and that reinforces our uniqueness is great- but it is not art, it is good design.
Art is another concept altogether. By incorporating public art into our city, and incorporating it into our infrastructure projects we are making a statement about what we as a community value. The point that I argued during the panel discussion was that art need not have to “do something” to have value. In fact, in its truest sense, art needs no justification at all to exist. The only justification has to come from the community. At one point, the city agreed to put 1% of the cost of their projects into connected public art projects (I don’t know if this is still the case or not). I think that’s a good step toward the creation of a public realm that expresses the value of the community and is something that creates a benefit for all citizens. Art for its own sake is the hallmark of communities that embrace quality of life as a valid public enterprise. These are the communities that will win the competition for the creative class, tourism, and outside investment.
Of course, there is a vocal segment of the population that detests any public expenditure on