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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Arts All Around: Bristol's Art in Public Places, Year Two

First Virginia public art conference held in Charlottesville

By Barbara-lyn Morris | August 01, 2007

As of the first day of August, downtown Bristol is the place to be to see new pieces of public art that will be on display for a year. In this column last month, I paid tribute to the work of the volunteer members of the Art in Public Places (AiPP) Committee (, functioning under the umbrella of Arts Alliance Mountain Empire, who have worked countless hours to bring this project to fruition for the second time. I also made reference to this project having the potential to put our region on an emerging art map of similar communities already well along in the development of public art projects.

I feel especially confident in making the emerging-art-status statement after attending, with AiPP Committee chairwoman Candice Snodgrass, the first Virginia public art conference held in Charlottesville in April. Sponsored in part by the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the conference included two keynote speakers: Jack Mackie, a public artist and public art consultant from Seattle — arguably the country's premiere public art community of any size — and Liesel Fenner, the manager of Public Art Network (PAN) a project of Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. From these national presenters, we received a broad overview for defining public art.

In the broad spectrum of what constitutes public art, there are two main categories of art in the contemporary public realm: one, art that is financially underwritten by public dollars as a result of an ordinance requiring some percent (usually just one percent) mandated to be set aside for art in public construction projects. Some communities require an amount per head be set aside to support public art projects. For example, Kent, Wash. requires $2 per person. Some governing entities simply make a grant to support a project. Bristol's neighboring Kingsport, Tenn. has just initiated its first public arts exhibit with a combination of private and public funds. Across the country, according to figures compiled in 2003, about 80 percent of more than 350 public arts programs have some form of public funding.

The other approach, as identified by PAN, accounts for the other 20 percent, funded primarily by private funds and, therefore, directed by private donors. Such is the case in Bristol, Tenn./Va. Likewise, Charlottesville's "ArtInPlace" program has a privately funded base operating through a non-profit corporation. Established in 2001, the Charlottesville program has grown considerably, going beyond main street installations to locations "in areas of high vehicular traffic." For the 2006-2007 budget, the City of Charlottesville made a grant of $15,000 to the program. However, the greater contribution the city council made was to address the goal of having permanent art in Charlottesville.

After several years of enjoying one-year displays of up to 10 installations, citizens encouraged the City of Charlottesville to purchase works that "stood the test of public reaction." To date, the city has purchased six contemporary sculptures for permanent display. The city administration works directly with the artist in negotiating the purchase of pieces.

Currently in Charlottesville, there are 10 new works in place. One work fascinated passersby as it was being constructed on site. "Wooden Whale's Tail," pictured here, by Tom Givens emerged over several months on the 250 By-Pass at Meadowcreek Heights.

Elizabeth Breeden, president of ArtInPlace, and others at the April conference were amazed at the progress made in Bristol in just two years. Breeden was one of several local leaders from around the Commonwealth who spoke at the conference. "Putting work created by artists for places accessible to and used by the public is a challenging endeavor but worth the hard journey," she said.

A recurring theme at the conference was the challenge of pleasing the entire community. When everyone and anyone is a critic, the undertaking can be controversial. Nevertheless, the public is the beneficiary, especially when there is civil civic dialogue. Certainly, that has been the case in Bristol.

Public art can serve to encourage exploration of space and place. Certainly, that was the case last spring when middle school students walked with professors to explore the five installations on Main Street Bristol and one in the Bristol Tennessee Courthouse. Expansion of such public art field trips by students is a goal of Bristol's Art in Public Places.

Securing public funding via percent set-asides and line items in budgets is also a worthy goal, as is establishing additional permanent sculptures in our area. In the meanwhile, AiPP has taken a second giant step on behalf of the citizens of and visitors to a place called Bristol.

Now is the time to visit the new works in Bristol, stroll along State Street and Piedmont Avenue, shop and stop for a bite to eat. Remember what you see may not at first satisfy your curiosity or meet your expectation of art; however, consider the possibility that your sensibilities may be well fed upon reflection. Some of the best-known public artworks were initially the most negatively criticized and, over time, have become public favorites.

Two examples from Instant Art History: From Cave Art to Pop Art by Walter Robinson (1995) illustrate the difference time and reflection can make. Alexander Calder's giant red mobile in Grand Rapids, Mich. was once called "an eyesore" by Gerald Ford but is now a beloved city emblem. Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in our nation's capital was strongly opposed when it was installed in the early 1980s. "Now it stands as one of the most moving memorials ever made." (Page 229)

For the next conference on public art, I propose AiPP as a case study in visioning and risk-taking, garnering public support and public candor, and building community spirit through art. Kudos to AAME and AiPP!

Arts Alliance announces 2007 selections for Art in Public Places.
View the sculptures and read the artists' statements.
Meet the curator Whitney Vaughn Garland.

"Bad Case of Mondays" by Rob Tarbell is one of six pieces of public art to be purchased by the city of Charlottesville, Va.

The on-site construction of "Wooden Whale's Tail" on the 250 By-Pass in Charlottesville drew great interest for several weeks.