Looking at Possibilities for a Louisville Public Art Plan

by ekramer on March 3, 2010

This is a story from WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer.

Last month, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson released a plan for public art [pdf] in the city. It came after nearly 17 months of preparation and $50,000 spent for a consultant who worked with the community to develop it. The plan now goes before the Metro Council for approval, so the community is now looking at how it will work and its prospects.

Here, on Bashford Manor Lane in front of sprawling Wal-Mart parking lot, is some existing public art. Among four benches is a relief sculpture by artist Bob Lockhart. It shows three Kentucky Derby winners from the Bashford Manor Farms, which were torn down in the early 1970s. Some people living nearby say they’ve never seen anyone sit there. One is Anthony Johnson.

“I don’t know why these are out here,” Johnson tells me. “I guess if somebody’s walking or whatever they need to stop or something.”

Under the city’s land code, commercial developers with a project exceeding 100,000 square feet must set aside a percentage of their construction budget for public amenities — like benches and sculptures or even fountains and more. This spot is a result of that requirement.

But a new idea concerning that code came up during meetings between city officials, a public art consultant and developers. And the developers are happy with this idea: to have the option to use the money they are required to spend for such amenities and, instead, contribute it to a public art fund.

That agreement signified a potential benefit for developers and became a linchpin in Louisville’s efforts to formulate a public art plan with funding to preserve the city’s existing public art and help create and care for new art.

But the mayor’s office didn’t want to just satisfy developers. Officials also consulted with many other groups. Mary Lou Northern, the mayor’s senior advisor for cultural affairs, oversaw that process.

“There was an educators group. There was a group of historians. There was a group of artists,” she says.

So far, the result is a 70-page plan [pdf], with three pages dedicated to funding. The rest proposes the public and non-profit bodies that would underpin new public art. Metro Government would hire a public art administrator to work with a new commission. And that group would set up an independent non-profit organization to raise funds, commission art, and consider proposals from other -profits, like arts and neighborhood groups.

The proposed policies have elated local artists including Chris Radtke, who is co-chair of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Public Art and worked on the plan. She says it would give artists a new avenue for their creative ideas — and pay them.

“The artists will come up with things you haven’t even thought of in terms of sites,” Radtke says. “And they’ll come up with projects not even on your radar. And so this allows that to happen. Artists from anywhere can look at Louisville, see a site and think of a project that is really out of their own mind, out of their own creative mind.”

And what would be the use of this public art? Reasons include civic pride, tourism and more. Joyce Ogden is an art professor at Spalding University. She’s worked on public art projects at city parks and the county jail.

“I think it helps us look at our history specifically in Louisville and the various communities and neighborhoods that we have here,” Ogden says.

But what about controversy, which sometimes accompanies public art? Barbara Goldstein has worked as the public art director in Seattle and San José and edited Public Art by the Book.

“If the plan reflects Louisville and it’s something that is reflective of the city’s goals, how the city sees itself and how the community sees itself, and if it’s administered by a group of people responsive to what they plan articulates, then there shouldn’t be a whole heck of a lot of controversy,” Goldstein says.

Still, disagreements about public art are inevitable. Even the histories of the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Memorial include controversy. But Ogden sees that as an advantage.

“It really gives us an opportunity to use art to create dialogue and conversation and address issues,” she says.

And by next year, the city’s plans to start conversations on public art with a series of events where artists present their ideas about public art on the Louisville landscape.

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