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An Inventory of Louisville's Art and the Care It Needs

Serious art collectors keep careful lists of their treasures and tend to them using meticulous instructions. In recent decades, cities are starting to do the same through public art plans. Now, Louisville is cataloguing its public art and trying to figure out how to maintain its collection. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

On a triangle of land, where Third Street becomes Southern Parkway, sits a curved limestone bench with a curious history — as Karen Porter discovered earlier this year.

“I did a little research, and this bench is donated to A.D. Ruff — they called him ‘Pap,” says Porter. “And he was a great cycle enthusiast. And when he passed away, he bequeathed some money.”ruff-memorial-fountain-wheelmans-bench3

“They” were the Kentucky Wheelman’s club, and in 1896 they used that money to commission artist Enid Yandell to build a bench and fountain to memorialize “Pap.” Both went up the next year. But over decades, the pieces were neglected and the fountain removed.

Porter says the loss was significant because Yandell was a prominent artist. She studied with Auguste Rodin and created the towering sculpture of Daniel Boone at Cherokee Park.

public-art-inventory-010This story is a lesson in what can happen without a plan for maintaining public art, says Mary Lou Northern, Mayor Jerry Abramson’s special assistant for cultural assets.

Northern is overseeing Metro Government’s efforts to create a public art plan. It will include an inventory of Louisville’s art. So far, Porter has put together a list of about 150 pieces. The city recognized the need for a plan after some art went missing in recent years. Northern says the city found it lacked some basic information about the city’s art.

“We didn’t have the history. We didn’t always know if a piece was on loan. There was no central depository for records,” Northern says. “We didn’t really have any instructions on how to care for pieces, so some pieces just weren’t cared for; some the wrong materials were used to clean them.”

Now, the city is spending $50,000 to create the public art plan it will release this fall. Northern says it will detail the care of the city’s pieces, identify funding prospects for existing and future public art and eventually display the pieces on a Web site.

Glen Wharton is a conservator at the Museum of Modern Art and a researcher at New York University. He says Louisville’s experience sounds familiar.

“Surprisingly,” Wharton says, “a lot of cities and municipalities, even state governments don’t know what they have.”

Wharton’s worked with city and state governments on public art projects, which are often seen as channels for tourism dollars. He says getting funding for art conservation is often more difficult than getting money to pay for new art, which has more appeal to donors who want recognition.

Because of this, he says cities need to make some special efforts.

“I really believe in engaging the public,” he says, “because if you don’t have public support, it’s not going to happen.

That advice resonates with Adam Burckle. He owns the Adams Matthews Cheesecake Company and the Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen stores.

louisville-clock1Since 2004, he and other volunteers have worked on one of the city’s art pieces — the Louisville Clock.

It was made by artist Barney Bright and set up downtown in 1976. Then sculpted characters raced around a track at noon everyday. But it was plagued by mechanical problems, leading the city to dismantle it in the 1980s.

Given how the city handled the clock, Burckle’s not convinced it knows how to care for art.

“When they owned it they treated it like a piece of trash,” Burckle says. “Now that I’ve got it and it’s under my control, I’ve treated it with the respect that it so deserves.”

The work, which is almost complete, has cost more than $200,000 raised through donations. Now, Burckle is working with city to decide where the clock’s downtown home will be this fall. As for the public art plan, he has his own reservations.

“I hope that people get involved more than the government does,” he says, “because if the people get involved I know it’s going to stick and take hold because they’ll have ownership in it. If it’s just another government thing, people are going to sit back and say, ‘Oh, that’s the government’s job. Let them do that.”

The city’s Mary Lou Northern says she and a consultant are working with some people in the community to create a plan that will be able to incorporate public involvement.

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Local Garden Sprouts Sculpture by Local Artists

Animating gardens with sculpture is an ancient art that was practiced by the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. Today, modern public gardens are increasingly incorporating contemporary art into vistas. The latest is Yew Dell Gardens, just east of Louisville. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer went to the gardens to see why.

Among clusters of ferns and hostas under the shade of a pine tree at Yew Dell Gardens, Louisville artist Bryan yew-dell-sculpture-show-0511Holden has just installed a towering sculpture. It’s made of steel and blue glass, and it surprises Karla Drover, Yew Dell’s assistant director.

“Where in your wildest imagination did you come up with this idea?” Drover asks Holden.
“Well, my current series of work is titled ‘Connecting Lives,'” Holden explains. “And it all started with…”

In Holden’s piece, a glass hand reaches up from the soil toward a gleaming silver hand hanging from an elevated pod. It’s just one of 60 pieces in Yew Dell’s “Sculpture in the Dell” that opens this weekend. The staff started this annual exhibit last year with outdoor sculpture by regional artists. Sculptures are now spread throughout the 33 acres here.

The idea for such a show actually came from regional sculptor Don Lawler. Drover says its success proved such an event was inevitable for this four-year old organization.

“Art in a garden — it was just a marriage just waiting to happen,” Drover says. “It’s the type of thing that gives yew-dell-sculpture-show-057you something else to admire and enjoy. And people make create some pretty incredible things.”

Paul Cappillo is Yew Dell’s executive director. He says this year’s exhibit is bigger.

“There are 60 pieces that range all the way from little portable, something you can just pick up and just move around, to seven or nine thousand-pound chunks of limestone that require a crane,” Cappillo says.

Mounting an exhibit of this scale has taught Cappillo and Drover how to place a wide variety of outdoor sculpture and that many sculptors in the region want more venues to show and sell their work, especially large pieces that are costly to transport to far-away venues. The first show expanded Yew Dell’s audience to art aficionados and turned garden enthusiasts onto art. It also attracted about 4,000 people, double the visitors from the same months during the previous year. And more than 15 sculptures were sold from the exhibit.

Those results don’t surprise Jep Bright.

“I’ve always said that sculpture is hugely popular, but only if you can get a lot of people to see it,” Bright says.

Bright is the son of one of Louisville’s most notable sculptors, Barney Bright. He died in 1997, but his work is front of the Mazzoli Federal Building in downtown Louisville and the Floyd County Public Library in Indiana. Bright also fostered other sculptors including Ed Hamilton, who made the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Jep Bright runs the Bright Foundry in Louisville’s Butchertown. For this year’s exhibit, the Bright family decided to create four pieces from molds their father made.

Locally large sculptures, especially those by Bright, have been popular for years. But only recently has the use of contemporary sculpture at botanical gardens become more widespread. Glen Harper, the editor of Sculpture magazine, says pairing contemporary art and gardens really took off after a 2001 installation by glass artist Dale Chihuly at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory.

“It’s the first one that caught my attention and a lot of other people’s attention,” Harper says. “And they had a lot of success with it as a marriage of two different kinds of experiences for the visitor.”

Chihuly’s work went on to show in gardens nationwide.

In Kentucky, Karla Drover says Yew Dell has considered building the exhibit by inviting one nationally known artist, but she doesn’t want to stray too far afield.

“I think staying local is kind of what Yew Dell is all about,” Drover says. “We grow plants that thrive locally and we want to support the local economy and I think this is where we are going to stay for a bit.”


“Sculpture in the Dell” at Yew Dell  Gardens: A sampling of some of the 60 works showing in Yew Dell Gardens’ 2009 exibit with comments by Yew Dell Gardens assistant director, Karla Drover.

Birth of a Bright Sculpture: Brad White, a sculptor who works at the Bright Foundry, explains how he and other staff smelt metal and pour it into a mold by the late sculptor Barney Bright. White along with Jep Bright (Barney’s son) and others are making a piece entitled “Gaea,” the name for the primal Greek godess of the Earth.