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.”
“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.
This 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.
Since 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.