Arts and Humanities
4:34 pm
Mon September 10, 2012

Symposium to Explore Louisville's Public Art

The Commission on Public Art will host “The Power of Public Space,” a two-day event bringing together citizens and experts from national art institutions with leaders from the University of Louisville and the Speed Art Museum to lead discussions on public art history, collections and conservation in Louisville. 

The events are free and open to the public. The symposium is co-sponsored by the Speed Art Museum and International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art – North America (INCCA-NA).

A multi-disciplinary panel of experts will discuss the identity and character of Louisville’s public art collection Friday evening at Metro Hall. The event begins at 5 p.m.

Art professors Mary Carothers and Jongwoo Jeremy Kim, and Kim Spence, the Speed’s curator of collection research and special projects, will speak. The panel will be moderated by Suzanne Weaver, Speed Museum curator of modern and contemporary art. They will be joined by Mindy Taylor Ross, a fine art consultant who curates and manages public art for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an eight-mile urban pedestrian and cycle path that connects five downtown cultural districts. 

“Public spaces need to function in a lot of ways, and art and design and good planning need to be part of everyone’s everyday experience, regardless of your social economic status," says Ross. "Everyone needs to have access to beauty, nature and transportation every day."

Ross says an emphasis on public art and design was a commitment made early on by the developers of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, and she sees similar opportunities for integrating a strong sense of aesthetics in Louisville’s developing public spaces like the Louisville Loop, the 100-mile trail system that will encircle the city, linking the park system with neighborhoods and cultural attractions.

“You’re thinking about access, you’re thinking about health and wellness, you’re thinking about sustainability, and you’re thinking about the fact that these things should be built with aesthetics in mind,” says Ross.

She also says it’s important for arts leaders to remind the public why aesthetics are as vital to a community’s wellbeing as purely functional infrastructure—that it costs as much to maintain an ugly public space as one built with a sense of art and design.  

“Cutting the arts is a drop in the bucket of most city budgets. It’s not in the long run going to save a city money. As a matter of fact it may cost a city money, because you start to not be able to attract talent,” says Ross. “You can’t attract huge Fortune 500 companies and things like this to a city that doesn’t have a robust cultural scene.”

Ross favors a holistic approach from the beginning of a project for successfully integrating beauty and function in public spaces.

“Whether that’s through public amenities people are going to want, whether it’s benches and restrooms and things that are more functional, where you can engage architects and site designers and artists, or whether it’s strict old school public art, thinking about installation, sculpture, mural, things that might be the more traditional definition of public art,” says Ross.  

That fusion of art and functional design is easier now, Ross says, because of the fluid boundaries between disciplines.

“There are a lot of architects who are now practicing artists, there are a lot of card-carrying artists doing industrial design and architecture. A lot of disciplines move back and forth now between these categories,” says Ross.  

Saturday’s workshop on “The Importance of the Artist’s Voice” will discuss one pioneer of that movement. The focus of the discussion will be American artist Tony Smith, whose large steel sculpture “Gracehoper,” part of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts collection, sits on Waterfront Park’s overlook.

Joan Pachner, an art historian and Tony Smith scholar, says “Gracehoper” is one of Smith’s master works. Smith began his career as an architect, and Pachner says his work represents a breakthrough in the modern connection between functional and nonfunctional structures.

“He showed how you could take these architectural elements and enlarge them to a huge scale, and have them nonfunctional and metaphoric,” said Pachner. “He showed a whole new path to making sculpture.”

Pachner says the Gracehoper’s eccentric form makes the two-story steel sculpture look like a lumbering alien—part insect, part monster. The design was inspired by coal and grain containers as well as the grasshopper, and takes its name from a passage in James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.”

“He always made these kinds of wild and unexpected imaginative leaps from abstract forms he created to objects in the world, or to something he read or knew about,” says Pachner.

At times, Smith’s abstract approach has made his sculptures harder for the public to embrace than more traditional forms, but the size and accessibility of a piece like "Gracehoper" make it ideal for exploring Smith’s vision.

“If you stand in a Tony Smith, if you walk around a piece, you immediately can grasp how important his understanding of scale is, and look at how things move in space toward you and away from you, and how you interact with the piece and how the piece grasps the space around it,” says Pachner.

Conservation will be part of the conversation, but it hasn’t always been a big concern for large-scale steel sculptures like “Gracehoper.”

“People had thought steel was going to be a very enduring material. But in fact it has serious problems when it’s by the water,” says Pachner. “There are so many possibilities, you can't even imagine. It’s important to resolve these, and somebody has to pay for it, pay for taking care of the work, or it will rust and fall apart.”

Pachner will be joined in the discussion by Speed outgoing director Charles Venable, Kentucky Center president Stephen Klein, Waterfront Development Corporation special projects director Marlene Grissom, Indianapolis Museum of Art conservator Richard McCoy and Metropolitan Museum conservator Kendra Roth. The workshop will be moderated by Jay Krueger, senior conservator of modern paintings at the National Gallery of Art.  The event will begin at 9:30 a.m. in the Speed Art Museum auditorium.