Jeffersonville will soon remove a public art piece inspired by one of Aesop’s fables.
The city installed the sculpture by Nashville artist Brian Somerville at the intersection of Seventh and Springs streets in the downtown NoCo Arts and Cultural District in August 2019.
But an agreement between Jeffersonville, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Environmental Protection Agency over a sewage issue that has plagued the city for more than a decade means the artwork has to go.
The utility project is an effort to prevent sewage overflows from running into the Ohio River. The construction plan calls for a new sewage line that would run through the arts district, “straight in the middle of Brian’s sculpture,” public arts administrator Emily Dippie told Jeffersonville’s Public Art Commission during its regularly scheduled meeting Monday.
Dippie, who stepped into the role recently, said she spoke with the artist, who felt it would be “unsafe to reinstall it in a different place in Jeffersonville.”
The work is sprayed concrete over a metal framework, and it would crack and become unstable once removed.
“The best idea would be to destroy it,” Dippie said. “He’s not comfortable with the idea of it being repurposed or upcycled. It’s just such a violation of what he was thinking for the sculpture, and I want to be respectful to him in that.”
It had been slated for demolition this week, but Dippie expects “nasty weather” to delay the de-installation.
During the public art commission meeting, city engineer Andy Crouch said, “There’s been a discussion of this pipe for 10-plus years,” but at the time of the sculpture’s installation, they did not think it would be an issue.
Concerned whether this could happen to other artwork, commission member Susan Harrison asked if there was a way they could have prevented this outcome.
“We just put this in, and now it’s coming out,” Harrison said. “It’s very sad and just… moving forward, is there anything that we need to be more mindful of in the future?”
In response, Crouch said, “This one just caught me, honestly, by surprise.”
“And you ask, ‘Could it happen again?’ I would love to say, ‘No, this will never happen again,’” Crouch continued. “I don’t know that I can.”
When it became clear the sculpture would need to be removed, Dippie searched for city guidelines on how to proceed. Unable to find any such policy, she ended up drafting one.
The new policy, which the commission approved unanimously Monday night, specifies what it means for the city to decommission a piece of public art, as well as why and how the city would dispose of a work. It also says the city will acquire public art with the general understanding that pieces are to be permanent additions to the city’s collection. However, “this policy recognizes that over time there may be reasons to deaccession, decommission or dispose of public artworks,” the draft said.
“It does help people understand if something does have to go away and why it went away, and that we followed a procedure that was fair,” Dippie said.
The policy further stipulates that the artist must be contacted as part of the process and given the opportunity to speak on its behalf.
In this case, artist Brian Somerville requested the city document the destruction of the sculpture, according to Dippie.
He created the sculpture, a nod to Aesop’s “The Lion and the Four Oxen,” during an artist residency. It was part of a weeks-long series of workshops and community engagement.
“The fable goes that there’s four oxen, and this lion wants to eat them,” Somerville said at the unveiling in 2019, according to the News and Tribune. “It’s really a lesson in sticking together and how everybody is stronger as a team than we are individually.”
Despite the sculpture’s pending removal, NoCo Arts Center artist and commission member Sarah Young said during Monday’s meeting that the memories from those workshops remain intact: “All of us who remember that feeling… that’s not going to go away.”
The sculpture cost more than $20,000 and was paid for through a city fund, Dippie said, and grants from the likes of the Indiana Arts Commission and National Endowment for the Arts supported related programming.