By Jeff Keeling
It’s been a long time coming, but public art has arrived in Johnson City, and by June 1 15 sculptures will populate downtown and the corridor between downtown and East Tennessee State University.
Last week, the city sited “Diversion,” a large sculpture by Brevard, N.C. artist Kyle Lusk. It was a moment Public Art Committee member and ETSU art professor Catherine Murray had anticipated for several years. Nearly five years ago, Murray said, City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola and then-City Commissioner Marcy Walker “approached me with this idea of sculpture,” Murray says. “At that time it wasn’t just the corridor, it was everywhere in the city.”
In 2010, the Public Art Committee formed, and spent several years refining its mission, goals and approach. Murray says members studied public art guidelines from across the country. Members discussed, debated, learned and compromised, she says.
“That’s been really good, because each of us represents a different constituency in the community. I think the result is going to be much stronger. All of us had to give things up, but all of us were included in the decision making.”
Contingent on funding, sculptures generally will be swapped out annually. They’ll grace sites around downtown and along West State of Franklin Road going toward the university. Many will be available for purchase, and the committee can recommend purchase by the city for inclusion in Johnson City’s permanent collection.
Steve Bickley, a sculptor who taught at Virginia Tech for 34 years, served as the guest curator for this year’s exhibition. The vetting process for this first display, Murray says, produced the kind of variety and accessibility that is one of the committee’s core objectives.
“Everything from very abstract to representational,” Murray says. “There is some very whimsical and colorful sculpture. I think some of it is going to be thought-provoking, and I guarantee you that not everyone is going to like everything. That wouldn’t be a good show, actually. You want to pique the interest of a lot of different kinds of people.”
The public art program, and other improvements in the downtown area, have drawn the attention and support of investors including Tupelo Honey Cafe, whose Johnson City location is set to open next month in the former CC&O railroad depot. Tupelo Honey has commissioned two permanent sculptures that will soon be placed at the east entrance to Founders Park.
A sculpture walk and gala celebrating the public art, the opening of Founders Park and other downtown redevelopment progress is slated for June 21. Information on the public art program is at johnsoncitytn.org/art.