After a two-year delay due to COVID-19, a sculpture commissioned for Cradle of Country Music Park is approaching its debut.
The long-delayed installation of a custom-designed abstract sculpture at downtown’s Cradle of Country Music Park should begin soon and be completed by the end of the year.
The final cost of the sculpture and park landscaping project is expected to be close to $1.15 million.
The individual sections of the piece, called Pier 865, are being fabricated at sculptor Marc Fornes’ THEVERYMANY studio in Brooklyn, and designs for the plinth that will support the pavilion-like piece and the park’s landscaping have been finalized. The sculpture will be assembled on site once the plinth is in place.
David Brace, the city’s chief operating officer, and Arts & Culture Alliance Executive Director Liza Zenni said in a recent interview that the project promises to energize the corner of South Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive.
“Vibrant cities have great spaces,” Brace said. “Market Square is a great example of that. Space for public art is a great example of that.”
The city’s Public Arts Committee commissioned the $500,000 sculpture in 2018, and the initial plan called for it to be installed by the end of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic intervened, however — Fornes’ studio was essentially shuttered by New York’s strict lockdown in the early days of the pandemic and the coronavirus devastated his staff.
“The project was delayed by COVID, but we’re heading in the right direction,” Brace said. “We’re getting ready to have this done.”
Zenni emphasized that the sculpture — a flowing, aluminum-clad canopy in Fornes’ signature style — was designed specifically for the park. From one angle, the curves of the piece mimic the bends of the nearby Tennessee River; from another perspective, the profile suggests the ridgetops of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance to the south.
“Every plane of that canopy has something to do with Knoxville, if you know where to look,” she said.
Fornes’ pieces, which have won numerous design awards, have been installed throughout the world. His design was selected from among five finalists out of a total of 129 applicants.
The project will transform Cradle of Country Music Park, a .58-acre, wedge-shaped pocket park on the 200 block of South South Gay Street. Officials hope the pavilion-like sculpture, along with a proposed private mixed-use development across Gay, will help pull pedestrians across what is now a swath of open space.
“The thing we heard through the process was how important it was to connect the main part of Gay Street to the 100 block,” Zenni said.
Cradle of Country Music Park will retain its name, as the state required for funding it contributed to the project. The park was established in 1986, when the News-Sentinel (the name had a hyphen in those days) sought to honor the city’s country music legacy as well as celebrate the paper’s 100th anniversary.
An 18-foot-tall fiberglass and metal sculpture of a treble clef stood at the center of the park until the city decided to remove it in 2009 because of its deteriorating condition. Since that time, temporary artworks have rotated through the park. Fornes’ sculpture is designed to stay.
“We wanted something iconic and something that creates a sense of place,” Zenni said.
The city projects the total outlay for the project, including complementary landscape design of the rest of the park, to be close to $1.15 million. The Public Art Committee saved up its annual city appropriation to amass the $500,000 needed for the commission. The city has budgeted another $500,000, while the state, Visit Knoxville and the Knoxville Downtown Alliance have provided the rest of the funding.
In addition to paying THEVERYMANY, the city has already spent $44,000 with two firms — Hedstrom Design and Surface 678 — for landscape design and $4,095 for site survey work.
Later this month, the city plans to invite prequalified contractors to bid on the plinth construction contract, estimated to be about $420,000. After the installation, landscaping work projected to cost about $175,000 will begin. The city has set aside a contingency fund of $51,000.
The sculpture’s design and cost generated some criticism from the public, but the only organized public opposition to finishing the work has come from the Harvey Broome Group of the Sierra Club. The organization has been in contact with the mayor’s office and City Council members about its concerns.
The Sierra Club’s primary objection is to the landscaping plan, which calls for the removal of five mature trees to make room for the plinth and sculpture. A dozen trees will be preserved, and nine more added, including six at a park extension across what is now the Gay Street entrance to the parking lot.
“There's not much of an urban tree canopy in downtown Knoxville, and to take out half a dozen mature trees to accommodate an abstract sculpture we didn't think was in line with Knoxville’s sustainability priorities,” said Axel Ringe, conservation chair of the Harvey Broome Group. “Planting saplings to replace mature trees is not an equal trade off.”
Ringe said the sculpture would change the focus of the park away from celebrating music — including the city’s African-American music culture that thrived just west of the site in the area called the Bottom before Urban Renewal. Knoxville’s music community wasn’t heard in the park redesign, he said.
Ringe said the Sierra Club would like to see a pause in the project before construction begins to re-evaluate the location.
“We think that putting a sculpture of this scale into a park that is only half an acre in size is just not a good fit,” he said. “We think that the sculpture would be better served by being put in a different venue that is not as crowded as this one is, and we think that the park needs to go back to its original concept, which was to celebrate music.”
Brace said the city’s urban forester, Kasey Krouse, signed off on the landscaping plan and emphasized that the expanded park space would allow for more trees than are in the current footprint. After expressing reservations about the tree removal initially, the advocacy group Trees Knoxville sent Council members a letter stating that its concerns had been addressed and that the project should proceed.
Zenni noted that the artist selection process was held in public, including a design charrette led by the East Tennessee Community Design Center. Half the members of the Public Art Committee making the selection were African-American, she said, and no one objected on social justice grounds. Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie, who is African American and whose district includes downtown and East Knoxville, has expressed enthusiastic support for the project.
Plaques honoring the musicians who established the city’s musical heritage will be incorporated into the landscaping, Zenni said, and the park will remain on the state’s music trail.
The sculpture “is not a 30-foot-tall guitar, but Knoxville is a growing, forward-looking city,” Zenni said, adding that the pavilion can be a small musical venue as well as a piece of art. “You will be surrounded by those plaques, and our park will be a place where living musicians can play.”
Zenni said the long delay hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm she has for the project, which represents the single largest investment in public art in the city’s history. She said a special event will be held to mark the statue’s completion.
“We’re going to celebrate the installation of a signature piece of art,” Zenni said.