Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Give art a chance

The trouble with public art is that it's so ... public.

The Hendersonville City Council has plunged into the impossible job of trying to choose two pieces of art as part of a $1.2 million makeover of the 500 and 600 blocks of North Main Street.
The council's first crack at choosing two winning artists got off to a discouraging start. The council did eliminate two proposals, leaving two finalists each for a sculpture with a "water feature" in the First Citizens Plaza and a gateway piece at the edge of the Umi parking lot, at Seventh and Main.
It would be misleading to assume that because we've named the Final Four, we're close to declaring a champion and cutting down the net.
"This is going to be there for 50-plus years and it's going to be the first impression people get of that street," said Councilman Ron Stephens. "We've got to do our best job of getting it right."
Stephens favors calling a timeout now and resetting the approach. What he describes sounds more like the council commissioning artwork that meets specific design criteria. It does not have to look old-fashioned, he says, but it should reflect history.
"I think we need to go back and talk about what the style and the focus should be," he saidsays "I think it ought to reflect historic because that's the reason people come to Hendersonville, is to see a historic mountain town. I can't find any of the locals who want abstract art there."
Among those of us who have been avid followers of local politics, the public art process is disconcerting. It reminds us of two recent civil wars: the controversy over six-story buildings and the apocalyptic row over the proposed Mill Center for the Arts.
The cost today is small in comparison. The city has budgeted $70,000 for the fountain and $40,000 for the gateway; the Mill Center pricetag rose from $12 million to $30 million before anyone turned a spoon of dirt. Soon enough, like the romantic riverboats on the French Broad, it joined the ash heap of big dreams.
So what should be done?
We don't necessarily agree with Councilman Stephens that the council ought to shape the theme. It may be politically comfortable to color inside the lines but the safe approach will not produce a stunning piece of art that becomes, if not universally loved, at least widely discussed and happily visited. The public doesn't know what it wants until it sees it.
A community as traditional as ours is not accustomed to reaching a decision on public art on street corners, something big cities do all the time. We might have to grow into the role. Public art on Main Street is a good idea. We ought to embrace the process with maturity and joy. We ought to avoid our usual pattern of close-minded hostility.