Nashville's Deteriorating Sculptures And Monuments Need Costly Repairs | Nashville Public Radio

Nashville's Deteriorating Sculptures And Monuments Need Costly Repairs

Jun 28, 2018

Several of Nashville’s public artworks and prominent civic sculptures have fallen into serious disrepair. And for the first time, Metro has estimated the substantial cost of preserving them.

The recent study (full PDF) finds that 11 highly vulnerable pieces could require $1.6 million in repair work. In response to this review by the Metro Arts Commission, some of the artworks are getting additional care, but for many others, there’s no formal plan for long-term upkeep.

One sculpture that falls in the middle — receiving some but not all of what it needs — is a towering bronze figure that depicts the late 1800s Tennessee Central Railroad founder Jere Baxter. It stands in front of an East Nashville middle school that also bears his name on Hart Lane.

Despite the man’s legacy, and the prominence of the work's creator, Belle Kinney, the 1907 monument work has largely been neglected and its significance unrealized for decades, officials said.

“Over time it just got moved and moved and moved … it was a classic example of sometimes we don’t know what we have as a resource,” said former Metro Arts director Jen Cole during a budget hearing earlier this year.

But once the Metro Arts Commission assessed the work — which was dirty and damaged — Metro Schools performed a deep cleaning, says David Proffitt, executive director of facilities and construction.

“Over the years, dirt, dust, those kinds of things, cling to it. We had to come out and pressure-wash the base,” he said. “It’s one — if not the only statue — that we have in the district. It’s incumbent upon us to try and maintain it.”

The bronze coat of the sculpture has been gouged in at least one place.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

The bronze itself, which has turned green, would need professional restoration, and there’s no immediate funding for that. So like many of the artworks recently examined, long-term care remains in question.

(Proffitt said the bronze repair and waxing could cost $49,000.)

Orphaned Artworks Went Overlooked

The recent review roamed across city parks, down neighborhood streets and into the public spaces near Metro buildings to document artworks that have never been thoroughly tracked.

Any works under the watch of Metro Arts, or that are part of established collections, were excluded. Those tend to receive regular care. The result is a list that isn't as showy, but that still sparks recognition about art that is perhaps too easily overlooked.

The pieces in this report are not owned by Metro Arts, and few have dedicated funding for maintenance — sometimes leaving residents confused about their origins, said Anne-Leslie Owens, public art and placemaking project manager for Metro Arts.

“We often get calls or emails,” she said. “Sometimes they want to tell us about an artwork that needs some care. Other times they’ve just found an artwork that they want to know something more about.”

In many cases, departments accepted gifts of art without thinking of the long-term responsibilities, Owens said.

Now, in a moment when the Metro budget is tight, she said it’s understandable that some departments won’t be able to snap into action to repair their artistic holdings. But she said the catalog is important to have, along with honest estimates of the repair costs.

“[Departments] have other priorities too, but we hope we can support and encourage them with information like this,” she said, noting, “I’m hopeful that … the actual numbers come in much less.”

The biggest number is the $1.6 million for basic repairs on 11 pieces.

Those include some crumbling early 1900s cement “architectural follies” in Centennial and Shelby parks and the “Founding of Nashville” sculpture along the Cumberland River Greenway (see details in slideshow at top of this story).

This table shows the high-priority artworks that need maintenance, according to Metro Arts.
Credit Metro ARts

Some of the endangered artworks in the report have been salvaged. For example, the “Sea Serpent” at Fannie Mae Dees Park (Dragon Park) was recently repaired and reopened after a huge fundraising effort by the local neighborhood association.

The bronze figures and etched glass that adorn the historic courthouse downtown will also get regular maintenance after responsibility for them was formally assigned to Metro General Services.

Two artworks are also recommended for “deaccessioning” — or disposal. One is a decorated but deteriorated trashcan, known as “Can-Do,” on 12th Avenue South. The other is a 1994 mural made by children at the Caldwell School, of which one of the panels has been lost.

Owens said the report has also put in motion other action steps. Several departments have been meeting to make preservation plans, and Metro will soon hire a conservator to deliver exact cost estimates on the high-priority pieces.

Baxter Sculpture Significant In Several Ways

In her assessments, Owens details why these artworks matter.

At the top of the list for the Jere Baxter statue is it creator: Nashvillian Belle Kinney rose to prominence as a teenager who made art for large expos. She gained accolades at a time when women weren’t respected as sculptors.

And officials found that both white and black residents contributed to the fundraising that commissioned the work.

As for Baxter himself?

“I suspect if you asked anybody on the street, you’d have a hard time finding anybody who knows who Jere Baxter is,” Owens said.

The Jere Baxter bronze towers over the roundabout in front of the middle school that also bears his name on Hart Lane in East Nashville.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

However, he was a state senator and railway founder who was important enough in his time to draw thousands to the sculpture’s dedication in 1907. It was placed at the prominent downtown wedge of land where Broadway splits into 21st and West End avenues.

Later, the work drew attention while standing along Gallatin Pike, before reaching its final home on Hart Lane.

The work’s lineage and public notoriety, Owens says, makes it worthy of preservation.