Wednesday, July 6, 2016
‘Witness Walls’ going forward despite protest from Nashville Civil Rights Veterans Association
Before the student sit-in demonstrations gained traction in Nashville and served as a model for civil rights demonstrations throughout the South, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr. was there at every turn leading the fight against injustices and waging a fierce campaign to end segregation.
First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, then pastored by Smith, was at the forefront as well and served as the headquarters for the arduous campaign. But Smith’s contributions – widely recognized and hailed in historic annals – weren’t enough to warrant recognition or a facsimile of Smith on the “Witness Walls,” a public art installation commemorating the “Nashville Movement.”
“Witness Walls,” a series of concrete walls fronted with historical images, will be installed on the west side of the Metro Courthouse later this year. It is a $350,000 project commissioned by the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission to honor the capitol city’s contributions to the civil rights movement.
The Nashville Civil Rights Veterans Association (NCRVA), however, is “incensed” with the final design that Oakland landscape architect Walter Hood was chosen to create. In a letter to Metro Arts dated June 28, the NCRVA spelled out its “demand” in very specific terms.
“We demand the following: “1) an apology for this travesty; 2) cessation of the entire project; 3) redesign of the Wall’s image to include a prominent display of Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr.’s face; and 4) the official monument location when completed to be called the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr. Freedom Plaza.”
A discussion about who would grace the Walls locally took place on Feb. 2, 2016, at Metro Arts. The NCRVA argued to include Smith and his contributions. However, during the week of June 20th, “We were notified that the Witness Walls design did not contain an image of Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr.”
On Friday, July 1, Jennifer Cole, executive director for Metro Arts, released a joint media statement from the arts organization and the artist when asked about the omission of Smith on the Witness Walls and NCRVA’s demand for redress.
“The Witness Walls project has been underway for nearly three years,” the statement said. “Since its inception, Metro Arts has framed this as an artwork, not a memorial or a monument to individuals or a specific documentation of historic events.”
The statement also noted that projects commissioned by Metro Arts include community feedback and input, and that the role of the artist is to listen, interpret and then create an artwork inspired from community conversations.
Whether Smith’s omission was blatant or not, the statement spells out Metro Arts’ practices regarding public art and the autonomy given to the artist when creating the final design. “It is never our practice to promise specific design elements to stakeholder groups, as the final concept for artwork always rests with the artist.”
“The staff (Metro Arts) offered a callous, undefendable excuse then which was culminated in the Arts Commission now making a mockery of citizens’ participation,” the NCRVA said regarding their meeting with Metro Arts and the NCRVA’s “empathetic insistence” to include Smith’s image in the final design.
Metro Arts said the Movement, which encompassed sit-ins, economic boycotts, marches, acts of violence and acts of reconciliation, involved thousands of people and stories and that Hood met with the NCRVA three times to review and discuss sample images.
“The artist, at the request of the Veterans, did modify some images to focus on collective action, specifically the inclusion of an image of the Freedom Rides in the design.” Other images were “culled through archives and stories submitted online to inform his final design concept.”
Hood’s final design, the statement said, was discussed at two publically noticed meetings – the Public Art Committee Meeting on Feb. 9 and a board of commissioners meeting on Feb. 18. “No concerns were raised at either.”
The NCRVA has called for a redesign. Metro Arts said the final design has now moved into fabrication and that no changes are forthcoming.