Over the past few decades, community art has become a tool by which neighborhoods are revitalized, residents gain ownership in neighborhoods and civic pride advances. There are as many approaches to community art as there are cities to adopt it, but in places like Chattanooga, Tenn., sculpture parks – which often reclaim acres of browned fields or repurposed industrial lands – have become a way to replenish green spaces and create a new appreciation for art.
Sculpture Parks Spread
Chattanooga is far from the first city to create sculpture garden. It follows in the footsteps of Chicago’s Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governor’s State University, and others set on university campuses, and the parks that develop alongside major museums, including the celebrated example at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Many of these in turn were spawned through the influence of European precedessors, and also by the need of museums and universities to find ways to display their own extensive collections of impressive sculpture.
The Sculpture Fields at Montague Park in Chattanooga, slated to open in fall 2015, is the result of an active public-private partnership, set on land donated to the city by the Montague family. The creation of the park is a labor of love for nationally renowned sculptor John Henry.
Henry and his wife moved to Chattanooga 15 years ago, and at the time, their building overlooked a former landfill - the front of which had been converted to a sports park, but the back side was a brown site he describes as “jungle-like” heavy with ragged trees, weeds and an assortment of brush.
The land, as it turned out, had been donated to the city by the Montague family a century before, and it had been allowed to deteriorate to the point that shortly after Henry realized what it was, the sports park part of the land was closed for environmental concerns stemming from its landfill days.
“It was really a wilderness,” Henry says. Immediately, he conceived the notion of a park in that unused space, even after the whole property was shut down for environmental concerns. He went to work, eventually pairing with Catherine Clifford, who’d worked with him in the art world for years in connection with traveling exhibitions. Together, they studied national and foreign examples closely, and the impact public parks had on the neighborhoods, bringing in new tourism and creating new landmarks, as well as providing green space for the area.
“John had seen sculpture gardens around the world, and based on his experience, he believed he could make it work in Chattanooga,” says Clifford, who now serves as executive director for the park’s board. The project has come together over more than a decade, thanks to the support of city administrators and mayors, including current Mayor Burke. The shared partnership includes the advantage of the city providing maintenance on the grounds, and the former pollution and emissions concerns have been taken care of thoroughly.
What You'll See
Those visiting will have the opportunity to walk through 33 acres of green space, filled with sculpture from well-known artists from the U.S. and abroad (Henry is not one of the artists, just the creator and mastermind). Clifford says they are committed to building an educational component and collaborating with local schools to use the garden to teach art and a variety of other courses to match state standards. She stresses it will be a space for the entire community, not only for exploring the arts, but envisioned with yoga classes in the park, bike racks, and plenty of space in a safe, fenced environment for running, playing and flying kites with a local kite club.
“I expect this to be a neighborhood oasis; there won’t be tall trees; it’s perfect for kite flying; it’s dog friendly; it will be great for the community,” Henry says. “I want to stress this is not about me; it is about sculpture. There are more than 20 pieces by different artists from all over the world, which are on loan right now or stored as we landscape.”
He adds that the most important thing for visitors to know as they come to visit is to keep an open mind while looking at the art, to come in with an open mind and no preconceived notions or prejudices about what something is meant to be.
As the excitement builds in a southeastern city already known for its commitment to the arts, Chattanooga knows its setting an example that other cities will follow in years to come. For more information or to make a donations, visit the Sculpture Field at Montague Park website.