Because the Angels flap made national news – it sparked a sort of revenge-on-the-gays vote by the then-county commissioners, who axed the county's yearly allocation for the Arts & Science Council and then, except for the eternal Bill James, all lost their next elections – it lives on on local memory (and embarrssment).
But an earlier, similarly embarrassing flap came in 1987. The city's public art commission chose a semi-abstract bronze work by noted sculptor Joel Shapiro for the to-be-built-and-now-already-demolished Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. Morning DJs John Boy and Billy and plenty of other folks ridiculed the piece. Among them was arts commission member Robert Cheek, who dubbed it "Gumby." And to be just, there is a certain familial resemblance to the '50s claymation fellow. (Art gallery owner Cheek pleaded guilty a few years later to cocaine smuggling and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.)
So the City Council in an act of not-unprecedented spinelessness, rejected the Shapiro work. Instead the city chose a work by Maya Lin – a collection of Burford hollies supposed to look like balls rolling downhill. It, too, was demolished. Shapiro went on to worldwide fame and success – his works are now at the National Gallery in Washington and art museums in Houston, New Orleans, Raleigh and even on the Davidson College campus. That $400,000 sculpture would have bought the city a work surely worth many multiples of that today. But no, our elected officials instead consulted the drive-time DJs about their cultural purchases and exhibited the political spines of earthworms.
Redemption ahead? Recent news says we got a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to go toward a monumental sculpture costing approximately $300,000 at the planned Romare Bearden park uptown (named for the Charlotte-born artist) near the Panthers' stadium. Is it too late to get something by Joel Shapiro? Maybe. And anyway, Shapiro (who has sold numerous other copies of the model he did for our city) might not want to play. In 1993, in conjunction with an exhibition that included the model for "Gumby," he opted against returning here to be on a panel. Of the brouhaha here, he told Observer reporter Ricki Morell, "It was a farce and quite humiliating. It was a low point in my career."
And by 1993, even the DJs were having second thoughts. "John Boy" Isley told Morell: "I've grown attached to it over the years. Viewing the bushes that are at the Coliseum now [the now-demolished Maya Lin art], maybe we were a little harsh on Gumby."