Friday, April 08, 2011

Atonement: Bringing Gumby back

If you read my Thursday op-ed, "Some good ideas, in need of patrons," you may have noticed the end section, about getting Gumby back.

The whole sordid episode involving New York sculptor Joel Shapiro – whose career in 1987 was just starting a sharp upward trajectory – was embarrassing at the time and helped firmly entrench a national image of Charlotte as a city of rubes and rednecks.

Our city art commission had chosen his proposal for a 22-foot bronze work, a collection of rectangles resembling a human in motion, for the front of the to-be-built (and now demolished) Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. But one art commission member, Robert Cheek – who later went to prison for cocaine trafficking – didn't like the choice. He helped whip up popular scorn. Either Cheek or deejays John Boy and Billy dubbed the figure "Gumby," after the green clay animated figure.

Ultimately the City Council, which in those days had final say on public art purchases, nixed it 7-4. History note: Voting against the work were Richard Vinroot (later to be mayor), Ann Hammond, Al Rousso, Ron Leeper, Roy Matthews, Gloria Fenning and Minette Trosch. Trosch said she feared repercussions on the public art program if they accepted the art. Voting for it were Cyndee Patterson, Pam Patterson, Charlie Dannelly and Velva Woollen.

Of course, the "Angels in America" spat 10 years later didn't help. Just as people elsewhere were starting to forget how many Charlotte folks were keen to make fun of art, we reminded them that many here were also so homophobic they'd kill funding to the arts because a theater group performed a work that depicted gay men.

Cut to 2011. I see the affection people have for Niki de Saint Phalle's "Firebird" – dubbed Disco Chicken by some – at the Bechtler. You can hardly go by (and since it's between my office and Amelie's coffee shop, I go by it a lot) without seeing someone photographing someone else at the Firebird. The temporary exhibition of large Saint Phalle works in the park across from the museum draws a steady stream of viewers, including children scampering through that huge skull. (Be sure to go inside, where it's mirrored and blue and serene.) The Bechtler, filled with modern art, is drawing great crowds.

I think Charlotte has matured. Finally.

The whole episode was painful for Shapiro. He later told the Observer's Richard Maschal it was "a low point" in his career. Shapiro was at that 1987 council meeting. Our old files have a photo from the meeting, with Shapiro looking on as a speaker holds a clumsy wooden contraption saying it was something he made in fifth grade. The photo caption doesn't say that the speaker was making fun of Shapiro's work, but that would certainly be my guess.

Seeing which way the vote would go, Shapiro left before it was taken and returned to New York. Today his work is in major museums all over the country, including the National Gallery and the N.C. Museum of Art. You can see it at Davidson College. You can see it in Greenville, S.C. But not in Charlotte.

So why don't we try to bring that Shapiro work back to where it should have been all along? Although it would have cost $400,000 in 1987, today his works can sell for seven-figure (corrected) sums. This would take patrons with significant money. Queens Table, where are you?

Would Shapiro consent to this? He might not. But maybe he'd see that this city has grown and changed. Sure, there are plenty of people (including some politicians) who think any sculpture other than soldiers on horseback is weird, or who look at a Picasso and say, "My fifth-grader could do that." But that's true in New York as well as Charlotte. The difference is that there are plenty of people here today with a much wider appreciation of art.

Plus, I think there's a reason the name "Gumby" stuck, even among Shapiro supporters who were angry and embarrassed about the whole thing. Even the tiny wooden model had life and spark, and so much personality it demanded a name. So Gumby it became, and Gumby is how it is remembered in local lore.

Now it's time to bring him home. After all, Disco Chicken needs a buddy.

Photo: 1987 Observer file photo of Joel Shapiro with a model of his proposed sculpture. Photo by Diedra Laird.


tarhoosier said...

So where is it, this soi disant "Gumby" thing?

Ghoul said...

So were you here during the first round of Gumby? I love how you speak down to us peons that were here. To think, taxpayers had a voice in how there money was spent and their representatives followed their wishes. Oh, those were the days.

So if the Council had final say then, who does now? Curt Walton, Harry Jones, you?

Do you plan on posting any replies you get, or is this just a one way lecture?

Anonymous said...

Rubes and rednecks...I still see an awful lot of them here. And an awful lot of them have moved here in the last decade. So why do you think things would be different, now that we have Bill James to represent?

Anonymous said...

Great story. I totally agree that Charlotte is beginning to turn a corner and mature culturally. The new cultural campus on S Tryon is impressive with The Bechtler, the new Mint, Gantt Center and the Knight Theatre. It's about time!

Anonymous said...

I was in Greenville a few weeks back and saw their beautiful downtown with their Gumby. And it looks great. And the one in DC at the National Gallery looks great. And the Gumby in Charlotte would have been an awesome symbol. Defeated by the total rednecks John Boy and Billy. Pitiful. Now, can someone tell me what has happened to Maya Lin's "Field of Dreams" or "Large Shrubs Rolling Down a Hill" or whatever that was that they decided to do instead of Gumby?

Anonymous said...

It isn't so much that John Boy and Billy are rednecks, though they likely are.

It's that they know their listeners.

Ratings trumps everything, including public art.

Anonymous said...

1) in the same year that Charlotte rejected Gumby, I happened to travel to Budapest, and an art museum there had an entire floor dedicated to his artwork. OK, maybe we were wrong.

2) That Observer photo you featured probably doomed this artwork. It is insanely silly. Just look at it. Gumby was born when that photo was published.

3) Don't compare the Firebird with Gumby. The Firebird is the greatest piece of public art in Charlotte's history, because it is awesome, beautiful, it reflects light, it dazzles, it is a magnet.

Gumby ... would have just stood there. A nice piece of art, but without the blazing attraction of Firebird, which is ... singular.

4) My conclusion: If you want a great piece of public art, let Mr. Bechtler pick it for you. Keep the bureaucrats out of it.

Anonymous said...

Great story. Charlotte has matured a lot but still has a long way to go. I love the "Disco Chicken" and other public art even if I don't always understand it.

Anonymous said...

Mary writes:

"Although it would have cost $400,000 in 1987, today his works can sell for six-figure sums."

Uh, so that means when you factor in inflation his stuff has gone DOWN in value.

And since the city would never sell it, its actual "value" is zero.

P.S.: "rubes and rednecks"? Thought you had a rule against name-calling.

Anonymous said...

Yep...still looks like Gumby.

Are any of you Gumby supporters familiar with the story "The Emperor's New Clothes"?


Anonymous said...

"Although it would have cost $400,000 in 1987, today his works can sell for six-figure sums."

So $400,000 isn't a 6 figure sum?
Perhaps you are not a rube or redneck, but you are not a mathematics genius either!

Anonymous said...

It's not name calling if Mary is doing it.

As for the Gumby mess, that was over 20 years ago. Lat's move on. To me the gumby statue was simply a safe corporate, yuppie sculpture more appropriate for an office park. Sort of to sculpture what Kenny G is to jazz.

As for the Disco Chicken/Forebird, that at least is fun and whimsical and very interactive with the people walking by it.

Anonymous said...

"Although it would have cost $400,000 in 1987, today his works can sell for six-figure sums."

If you were trying to make an impressive point, you failed. $400,000 IS a six-figure number. Love of all kinds of art aside, math is obviously not a strong point.

Art is in the eye of the beholder. The people who voted against spending money on Shapiro's work have just as much right to their opinion as do you who happen to think it is worth it. I wouldn't spend $1 on it, but that's just me.

There is other 'modern' art that looks attractive and impressive, and others that really does look like "My fifth-grader could do that."

But calling those who do not like such art 'immature, rubes, and rednecks' just makes you seem 'elitist, pretentious, and rude'.

Jones said...

Yeah, I'm not impressed with the sculpture known as 'Gumby'. It's just not very interesting. The Bechtler piece is, to me. I really don't get why we have to defend ourselves being called 'rubes and rednecks' because we collectively did't like a particular piece and gave it a silly name. Have we come a long way in judging art or do we just have our opinions about what we like or don't like that are judged as less valid because of where we are geographically? I seem to recall a lot of griping about those funky monuments on either side of Tryon as you enter Uptown, and that's because people think they're ugly, not because they don't like art. My conclusion on the 'Gumby' piece? For $400,000 it looks awfully simplistic. I'd rather City Council had been frugal, than cash in on a name that may have been on the rise and I still feel that way. Cashing in on a name is not what Art is about, and is not indicative at all of how forward thinking Charlotte was. Viewing our city and its inhabitants through the lens in this column is just insulting.. as if we didn't have good, smart, people here because they rejected a piece of art and made up a name for it derived from the piece's appearance. As an artist, this guy should have had a thicker skin. Art is subjective, and not liking this particular piece of art is just not indicative of who Charlotte was back then. Criticism comes with that job. At any rate, I respectfully submit that the Ms. Newsomes conclusions are just not fair to those that rejected this piece back in the '80's, and I see no need for Charlotte to feel ashamed. Perhaps Mary Newsome is, and if that's the case feel free to go somewhere else where you're not in danger of being associated with that. Narrow mindedness or just opinionated? I think it's pretty clear it was the latter, and there's no shame in that.

Larry said...

Yes if not for art and artist we working people would not understand how inartistic and such rubes we are for getting up and going to work to pay our taxes for them to get out and do their endeavors all day and night at their leisure with, donations, funds and taxes etc.

So thank you for reminding us. And for helping us to keep the focus on the golden Center City, goodness they need as much help as they can as the Center City is always ignored in Charlotte by everyone and gets nothing.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4/09/2011 12:21:00 AM

You said it so perfectly. Love the Kenny G analogy

Anonymous said...

Nothing has change since Gumby. If you disagree with an liberal elitist's opinion you are still considered a rube and redneck.

Jack said...

I don’t think the Gumby objections all came from rubes and rednecks.

A lot of practical people were opposed to spending that much money on something that relatively few people would bother to come see, much as less enjoy. And even if they did come to see it, what sort of physical, spiritual or ethereal benefit could possibly be derived that justified paying someone a princely sum of tax dollars to fabricate it?

I think we could probably find budding artists at Queens, UNCC, CPCC or Smith who could put together something just as attention grabbing, and for a heck of a lot less investment. Maybe a periodic competition locally to come up with something worth buying locally – or are we to believe that all great artists can only be found elsewhere?

If the city has that many excess and supposedly unnecessary dollars lying around, and is keen on spending them, why not do so on something that would benefit the greatest number of Charlotteans? If we just want to throw away large sums of money on art, buy two or three Ferrari’s – they are bright, shiny and breathtaking works of art. The city could station them around uptown or throughout the city and let folks pay to take them for a short spin. Even that would out-thrill Gumby or Firebird.

Mary Newsom said...

Re the "six-figures" part? Ouch! All I can say is that everyone needs an editor and I was working without a net Friday night as my editor had decamped for his 20th reunion at Dook. Thanks for the catch, all, and correction is forthcoming.

Re the rubes and rednecks, I wasn't saying that's my opinion of Charlotte because I know better. I'm saying that is a perception that people elsewhere in the country had and, unfortunately, some still have, about almost anywhere in the South. We aren't the Sahara of the Bozart any more but that image certainly lingers.

Mary Newsom said...

And to answer Ghoul's barely civil question, today the Public Art Commission, an appointed body, makes the final call on which art is purchased. The city and county elected officials have chosen (wisely in my opinion) to take themselves out of the art-selection role. Not every city or county construction project includes the 1% for art but many do. I believe the elected officials can decide to exempt construction projects if they wish. For more information see this web site:

Anonymous said...

ary Newsom said..."Re the rubes and rednecks, I wasn't saying that's my opinion of Charlotte because I know better".

I reread that part of the story "...was embarrassing at the time and helped firmly entrench a national image of Charlotte as a city of rubes and rednecks."

Obviously, you thought the incident was 'embarrassing' which is a personal feeling, so there was no reason for us consider the rest of the sentence was not your opinion.

Jones said...

Mary, if that was your intent, it certainly didn't come off that way, and I think the comments to this post reflect that I'm not the only one. I'm of the mind that we need to be concerned about how we view ourselves, and we have so many reasons to be proud of Charlotte and where we come from and where we're headed. If people in other parts of this country choose to view us as 'rubes and rednecks', then that shows how ignorant they are, and doesn't deserve the words dedicated to it in your piece, or any other. Thanks for your input, but I still respectfully disagree with your point of view on this, and how you chose to report about it. It is an op-ed piece, so of course your opinion figures in, and that's fine. But I know that we weren't rubes and rednecks at the time of the rejection of the 'Gumby' piece either, and the mere suggestion that we were without defending it incenses me. I'll say this again, we have no reason to apologize to anyone for rejecting something that we didn't want, no matter what our detractors may think of us.

Anonymous said...

The last nine or ten posters really hit the nail on the head--unfortunately this town's paper of record is quite good at tar and feathering those who don't agree with them. Why is it that those who have differing opinions on issues, whether it be about art and art funding, school assignment, location of public housing, transportation, etc. are invariably cast as the rubes, the selfish, the racist, the intolerant.

I also wonder why some have to keep bringing up the same issues from the past over and over again. How much longer are we going to have to hear and be guilted about the Angels in America controversy, or about the "Gang of Five", or about how well CMS functioned around busing (????) and now all about Gumby. Most of us have moved on, for heavens sakes!

Anonymous said...

With all the problems our country is facing this column is stuck in the past. Move forward with some new material.

Cato said...

Here's a shorthand guide to Charlotte art criticism. Merit is determined by the following:

1) The libertarians want to know whether government money was used to pay for it.

2) The evangelicals want to know whether it offends the teachings of their church.

3) The progressives want to know whether it offends the evangelicals.

4) The ethnic grievance lobbies want to know whether the artist was a member of their ethnic group.

4a) If not, were any members of the aggrieved ethnic group depicted in a way that evokes ethnic stereotypes?

5) The boosters want to know whether Atlanta has anything similar.

6) The smart-growthers want to know whether you have to drive to see it.

7) The average resident wants to know what the hell it is.

Jumper said...

Just who is fascinated by cubes?

To me they represent dehumanization, whereby human beings become regimented and as replaceable as piston rods. Squared away, headless, monolithic and featureless, Shapiro's work seems like fascism to me.

I despise it.

consultant said...

The Consultant is back!!!!!!!!

I've returned after a lengthy trip abroad. More about that later.

I don't know how Gumby feels about it, but all the people who HATE mass transit have got to be more than a little disturbed by the high price of gas that is eating a giant hole in their family budget.

You reap what you sow.

Mary, keep up the good work.