Art Lovers Celebrate Expansion of Public Art

Communications Director

Eric Vreeland
(865) 215-3480

400 Main St., Room 654A
Knoxville, TN 37902

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News item

Art Lovers Celebrate Expansion of Public Art

Posted: 05/23/2018
Mural on stairsToday, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, members of City Council, the City’s Public Arts Committee, Central Business Improvement District (CBID) members and representatives of other arts organizations gathered for a ribbon-cutting at the staircase connecting the Gay Street Viaduct with the Old City’s Jackson Avenue below.

The decades-old black metal stairs have gotten a complete makeover, courtesy of a colorful, bold mural, created by Robin Easter Design and commissioned by the CBID. The “Stories” mural depicts iconic images of Knoxville, and CBID also upgraded the lighting on the staircase as part of the project.

The stairs will become an even more important pedestrian connection later this year, when Jackson Avenue at Gay Street closes for about 12 months while the 98-year-old ramps are rebuilt. 

But apart from the logistics of replacing ramps and maintaining pedestrian access, the City’s latest addition of public art in itself is noteworthy. 

Mural on stairsMayor Rogero emphasized that today’s ribbon-cutting was actually a celebration of the many pieces of public art that have been installed recently. She touted the collaboration between arts groups like Dogwood Arts, downtown organizations and other supporters of public art.

The City has funded more than $1 million over a half a decade for public art in downtown Knoxville.

“One measure of a city’s vibrancy is its embrace of public art,” Mayor Rogero said. “People want and expect to see murals, sculptures and all types of intellectually-stimulating pieces of art as they experience and enjoy downtown.

“With support from partners like Visit Knoxville, CBID and Dogwood Arts, and the expertise of the Public Arts Committee, we’re quickly enhancing our collection of public art – both in terms of quantity and quality.”

Public art in Knoxville used be a rare treat, but it’s no longer such a novelty, said Liza Zenni, Executive Director of the Arts and Culture Alliance and staff liaison for the City’s Public Arts Committee.

In the last few years, public art valued at more than $250,000 has been or is being installed throughout Knoxville, funded wholly or partially by the City-supported Public Arts Committee. 

That commitment to the arts will almost quadruple in the next year, as plans are finalized to redesign the Cradle of Country Music Park at Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive and adorn it with a signature piece (or pieces) of art. The $500,000 sculpture will be complemented with a new $400,000 landscaping design for the park.

You’ve probably been noticing the artistry that’s been transforming blank expanses of concrete into murals. And the sculptures popping up throughout downtown. And the billboard-sized reproductions of historic photos that have adorned the gray walls of parking garages, and smaller wraps covering traffic signalization boxes at intersections.

Zenni pointed to the once-drab concrete staircase at Cumberland Avenue and 11th Street as an example of how art can transform a nondescript public space and give it a lively, unique sense of place.

See the “before” and “after” photos, below, documenting the dramatic make-over by Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn.

11th Street Steps Before and After

Their 11th Street Stairs project, entitled “Weaving Rainbow Mountain,” pays tribute to the craft revival movement that took hold throughout Knoxville and most of Appalachia from the 1890s through 1945.

“I wonder how many times people have walked or driven past these stairs at Cumberland and 11th Street and never even noticed them,” Zenni said. “But now, that’s impossible. The staircase has become an instant landmark – it’s fun and inviting; the colors pop. The artists put fresh eyes on a dull piece of infrastructure, and they turned it into something special.”

The City’s Public Arts Committee, as its name implies, reviews and approves plans for installation of pieces of art on public property. Often, the City through the committee commissions pieces of art. (Individuals or companies can independently add art to their private properties without the committee’s review.)

Click here to access a digital map and thumbnail descriptions of recently-installed art projects.

Here’s a list of current City-funded or supported projects, in chronological order, that the Public Arts Committee since last year has approved, along with details about the installation and the City’s contribution toward the artwork:

Mural at Volunteer landing• Volunteer Landing Mural – painted by Eddie Mendieta; completed in April 2017 (about $16,000);

• Art in Public Places – Dogwood Arts in spring 2017 installed 17 temporary outdoor sculptures in Knoxville; this year, 15 outdoor sculptures were installed ($50,000 in annual City support; project total, $75,000 annually)

 11th Street Stairs – “Weaving Rainbow Mountain,” painted by Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn; completed in July 2017 ($16,500);

• State Street Garage sculpture – contract authorized by City Council in August 2017; the sculpture by John Medwedeff is being fabricated and could be installed this year ($60,000);

Rhythm of Knoxville• Gay Street Metal Relief – Robert Barnum’s “Rhythm of Knoxville,” installed in December 2017 ($15,000);

• Cradle of Country Music Park – the Public Arts Committee received submissions from more than 100 artists from around the globe; it selected five finalists in February, and the selected team – artists and landscape architects – will collaborate on a site-specific plan later this year (up to $500,000 for the artwork, $400,000 for the landscaping); and

• Murals – multiple murals are being commissioned – one on a wall off World’s Fair Park Drive, for example; another in the alley next to Market Square Garage ($75,000).

Here’s a list of projects that the Public Arts Committee and/or the City have partially funded:

 Chilhowee Park Mural – painted in 2016 by Brandon Donahue; commissioned by six neighborhood associations (the Public Arts Commission contributed $4,466 to the project; the East Tennessee Foundation, $5,000; Tennessee Arts Commission, $6,000); 

Kinetik Sculpture• “Ki-net-ik” sculpture, at Hill Avenue and Volunteer Landing Lane – created in 2016 by artist Derek White; funded by individual residents and businesses, the RiverHill Gateway Neighborhood Association, and the Central Business Improvement District (the Public Arts Committee contributed $3,600);

Third Creek Greenway Mural – painted in 2016 by Roger Peet, Noah Greenwald and Tierra Curry; funded by grants from the Center for Biological Diversity and the City’s Parks and Recreation Department (Public Arts Committee contributed $750; Parks and Recreation, $2,500); 

• Febb and Harry Burn Memorial Sculpture – to be installed behind the East Tennessee History Center, honoring the East Tennessee mother who encouraged her legislator son to cast the crucial vote to approve the 19th Amendment ($20,000 City contribution; total project, about $400,000). 

The Public Arts Committee also has approved projects that other groups commissioned.

Wrapped Traffic Control BoxIn addition to the CBID’s Gay Street Viaduct staircase, these include the Emporium Center’s Underground Mural, by LC Studio Tutto’s Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Christophel, completed in August 2016 (funded by the Arts Alliance and Visit Knoxville); the “Before I Die” chalkboard mural behind the Oliver Hotel, completed in fall 2016 by Catholic High School students; and 11 traffic control boxes wrapped with reproductions of historic photos and artwork, supported by the Knoxville History Project and City People. (More wrapped boxes are planned.)

In addition, Visit Knoxville in the last year beautified the privately-owned Walnut Street Garage and the Knox County-owned Dwight Kessel Garage by adorning them with large reproductions of historic photos.

For details about these and other public art projects, visit the Public Arts Committee’s website at or call Liza Zenni at 865-523-7543.

To access a map showing new additions as well as older pieces of public art, visit