The city of Winston-Salem has $225,000 set aside for a piece of public art conceived as a centerpiece in a new park to honor Wanda Merschel, a former member of city council.
A proposed sculpture for Merschel Plaza needs to provide a focal point for Winston-Salem’s rapidly materializing central square and attain a scale appropriate to the high-rise buildings that surround the park, according to a request for qualifications for the project.
Members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Art Commission worked out some budgetary details and an outreach plan for the project on Tuesday. They agreed to shift $75,000 from a line item for shade structures to enhance the budget for the sculpture, or “centerpiece artwork” as its referenced in the request for qualifications. And they came up with a dream list of artists who they want to encourage to submit proposals.
“Can we get what we want for $200,000?” asked Commissioner Ralph Womble, a retired executive from Hanes Companies. “Not what we can get — can we get what we want?”
The commissioners eventually settled on a figure of $225,000, bumped up from $150,000. The answer was, yes, but within some limitations.
“I think you can get something very beautiful,” said Commissioner Endia Beal, the director of the Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University. Beal recently served on a selection panel for public art at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which had a $1.7 million budget for a single piece. She qualified her statement by noting that with $225,000, if the artist requires a $40,000 fee, “That’s eating away at the budget to do something substantial.”
Kimberly Barb, a landscape architect with Stimmel Associates — the project manager for the new park on the south side of West Fourth Street at the terminus of Trade Street — noted for context that the budget for “Where We Met,” Janet Echelman’s iconic net sculpture installed at LeBauer Park in Greensboro in 2016, was $1 million.
Barb said the city of Winston-Salem allocated $3 million for Merschel Park from 2014 bond funds, with 10 percent — or $300,000 — allotted for art. Barb urged commissioners to reserve some of the funds in case of cost overruns.
“I just always aim high,” she said. “With all the current projects going on, I’ll just be completely honest: Everything’s coming in 25 to 30 percent above what even estimates are by professionals. Just the current climate is really intense. I know this is art, but just the way the nature of things with tariffs, with material costs….”
The request for qualifications calls for a “standalone sculpture” that is 25-30 feet in height. Otherwise, the parameters are pretty much open to the winning artist’s vision.
“Even though it’s rendered as a bronze sculpture, it could be an erector set,” said Commissioner Harry Knabb, the executive director of Art for Art’s Sake.
The new park is named after Wanda Merschel, a former banker who served on city council from 1997 to 2013. Merschel is widely credited with building a consensus to revitalize downtown Winston-Salem, including Restaurant Row on West Fourth Street. The request for qualifications also notes that Merschel has always been an advocate for women, quoting her as saying, “I have been fortunate to learn from women of all walks of life who taught me that calmness, patience and serenity will always yield a better outcome.”
Commissioners said on Monday that Merschel has expressed a preference for the contract to go to a local woman.
But Chairman David Finn, an art professor at Wake Forest University, said limiting applicants to Winston-Salem isn’t necessarily realistic considering the specialized skills required for the project.
“There are three people in the state who can do this,” he said.
In at least partial deference to Merschel’s wishes, Finn drew up an all-female list of prospective artists to approach for the project. Finn acknowledged that the wish list puts a “thumb on the scale,” but his fellow commissioners concurred that it makes sense to be proactive.
The list includes, among others, Abigail DeVille, a New York-based sculptor whose work reflects on racist violence and gentrification; and Judith Shea, an artist whose sculptures riff on mannequins and other disembodied figures.
Beal suggested Simone Leigh, a Guggenheim Hugo Boss Prize winner whose sculpture, video and installation focuses on African themes.
“She is the truth,” Beal said.
The deadline for proposals is set for May 10.
The Public Arts Commission also discussed a potential installation of the Winston-Salem Portrait Project at Merschel Park. Led by artists Kisha Bari and Jasmin Chang, the project will assemble an intersectional group of portraits representing residents from all walks of life, with installations in all eight wards and one in downtown. Kelly Bennett, a planner assigned to the Public Art Commission, said a possible location for the downtown installation is the southeast corner of Merschel Plaza, across the street from the future Kaleideum. The Forsyth County Commission voted on Feb. 28 to increase public funding for the children’s science museum to $30.5 million. The facility will replace the Kaleideum Downtown on South Liberty Street and Kaleideum North on West Hanes Mill Road.
Bennett displayed a rendering of artfully arranged cubes bearing vibrant portraiture for the downtown installation of the project. But he said another committee will have final say over whether the installation goes up at Merschel Plaza.
Public Art Commission members also raised concerns about whether the installation would be safe in that location.
“This scares me, guys,” Knabb said. “I can see kids doing handstands and denting it.”
Barb admitted that her sons apply their rock-climbing abilities to the “art towers” in ARTivity on the Green, the park Knabb’s group created on Liberty Street, by utilizing the rivets as footholds.
The commission tasked Bennett with researching what potential liability issues the installation might present for the city.