It’s always special when a piece of public art reaches puberty.
I know exactly what you are thinking — Chuck’s drinking again. Nope, not this time.
I am talking about the fountain in the 900 block of Broadway directly in front of the entrance to the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. Yeah, that sculpture. The one that looks, shall we say, like a phallic symbol.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook this week her disdain for that particular work of public art.
“It does not fit into the Historic District with all the beautiful fountains we already have,” she posted.
It started a Facebook hatefest. Some of you really don’t like it. I get it.
But I also disagree. It is a powerful piece of public art that sparks great discussion. You see what you see — and to me that’s the beauty in art. And some people see it differently — as it should be.
Good public art provokes thought and discussion. That fountain is good public art.
For 15 years, people have taken their best shot at the 35-ton chunk of marble, onyx and travertine. Standing 17 feet tall, it can’t be ignored. The stone, from Turkey, stands high against the rush criticism.
And it is standing the test of time. The water feature in it works — and works well. It has an interactive element that is pleasing.
Over the years, it has grown on me. And I can honestly say that I was there before anyone knew what gender it was going to be. Turned out to be a bouncing baby boy.
My friend’s post sent me back into the newspaper’s archives. In the fall of 2002, Brad Barnes and I were writing about the fountain — and the controversy — before it was ever erected. That was 15 years ago.
The fountain was the work of noted Austrian water sculptor Hans Muhr, but it was the brainchild of retired Columbus Water Works President Billy Turner, the same man with the vision to turn a sewer line service road into the Chattahoochee Riverwalk.
Turner met Muhr in 1996 at an International Water Environment Federation meeting in Stockholm, Sweden. Turner, then the president of that organization, invited Muhr, who has been doing large water fountains for more than three decades, to Columbus in 1997.
The Austrian fell in love with our muddy water.
Long story short, as the RiverCenter was in the planning stages, Muhr was commissioned to do the sculpture. It was originally going to be part of the RiverCenter construction project, but that plan was scrapped. Then it was going to be paid for by the Columbus Water Works as part of its 100th anniversary celebration.
But in the fall of 2002, there was one little problem. Mr. Muhr’s work of art was going up in downtown Columbus at the same time the Columbus Water Works was raising rates.
Everybody became an art critic — and for good reason when the cost of the sculpture was north of $200,000 and the entire project was going to cost about $400,000.
Eventually, private donors, as they are prone to do in this community, stepped forward and picked up the tab so that no public money would be spent on the project.
So amid that uproar, Muhr came to Columbus to install his work. It didn’t take long for people to start giving the fountain pet names. My favorite is “Viagra Falls.”
There are many more you could not print. It was brutal for a while.
But the work does have a name given by the sculptor — “Schauspiel,” which is German for “play.” For Columbus purposes, the title of the work was simply “Drama.”
Which is appropriate because the dang thing has caused its share of drama over the years. In 2002, Muhr sent a five-page document to express how Columbus is endearing to him and how he tried to express the Chattahoochee River with his new work.
The problem was it was in German. I would love to have that document right now. The part that made the newspaper in 2002 was not five pages.
Here is what we printed: “The Chattahoochee River touches and fascinates me, and its optical and acoustic manifestation moves me deep inside.”
What Muhr has accomplished is a sculpture that blends into the downtown landscape. The earth tones in the stone blend with the earth tones of the RiverCenter.
It is an attraction. Sit near it for a couple of hours and you will see folks interacting with it. Many people take pictures in front of it. Entertainers such as Garrison Keillor have made jokes about it.
Today, we should thank Billy Turner for the vision to get this piece of art in a prominent place in our community.
For 15 years, people have posed in front of it, kids of all ages have played in its water.
And it has sparked a lot of conversation. At the end of the day, the 15-year-old piece is a community asset.