Gerber: Street art scene about to get better

Gerber: Street art scene about to get better

June 23rd, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

What do the Red Girl and the Blue Rhino have in common?

One might be real (although it's hard to tell) and one isn't, but they're both forms of public art.

The art that graces parks and street corners in Chattanooga -- everything from the Bluff View Art District Sculpture Garden to the much-maligned "basket of rocks" that was at the intersection of Georgia and McCallie avenues before moving to Chattanooga State Community College -- are landmarks, no matter what side of the public art debate you come down on. They add to the flavor of the city and even serve as markers.

I recently overheard someone giving directions that went something like this: Turn right onto Broad Street at the big, multi-colored head. "Oh, the corner of Main and Broad," I thought.

Now a new form of street art is coming to Chattanooga: buskers. Also known as street performers.

This is a good thing, folks.

Some of my most vivid memories of cities near and far -- Key West, New Orleans, Boston, Prague, Cape Town, Chaing Mai -- are the art created by buskers. The performers make it look so easy to eat fire or perform a traditional gypsy dance or play a mandolin or walk a tightrope.

They compel you to stop what you're doing and pause. They often put a smile on your face. They engage your senses. They inject a little escapism into your day.

Busking is a tradition that dates back centuries and spans cultures and geographic borders. French troubadors, English minstrels, Mexican mariachis, European organ grinders and Romany fortune tellers have all worked their skills in public squares and sidewalks for tips.

In recent years, American cities have started regulating where buskers can perform; some must obtain a permit and audition before getting a "pitch," a performance spot.

Busking enthusiasts point to now-famous musicians who busked at one time, including Eric Clapton, members of Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen, Rod Stewart and Tracy Chapman.

And many cite Benjamin Franklin as a one-time busker who recited poems about the politics of his era ("verse-making," he called it in his autobiography); some claim it influenced his views on free speech.

But back to Chattanooga. The buskers program here, organized by Chattanooga Presents with support from the River City Co. and the McKenzie Foundation, will run from July 5 through Sept. 8.

"This type of performance is the same thing as public art -- it is public art," says Jonathan Susman of Chattanooga Presents, who helped put together the program.

Carla Pritchard, executive director of Chattanooga Presents, says busking "will help create a more vibrant inner city, and everyone will benefit from that."

She's right. Chattanooga has no shortage of charm and no shortage of art, and adding a few sword swallowers, fire eaters and sidewalk violinists can only liven up the landscape.

So toss some change in that open violin case.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.