Public art often invites public debate, but a new sculpture in downtown Asheville has drawn a surprising group of critics—the people the sculpture was created to honor.
This past week, Hotel Arras unveiled a 14-foot-tall steel sculpture at the northeast corner of Patton and Lexington avenues. It was conceived and designed as an homage to street performers.
Rather than feeling honored, some street performers suspect the sculpture was actually designed to push them out of one of downtown’s prime performance spots.
“That spot, I called the stage, was a great spot, and it was big enough for whole bands to set up,” said banjoing busker and Asheville native Chase Arden. “It had great energy, great environment for people.”
“I respect them trying to make a monument to buskers,” he continued.
“—in a spot that buskers actively play at,” interrupted a busker calling herself Yssabel Gernandt. “Like, the irony is just so strong and ridiculous.”
“They should tear down that sculpture and put a plaque on the wall to show their support for buskers and dedicate that stage for buskers,” added another busker, calling himself Scuba Steve.
On the Asheville Politics Facebook page, a regular magnet for varied outrage, one post declared “the new Busker Statue Downtown might be even more annoying than a real Busker.” A commenter in that thread likened it to “a developer tearing down an orchard, building a housing development and calling it The Orchard.”
That particularly rankles David McCartney, the general manager of the hotel and a 1975 graduate of Asheville High School. He said the hotel, which features nearly two dozen original works from regional artists inside the building, regularly hires performers for the patio facing Merrimon Avenue—some from the busking community.
“It’s a much better place on the east side, financially for them, performance-wise for them,” McCartney said. “It’s certainly good for us to have a local busker on our patio. It’s a win-win-win, versus a corner that was never a performance area."
That’s not entirely so.
As a binding condition for redeveloping the former BB&T Building into the Hotel Arras, City Council asked owner John McKibbon to create a “niche space” at that corner for “art, interpretation or performance.” Until last week’s installation, that bare, elevated niche attracted buskers, the occasional skateboarder and, during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, some graffiti.
The sculpture is cordoned off by a short fence of cable wiring, perhaps to deter skateboarders but also detering more intimate viewing. The fencing also obscures a small wire dog at the foot of the djembe.
As far back as early 2019, McKibbon talked of commissioning a sculpture for that corner honoring buskers. Asheville artist Chukk Bruursema created the giant, lattice, stainless steel djembe drum that serves as a pedestal for five musicians—a fiddler, jug blower, spoon player, washboard player and washtub bassist—that Charlotte artist Ash Knight welded from a collage of steel strands and musical notes.
“There is a sad irony in seeing buskers represented in art but not in life on that corner,” said Andrew Fletcher, a pianist, longtime local busking advocate and vice-chair of Asheville’s Downtown Commission. Fletcher is also a member of BPR’s advisory board. The hotel hired Fletcher to perform after the sculpture’s unveiling.
“But what I think it really does is highlight the need to not rely on busking on private property and deliver the sidewalk and amenities needed for busking on public property,” he said.
Knight said he was unaware buskers had performed on the site before installing the work.
“Our intention in creating the work is, obviously, we want to celebrate those folks that are out there performing,” Knight said. “Hopefully this sculpture will bring some good things and maybe even increase the awareness that buskers need spaces.”
In a separate but related issue, residents of the owned condominiums on the upper floors of the building are working with city staff and Fletcher to update the city’s noise ordinance.
“We want to be engaged in Asheville,” McCartney said. “This is my childhood home. I want this hotel to be something people are proud of to walk by and know that we’re part of the community.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated there were only three musicians represented in the sculpture. There are five.