Sculpture Fields at Montague Park aims to bring in international interest
ON A PLEASANT, SUNNY AFTERNOON, A string of clouds over 23rd St. are pierced by the points of five large, red beams. The beams, a sculpture known as “River City Queen” by Doug Schatz, reach skyward, casting an elegant shadow across the rain-soaked grass below.
This shadow points across the field toward the patio of John Henry’s home and studio, where he casually draws out an invisible map with his extended hand. This, he points out, waving across the horizon, are the 30 acres of land progressing into the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park.
With a shock of white hair and eyes that are kind, but with gravity that demands attention, he speaks about the potential of this land as if he were speaking about the potential of plants to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. There is no doubt in his mind that there is a grand opportunity here, and he intends to see the potential is realized.
Montague Park, donated to the city by the Montague family in 1911, had fallen into disrepair over the years. “When we moved in, it was a dumping ground…you couldn’t walk in there. It was like a jungle,” Henry says. But the international sculptor with studios in Chicago, Miami and Chattanooga, saw the same potential in the land that he had originally seen here.
“Chattanooga is unusual for its size. It’s a very small city to have such an industrial footprint.” That footprint, and its convenient location drew Henry to the city. Henry had been working from a studio space in Kentucky, but found it too remote. He and his team began looking elsewhere and their eyes landed squarely on Chattanooga. Not only did the city appeal, but the wealth of old factory buildings afforded him ample space to move in and create in real time. “For shipping,” Henry says, “there’s no greater location in the country. Everything is right at your fingertips.” Henry soon began to see the adjacent Montague Park as an ideal location for the display of monumental sculpture.
The long-term goal for the park is not only to host some of the most impressive sculpture in the world, but to be a public park, usable for a variety of community activities. “It’s not going to be a high-brow, closed-off park,” Henry says, “We have a tremendous community outreach plan.” The park will boast an amphitheater for classes and performances, bicycle racks, walking trails and places for people to gather and enjoy the beauty of the sculpture garden.
Henry and the board of the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park also hope to create a partnership with local schools and at least one university to create an arts education program, for which he says the curriculum is already set. The hope is that involvement from the community will be as vital to the success of the park as much as the scope and reach of the sculpture itself. “Are we going to have the best contemporary sculpture in the world? Yes,” Henry says. But partnerships with local businesses and other non profits will be of great importance as well, “so that we’re consistently in touch with the pulse of the community.”
He’s quick to point out this is not a city-funded project, though the city will provide normal park maintenance. “We’re not asking the city council for money. There’s city participation, but we do not expect them to have a line item in our budget.” Henry and the board have privately raised the funds for all the pieces currently on display and intend to continue to do so. “I have a great relationship with most of the international sculptors around the world… and they have chosen to support what we’re doing and are lending us work [as well].” Within the year, there is expected to be work from about 30 different artists, not only from the U.S., but from places like Germany, Mexico and Uruguay. “We’re getting ready to really go for the gold now, build it out and create nice individual places for sculptures,” Henry says. All pieces will be on loan from one to five years.
In Henry’s opinion, a sculpture garden of this caliber will be a huge draw to arts enthusiasts around the globe, bringing a wealth of new tourism, which is exciting for him not only as an artist, but as a member of the extended community. He looks forward to opening Chattanooga up to even greater awareness from the rest of the world. “It will have a tremendous economic impact,” Henry says emphatically. “People that come in will be people of means. They’ll stay in hotels, they’ll eat in local restaurants and they’ll buy local goods.”
“For a visual artist—for a sculptor—Chattanooga is ideal logistically and for making work, but on a scale of 1-10, it’s about a .5 for a market. There’s just not a visual arts market place.” Henry hopes to see that change, and intends the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park to be a catalyst for that change.
While Chattanooga has been a wonderful destination for artists creating work, it has not been a top attraction for buyers, collectors and arts enthusiasts. With the addition of some of the most profound sculpture in the world at Montague Park, Henry believes the market will be newly appreciated. “Once we are up and running and start advertising nationally, there will be a path beaten to our door,” he says. “Not just nationally, but internationally.”