Metro 'quilt' art draws national scrutiny for historical inaccuracy

Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 1:46pm
Courtesy of MNAC 

The subject of Metro-approved public art has drawn scrutiny, with quilters nationwide noting that historians years ago debunked the tale window-hung quilts directed black slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

As reported by The City Paper, the Metro Arts Commission voted earlier this month to award a $300,000 contract to Iowa-based artist David Dahlquist to install new art along the city’s new 28th/31st Avenue Connector. Slated to go on the fencing of a new bridge crossing a rail line, the artist’s original vision was to play off different quilt patterns and stitching that supposedly guided slaves northward to freedom during the pre-Civil War South.

The story caused an immediate stir among quilt historians, who on various message boards noted one glaring issue: Universally, historians say the Underground Railroad “quilt code” theory is a farce –– a good story, but not historically true.

“It’s not historically correct at all,” Barbara Brackman, author of Facts and Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery, told The City Paper from her Lawrence, Kan., home. “It’s a myth, sort of like the idea that Betsy Ross made the first American flag and George Washington chopped down a cherry tree.”

Jen Cole, the art commission’s director, who openly discussed the artwork’s connection to the Underground Railroad last week, on Thursday directed The City Paper to a letter she sent to an American Quilt Study Group board member in response to what Cole called “several letters” about the issue.

Cole said the art –– set for installation when the connector’s construction is complete in 2013 –– would continue to have a quilt theme, but would no longer commemorate the Underground Railroad. 

“We were unaware of the historical inaccuracies when we acted,” Cole said. “We basically are going to move forward with the artist, but any relationship to the Underground Railroad, or the quilt code, will be taken out.

“What we think is really most compelling is the visual metaphor of a quilt, and how it knits communities together,” she added. “We feel like that is a sound metaphor. We feel like there’s a rich tradition in Nashville –– in African-American and white communities –– of quilting. So, I think what will stay is the quilting concept.”

Cole said the commission has notified Dahlquist, the artist, about the concerns. She said the commission and artist plan to organize future community meetings to learn more about the stories, themes and symbols that resonate with 28th Avenue-area neighbors.

Brackman, who has penned numerous books on quilt patterns and history, said the “quilt code” narrative dates back 25 to 30 years ago. A 1999 book titled Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad advanced the theory forward.

Why do people believe it? “People love a myth,” Brackman said.

“We have much evidence in peoples’ written accounts of escaping slavery,” Brackman said. “Never is there any mention of anything like a [‘quilt code’] like this ... People relied on the kindness of strangers.”

The “quilt code” has come under fire in other cities whose local governments have commissioned public art based on it.

In New York City, an eight-foot-tall Frederick Douglass statute in Central Park, planned in 2007, originally was to feature a granite quilt with squares and symbols, a tribute to the supposed secret code that aided slaves along the Underground Railroad. (See New York Times story here.)

Like the Nashville situation, historians alerted city officials to the historical inaccuracies, and the original plan was scrapped. Last week, on Sept. 20, New York officials finally erected the Douglass statue –– absent the quilt inspiration.

The Metro Arts Commission selected Dahlquist as the 28th/31st Avenue connector artist after members whittled proposals down to four finalists.

Dollars to pay for the 28th Avenue connector’s public art come from the Percent for the Arts program, a law passed during Mayor Bill Purcell’s tenure that channels 1 percent of all net proceeds of general obligation bonds issued for civic construction projects to public art. 

9 Comments on this post:

By: theone on 9/29/11 at 12:48

What does slavery and quilts have to do with "knitting" the communities together? The Underground Railroad was used as an escape, not for coming together. What exactly does that quilt art work mean. I know that this connector is not for the "good" of Nashville. Bringing "togetherness" is not what Dean has in mind. it's all for his new project coming down the pike -The One City Center. Which just happens to be slated to open in the area that the connector is going to serve! How's that for altruistic motives!

By: slzy on 9/29/11 at 2:12

maybe they could check on the accuracy of Broken Coaster while they are at it.

By: bfra on 9/29/11 at 3:20

Iowa artist? Dean needs to realize there are qualified people here in Nashville & Tennessee and the money could be used for our economy. Oh! The Big Shot thinks we are peons and he has to go out of State or Country for his golden taste!

By: girliegirl on 9/30/11 at 6:48

Blame Purcell, since he started the program.....Dean's merely complying with current law.

By: Melstruck on 9/30/11 at 9:53

Blame the Arts Commission, they are the ones that approved the project. The stupid Ghost Ballet is by a New York artist. Apparently they are incapable of picking local artists. They have access to approve $300k in spending and can't do a simple google search on the Underground Railroad and quilts.

By: bfra on 9/30/11 at 10:12

girlie - So you are saying Purcell dictated that Karl only use out of TN companies & people for commissions, surveys, construction and any other big money projects? Also told Karl to say, "People here are not on a level to talk to him"? DON'T THINK SO!

By: Loner on 9/30/11 at 11:40

In other words, you're gonna get a quilt, like it or not...Jen Cole likes quilts and the Iowas-based artist is one of her favorites, no doubt.

With all due respect, this Jen Cole lady needs to be dressed down...if the original intent was to draw attention to the underground railroad....and the art is to be on a railroad overpass....then sticking with the theme is more important, than sticking with the quilt art as the medium with no particular message or theme. That's quilting for quilt's sake.

Is the proposed public art a salute to the Underground Railroad, or is it a salute to Jen Cole's favorite quilter?

Let's go back to square one on this...there is no emergency here. it's time for additional public input, not Jen Cole's imperial decrees. We're talking significant taxpayer money here.

By: beadmouse on 9/30/11 at 5:48

This is insulting on so many levels. The Southern portion of the United States has produced some of the highest quality quilters of all time. But once again. Tennessee dollars are going out of state, because it has to be from somewhere else to be any good. Second, historically quilting has been an art form developed and created by women. Yet the Tennessee arts commission finds a man from Iowa! And third, the whole "change history to a more palatable form" is not only repulsive, it's dangerous. And it shows incompetence on the part of the Arts Commission and the so-called artist to even propose this project. Neither have any respect for the people of Tennessee.

By: Leazee on 10/2/11 at 9:32

Embarrassing. The Metro Arts Commission continues to lack expertise.