Durham History Hub
June 17–July 19, free
Opening reception, June 20, 6–9 p.m.
Walking tour, June 28, 10:30 a.m.

Cities use a variety of benchmarks to measure progress. They slice and dice economic and demographic statistics to show growth or hide decline. But Chamber of Commerce figures don’t paint a vivid cultural or social portrait. What benchmarks do you use for that?

The Durham History Hub checks the dipstick of the city’s cultural engine with REMEMBERING LOADED TEXT: THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF A PUBLIC ART WORK MADE IN DURHAM. The exhibit looks back at Loaded Text, a 1989 project by Mel Ziegler and Kate Ericson. Curators Julie Thomson, Andrew Barco and Sabri Reed celebrate a fascinating, controversial project while offering a backward glance at Durham during a time of rapid cultural changea civic moment that mirrors the city’s present one.

In 1989, as in 2014, the Bull City’s arts profile was rising. The movie Bull Durham had come out the year before. Brightleaf Square was still new and the Carolina Theatre was recently renovated. The Durham Arts Council building had just opened its sparkling glass atrium and hosted a national conference on public art. Some of the proceedings were the first-ever events at the Marriott Convention Center downtown.

“There was a sense that Durham was on the cusp,” recalls Margaret DeMott, director of artist services at the Durham Arts Council. She worked at the conference and helped facilitate Loaded Text in 1989. “Things were moving, stirring, happening. It was an interesting community with a lot of artistic heritage and creativityand it was willing to try something different.”

As part of the conference, North Carolina sculptor Patrick Dougherty and the New York-based, married artist team of Ziegler and Ericson were each commissioned to make works in Durham. Dougherty wove one of his characteristic tornadoes of sticks in the atrium staircase and second-floor landing. Ziegler and Ericson, however, wanted to make something with deeper significance to the community.

To do so, they visited Durham and subscribed to local papers. One morning in their Manhattan apartment, they read about the city’s approval of a Downtown Durham Revitalization Plan. Seeking public comment, the city placed two copies of the 65-page document in the public library. That’s what passed for distribution before the Internet.

“We thought the plan was really kind of important for the city and for what it would mean to different people who live downtown,” remembers Ziegler, who now teaches at Vanderbilt University. “So we thought that two copies in the library wasn’t visible enough.”

With Ericson, who passed away in 1995 at age 39, Ziegler conceived of Loaded Text as a way to at once disseminate and enact the city’s plan. They spent five days on their hands and knees in the June heat, copying out the revitalization plan on the crumbling Rigsbee Street sidewalk next to the downtown post office. They went through more than 70 magic marker refills. Three days later, the artists hired local contractors to rip up the sidewalk and pour new concrete in its place.

During the public art conference, three massive dump trucks heaped with 15 tons of hand-lettered sidewalk chunks sat in front of the Durham Arts Council. Then the rubble was driven to the gully where creek water flows beneath Corporation Street between Foster and Morris Streets, near what is now the Old Durham Athletic Park. If you clamber down the steep embankment there, you can still see the neatly stacked sidewalk pieces preventing erosion.

Loaded Text was practicalit was essentially two civic infrastructure projects presented as performanceand it wasn’t what people thought of as public art at the time. A statue in front of a new building was public art, not a length of new sidewalk and a reinforced creek bed.

“Kate and I were challenging this idea by asking ‘Why are artists always being told where to put our art?’” Ziegler says. “In other words, either architects or arts administrators would say, ‘Do your art here. Here’s a shaded area.’ I mean, I’m an artistI don’t need to be told where to put my art. Why can’t I be told ‘Here’s your budget. Find a way in which your art can integrate into this place.’”

Locally, Loaded Text was sometimes misunderstood. The press portrayed the artists as New York swindlers writing graffiti on the sidewalk. A June 6, 1989 Durham Morning Herald editorial suggested that the City Council should jury the Durham Arts Council’s grant programs, accusing Ziegler and Ericson of squandering money needed for street repairs and sewer maintenance on “temporary, meaningless ‘art.’”

The public also bristled at the $10,000 commission, though $8,000 of it went to local demolition and paving contractors. “We were shocked because we thought we were doing this nice civic gesture,” Ziegler remembers. “People started driving by, yelling derogatory things out their windows. They were pissed off that we were writing on their sidewalk. There were times when we felt really threatened.”

Although Loaded Text was controversial in its moment, DeMott remembers it as a step forward for a progressive city. “For a few years after, people would say ‘Oh, that sidewalk piece,’ and they would roll their eyes,” she says. “But then they would admit that they had a piece of it in their garage or garden.”

With Remembering Loaded Text, the curators hope that the work’s civic spirit will resonate more clearly with modern Durham’s D.I.Y. pride. Contemporary and archival photographs of each project site will be on display, as will chunks of the demolished sidewalk. The curators also plan to gather stories from eyewitnesses in the History Hub’s Story Room.

“It became part of our city,” Thomson says. “It has a legacy here. I think we can still learn from it, especially at a moment when Durham is changing so quickly.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Controversy in concrete”