Even long-time Nashvillians may have forgotten the quirky carousel that used to twirl along the banks of the Cumberland River.
Designed by the pop artist Red Grooms, the spinning homage to Tennessee delighted and bemused tourists and families, starting in the late 1990s. Then, it was abruptly closed and taken down.
That prompted this Curious Nashville inquiry from Becca Ganick:
What happened to the Red Grooms carousel?
Her question turned out to be a timely one, because it turns out the piece, formally known as the Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel, could be brought back.
Right now, the carousel is in the care of the Tennessee State Museum. And when officials show it to me, the museum’s registrar, Bob White, hits me with a quiz.
“You recognize any of the other characters?”
After some fumbling, I identify the figure as Grantland Rice, the famed Nashville sportswriter and a journalistic hero of mine.
He’s wearing a fedora and pounding away at a typewriter — with a body that’s part baseball player and part horse. Riders of the carousel would have sat in the saddle. His face is grotesque, in the artistic sense of the word, even cartoonish.
White points to several other figures. Every one of them is laden with imagery. In fact, there’s enough symbolism among the 36 figures stored here that you could spend a day puzzling and still not work out every meaning.
That’s Wilma Rudolph, her torso fused with a tiger, a reminder of her time on the Tennessee State track team.
Captain Tom Ryman merges with a steamboat. H.G. Hill and shopping cart.
“Let’s see, what’s the turbaned guy over here?” I ask.
“Ah, that’s Sequoyah,” I reply. “Of course! Of course.”
If all goes well, Tennesseans may soon be able to ponder these figures once more. There’s talk the Red Grooms carousel could whirl again, in a dedicated building alongside the new state museum now under construction.
All it takes is money, says spokeswoman Mary Skinner.
“That would be a win-win for everybody,” she says. “But we’re still trying to raise the money for the actual new museum.”
The carousel cost $1.75 million to build. Its opening made the arts pages nationwide.
Many of the figures were commissioned by private donors and corporations. But the final selections came from Grooms, who told an interviewer from The New York Times that he wanted to show off his hometown’s diversity.
There’s a pair of pioneering African-American architects holding building plans. A famed rabbi with a synagogue atop his head. Businesspeople, artists and musicians. As well as the chigger, the catfish and the fox.
When the carousel opened in 1998, as many as 10,000 people a month were paying $1.50 each to give it a ride. But over the next five years that number tapered to about 2,000. Blame was placed on Opryland’s decision to discontinue water taxi service to downtown.
“Nashville wasn’t the booming tourist mecca down there that it is now,” says Skinner. “I mean, we didn’t have all the throngs of tourists that are visiting us now and are visiting the honky-tonks.”
Skinner says it might have been providential that the carousel was moved. She notes that area was under water in May, 2010.
“Look at what happened to Riverfront Park during the flood. This carousel would have been destroyed if it was still down at Riverfront Park.”
The state museum took ownership from the Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel Foundation in 2003. As part of the deal, it assumed the carousel’s remaining debt of $350,000.
Since 2004, the carousel has been sitting in pieces in a state warehouse. Two separate agencies asked me not to say where — such is their fear it could be targeted by thieves.
Museum officials refuse to say how much the carousel is worth now — their policy is not to put a price tag on the museum’s holdings — but its value is likely in the millions. Grooms, who now lives in New York, is regarded as one of the greatest artists to ever come out of Tennessee.
“You know, there’s so much of contemporary art that’s very cold and metallic,” Elisabeth Hodermarsky, a curator at the Yale University Art Gallery, said of Grooms’ work in an interview with Connecticut Public Television.
“And Red is really all about humanity and warmth.”
‘It Needs To Be Up And Running’
The Tennessee State Museum occasionally brings out pieces of the carousel for exhibitions. Nine figures will be included in a Grooms retrospective that opens next month at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
But the agreement all along was that it would be reconstructed when the museum moved into its new home on Bicentennial Mall.
As planning for that building has dragged on, the carousel has become a lower priority. It’s no longer included in the project’s $160 million budget.
State officials say even more money will have to be raised for the carousel to be rebuilt. Deputy commissioner John Hull with the Department of General Services says at least a few million dollars — enough for its own enclosure.
“It’s an historical piece. It’s an art,” he says. “And, so we think, that in order to maintain it over the long term, it actually has to be inside a structure and not exposed to the elements.”
That answer doesn’t satisfy some lovers of the carousel.
“It’s so clever, and so beautiful, and it needs to be up and running and visible,” says attorney Bob Tuke, a former board member for the Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel Foundation.
He keeps a model of it in his Nashville office. It’s one of the few ways to see today what it looks like when put together.
Tuke recalls schoolchildren riding the carousel to learn state history. He can’t think of a better place to put it than the state museum.
That was the deal when the carousel was turned over, he says.
“They are not living up to their promise, and that disappoints me.”
Tuke says the carousel never should have been left out of the state museum’s plans. But if more money is what’s needed, he says he’ll volunteer to help find it.
“If they go ahead and do it anyway, with another fundraiser, I’m all about that.”