Salt Lake City, UT

Game of Gnomes: The Artistic Controversy Continues at 9th and 9th

Kristen Kittel

Whaler Is Coming.
The War of Art at Salt Lake's 9th and 9thKristen Kittel

It's a silent but steady war.

Organic vs Commercial.

Gnome vs Whale.

On July 24th, 2021, The Salt Lake Tribune published an article about “Gnome Hill.” Gnome Hill is a collection of adorable garden gnomes situated in the middle of a roundabout on 900 S. Unfortunately, they are currently squatters on the site reserved by the Salt Lake City Arts Council for a piece designed by renowned local artist Stephen Kesler (scheduled for installation this autumn). So the uproar began when the council removed the gnomes for the forthcoming humpback whale sculpture. You read that right. A whale sculpture. In the middle of urban Utah, a landlocked desert. Did no one ever teach these politicians that while their campaign coordinators are always encouraging them to “land a whale,” they probably didn’t mean for them to kiss up to that whale quite so publicly?

A few days after the Tribune article, on July 27th, 2021, Tracy Harward posted an update to the “Save the Gnomes of 9th and 9th” online petition. The tallest gnome, the gnome featured in the Tribune article and holding a “Whales Belong in the Ocean” sign, had been anonymously destroyed the night before. Another loss in the continuing battle for control of the valuable 9th and 9th area real-estate.

Was the attack from a rival gang of plastic flamingos, each standing on their one leg like a flamboyance of peg-legged pirates? Or was it the Salt Lake City Art Design Council doubling down on their unanimous decision to enshrine a whale? Now that flamingos are positioning themselves strategically around the contested terrain, perhaps they are somehow pivotal, either as Guardians of the Gnomes or as drones for the Art Design Council.
9th and 9th's Flamboyance of FlamingosKristen Kittel

It may never be revealed what happened, or who is doing what for whom, but it is clear that the passion is not diminishing on either side of this artistic drama. In fact, it appears to be escalating. With the arrival of the global contingent of gnomes waving their country flags, gnome proponents are heartened by this inferred support of the United Gnomations.
The Flags of the Burgeoning United GnomationsKristen Kittel

The roundabout is a new addition to 9th South and 11th East- one of the busiest entryways to the artsy, happy, liberal, lovable, empowering, health-conscious, delicious “9th and 9th” neighborhood of Salt Lake City.

The roundabout was completed about a year and a half ago. Not long after that, the gnomes started appearing on the open mound of wood chips set in the middle of the roundabout. The gnome-mans land between the streets, if you will.

It’s a mysterious conundrum. Where did the gnomes come from - and from whence do they continue to arrive? Some sources say that the display grew organically, unexpectedly and overnight, as a protest to the announcement of the whale sculpture. However, many locals agree the most likely scenario is that it was an open, unused area that inspired some whimsical soul to reach out to their scared and quarantined community.

They assume that, while we were in pandemic lock-down, generous citizens took it upon themselves to bring some extra joy to 900 South. (Remember how many people put bears in windows all over the country? But as we all know, gnomes weather the outdoors better than teddy bears, so this is a wise extrapolation. Plus, who can argue with the fact that there’s "no place like gnome?")
The Welc-gnoming Committee of Gnome HillKristen Kittel

Local baristas report that these gnomes have certainly been a source of hope, laughter, comfort, and connectivity throughout the pain of the last year and a half. A sizable and vocal group of citizens is consequently fighting hard to keep the gnomes in their erstwhile territory, maintaining that the whale is not something they were consulted about, nor is it something the neighborhood desires. So every time the gnomes get removed, more reappear in their place faster than you can say “stop being a Moby Dick about it.”

So - after months of this ongoing battle - if the people want to stop the fighting and have the gnomes, not the whale, why hasn’t the City Council backed down at all since their March announcement and the ensuing round and round (appropriate for a conflict over a roundabout, by the way) tug-o-war about which art will be there? Well, the subjective nature of art takes a forefront in the discussion and reminds us that it’s never as clear cut as we might expect.
Round and Round at 9th and 9thKristen Kittel

The March post on Stephen Kesler’s Instagram account announcing his design had won the commission generated over 1200 likes. So either he has a lot of relatives, or there really is desire for his “Out of the Blue” sculpture to be created. (Not a joke; that is its actual title.)

To be sure, Kesler is a talented, well-respected artist, and his design does fulfill the promise of its title -it’s definitely out of nowhere. But aren’t there any local animals that also represent “community, resilience, and harmony?" As Dorothy found out the hard way, why go looking further than your own backyard?

As one local asked, how many people are going to stop and read the placard of justification for this choice? How many more are going to simply wonder who chose to put a whale 4,325 feet above sea level? And why?

The Arts Council maintains that they asked the nearby community members. Of course, it’s hard not to imagine a Parks and Rec-style meeting where 15 people is a “great turn out,” since none of the supposedly “over 100 people” who responded to the surveys are showing up to the discussion now. Few of the local residents, business owners, or visitors recently interviewed are standing up for the whale in the online comments or on the street. If you asked for this, or want it, speak up because your neighbors have questions.

Regardless of the well-meaning heart behind the art, the majority of reactions are pointing out that it doesn’t belong and doesn’t feel representative of that eclectic area. Some businesses worry that it doesn’t have the vibe of the rest of the art or flowers or food along 9th and 9th.

Reportedly, the nearby bridal shop worries about brides taking pictures in their gowns- the least problematic reaction being “wow you look so skinny compared to that whale.” There are also concerns about potential driving distraction causing unnecessary traffic or accidents. Right now the artistic installation is petite, organic, contained and cute. The whale will be 23 feet tall and 40 feet wide with a rotating mural done by a new local artist every couple of years. That is, if you can keep the gnomes and the graffiti artists from regularly staging a hostile takeover.
Peaceful Protest at 9th and 9thKristen Kittel

As strong reactions flood the Arts Council and mayor Erin Mendenhall, who approved the project, the message from the bureaucracy has become that the gnomes are welcome to return once the whale is installed. Felicia Baca, the council’s director, has gone so far as to say in a written statement that “our years of facilitating public art tell us that first impressions aren’t always the feelings that stick in the long run.” So essentially, she is saying that the priority is not on what the locals are feeling. They expect 9th and 9th to get used to it and for history to side with the council’s choice. Whale see, won't we?

Furthermore, in a blog post from several months ago, they reiterate that this is a safe project being built completely to safety code, and in fact the enormous size of the whale is precisely what makes it so safe. If you're curious, here is the link to more details about the project.

Utahns are not strangers to cultural clashes. When the oceanic intruder appears, will it be the joyful gesture the artist is hoping for? Or will it feel (as some are already worrying) like a jarring reminder that this haven of contented counterculture has been a thriving space for many who feel like a fish (or whale) out of water? The neighborhood is certainly a place where misfits, transplants, artistic souls, and so-called regular folks coexist harmoniously. It is frequently mentioned that it’s not so much that the whale isn't desirable, but that perhaps there is a more inherently inclusive subject for a statue at that location. The consensus seems to be that Salt Lake has many parks that could benefit from this undoubtedly beautiful addition.

No matter what intrigue happens next, this debate is certainly an indication that 9th and 9th is always going to be a thriving artistic community, gnome matter what.

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A lifelong storyteller and curator of unexpected art, passionate about positivity, eager to support other creators and artists, advocate for quiet voices, and a voracious connector of surprising ideas and people.

Seattle, WA

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