The $55,000 abstract sculpture Conversation Piece #4c, by Ida Renee Rittenberg Kohlmeyer (1912-1997), is now displayed in the vestibule of the Asheville Parks and Recreation building at 65 Gashes Creek Road in East Asheville. The city acquired it in 2003, paying about a third of the cost. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle.

Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:

Question: You know how you can tell the difference between newcomers and folks who’ve been around for a while by obscure references? I remember quite the hot fuss over a polarizing piece of public art called Conversation Piece #4c. There were public meetings, letters to the editor, etc. It took up space in Pack Place for a few years before the Asheville Art Museum changed the locks on the other tenants. Has it found a new home?

My answer: I mean, I guess technically it’s still a piece of “public art,” although you have to really want to find it, and you’re very likely to walk right past it. Hey, maybe that’s a good thing…

Real answer: I was able to track down this famous/infamous piece of Asheville history, with a little help from City of Asheville spokesperson Kim Miller.

“The piece is currently located in the vestibule of the Parks and Recreation offices, after moving there from the Grant Center during renovation works,” Miller said via email. “The beloved piece is still accessible to the community, many of whom gather there for hikes, pickleball net checkout, etc.”

I’ll note here that “beloved” might be a bit strong, as plenty of folks really hated this abstract sculpture. Also, it ain’t like this is a high-traffic spot.

I first looked for it in the Parks & Recreation offices in City Hall. Wrong place by a few miles, literally.

It’s in the Parks & Recreation building on Gashes Creek Road, near Rec Park in East Asheville. When I stopped by Monday, the building looked empty, but after I rang the doorbell, a helpful employee let me in. 

When I told her I was looking for the sculpture, she pointed right behind me. There it sat, all eight and a half feet of it, sandwiched between two sets of glass doors.

I asked her how many people come through the building and see the artwork. “Not very many,” she said.

Miller noted the sculpture is “most visible during business hours, like the USS Asheville Exhibit at City Hall and the terrazzo piece at Harrah’s Cherokee Center.”

The vestibule of the Parks and Recreation building that holds “Conversation Piece #4c” doesn’t leave much room for conversation. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

Um, it’s not really very visible at all, unless you step inside the building. Otherwise, the glare from the glass makes it almost invisible.

Sure, technically this piece of public art, which the city invested $18,000 of taxpayer money in 20 years ago, is indeed in a public location. But it’s very easy to walk right past.

Katie Cornell, chairperson of the city’s Public Art and Cultural Commission, said the Parks & Recreation Department requested to move the artwork from the Grant Center in 2018, which the commission approved that July. The Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Community Center is located on Livingston Street, a few blocks from downtown.

The Parks & Recreation presentation about the move noted that the artwork took up too much space at the Grant Center and would be a better fit in the vestibule of the Parks & Recreation building at Rec Park. 

“Conversation Art Piece #4C will replace the trophy case,” the presentation stated, with a photo of said trophy case.

I’m thinking the supply closet must’ve been taken.

For the record, this was not a cheap piece of art. The total price was $55,000, with the Hugh and Ida Kohlmeyer Foundation picking up a third of the cost and the Asheville Public Art Board the other third.

Above: A sampling of other abstract sculptures by Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer, a New Orleans artist regarded as one of the South’s leading modern artists. Which one do you think the City of Asheville should have chosen instead of “Conversation Piece #4c”?

Back in 2003, when the city was considering the purchase, Conversation Piece #4c generated a firestorm of commentary. In a notorious July 2003 City Council work session, then-Councilman Joe Dunn delivered the most memorable line about the sculpture.

Former Citizen Times staff writer Melissa Williams covered the meeting. She wrote that Councilman Joe Dunn, “who viewed the piece with a scrunched up face,” agreed with former Council Carl Mumpower that the city shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money on it.

“I mean, what is it?” Dunn said. “Can anybody tell me what that is?’”

Nobody really could, although theories ranged from a candy propeller with touches of watermelon, to a fashionable yet esoteric couple setting out for a night on the town. 

The artist Ida Renee Rittenberg Kohlmeyer (1912-1997) in her New Orleans studio in this undated photo. Kohlmeyer was an American painter and sculptor who lived and worked in Louisiana. Kohlmeyer took up painting in her 30s and achieved wide recognition for her work in art museums and galleries throughout the United States. Notably, her work is held by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Kohlmeyer, who died in 1997 at age 84, was a renowned abstract expressionist artist who lived most of her life in New Orleans. That also didn’t help, as a lot of people favored spending local tax dollars on local artwork.

The controversy blew up, as Williams, who still lives in Asheville, recalled.

“The next thing I knew, the paper had to open up extra pages for reactions that came in as letters to the editor,” Williams told me. “It was a legit ‘Hey, Martha!’ moment that folks were talking about all over the city. My office voicemail filled up.”

In her estimation, all the response, even the vitriol, was good for Asheville.

“My feeling is that art is meant to evoke a reaction, whether good or bad,” Williams said. “Indifference is the enemy of creativity. So kudos to Kohlmeyer. Back then, no one was indifferent.”

On Monday, I called Dunn, 79, to see if he had become indifferent to the piece. First I asked him if he even knew where Kohlmeyer’s piece ended up.

“I think they hid it somewhere,” Dunn said with a laugh.

A retired dentist who’s been out of politics for nearly two decades, Dunn said he still recalls Conversation Piece as “one of the ugliest pieces of artistic work I’d ever seen.”

Definitely a “Hey, Martha!” moment, as reported by the Asheville Citizen Times

“That thing was downright ugly,” Dunn said. “I think it needs to be hidden away and forgotten about, unless you wanted to pull it out on Halloween and stick it out in front of Pack Square or something. Which of course if you did that, it wouldn’t last long and probably get destroyed.”

Obviously, Joe Dunn voted against spending the city’s money on it back in the day.

But former Asheville Mayor Charles Worley, and then-Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, who went on to serve two terms as mayor, both voted in favor of the expenditure.

Worley said Monday a piece of art is always going to stir varying opinions.

“That’s what it’s intended for in the first place,” he said. “When you have a piece of art, there’s going to be some people who like it and some who don’t.”

He and Bellamy both said the artwork should be in a more public place than its current location.

“I do think because it’s public art, the public should be able to view it,” Bellamy said. “And it was an investment — a public/private partnership — for that to occur.”

She described the piece as “eclectic,” but with nice symmetry and an art deco-ish nuance to it that fits well in Asheville.

I suppose a group of four or five people could gather in the Parks & Rec vestibule to soak in Kohlmeyer’s creation, but it’s not exactly a public gallery. 

Bellamy said this could be a good opportunity for the city and other groups to work collaboratively to find the best location for the piece, possibly a place where a lot of tourists gather, as well as locals. An outdoors placement is not ideal, by the way, because the sculpture is painted aluminum, and weather or vandals could cause damage.

But I think Bellamy is onto something.

“I would love to see it in a prominent place where the public can actually enjoy it,” she said.

Back in the aughts, there was some discussion about putting it out at Asheville Regional Airport, but that never happened. It seems no one was clamoring for Conversation Piece #4c.

Which is sad. While the piece is not exactly my cup of tea, I think it’s quirky and fun, much like Asheville. It deserves better than this ignominious fate.

Back in 2006, a much younger Answer Man (yours truly), wrote in the Citizen Times about Conversation Piece #4c and the push to put it at the airport. 

“It is public art, and it needs to be in a very public place,” Barbary Cary, chair of the Art Board, told me at the time.

As Williams put it to me in an email, the location in the lobby of the nondescript Parks & Rec building is “quite a fall from where it started and what it stirred up, really.”

“Being ‘excited’ about art, even in that way, was so incredibly ‘Asheville,’” she said.

In short, we can do a whole lot better than this.

Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at or 828-337-0941.

4 replies on “Answer Man: Whatever happened to Conversation Piece #4c, the controversial ‘What is it?’ piece of Asheville public art?”

  1. Has the conversation piece increased in value? Possible following the artist’s death. Might have been a good investment after all.

  2. I’m curious as to where Conversation Piece(s) #4a and #4b are. Are there also Conversation Pieces 1,2, and 3 with variations a, b, and c? C’mon John. Give us the “rest of the story!”

  3. Sidenote since you mentioned it- the USS Asheville Exhibit at City Hall is excellent, interesting, and historically important. Highly recommend.

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