Decked out in neon safety vests and yellow hard hats, the construction workers lay on their stomachs before a low stone wall. Their tools were not nail guns or jackhammers, but tiny paintbrushes. Delicately, they filled in dozens of names etched into stone.

They weren't laboring on some ordinary bricks-and-mortar edifice. They were making public art -- a monument to fallen firefighters on the Capitol grounds in St. Paul.

Similar scenes are playing out across the country as cities turn to public art to fuel a sense of fun or drama that enlivens urban streets, parks and transit stations.

In St. Paul, $4.5 million in public art is being touted as key to the ambience envisioned for the Central Corridor light-rail line and its terminus, Union Depot. With the help of a hefty injection of federal money, each of 18 stops along University Avenue will feature original art appropriate to each site, such as portraits of black leaders including Roy Wilkins at the Victoria Avenue stop to evoke the old Rondo neighborhood.

From Lilliputian statues along the High Line walkway in New York to the giant silver sculpture affectionately called "The Bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park, the idea of using art to create appealing urban environments is gathering steam, even in a tight economy.

In fact, economic development is being used as a pro-art argument, as other Midwest cities including St. Louis, Kansas City and Des Moines look to Chicago's investment in art as a boon to tourist dollars.

"Public art is about making a space special and memorable," said Josh Collins, communications manager for the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority. "It gives people a sense of community and pride. They're not just walking through some place. They're walking through a great place they'll want to come back to and tell their friends about."

Private money for 'public' art

The movement is not without controversy. One person's vital investment in the urban landscape is another's waste of scarce tax dollars, as demonstrated by the dust-up two years ago over city-funded, $50,000-a-pop, artist-designed drinking fountains in Minneapolis. City Council Member Meg Tuthill lobbied to have the initial plan for 10 fountains reduced to four, citing pothole repair as a more pressing need.

"I'm all for public art, as long as we make it functional, like bus benches and bike racks," Tuthill said. "We are not at a time when we can justify spending the money otherwise."

"Public art" doesn't necessarily mean public dollars, however -- only that the art ends up in a public space, said Jack Becker, director of the St. Paul nonprofit Forecast Public Art.

"Lots of people think they paid for the Mary Tyler Moore statue on Nicollet Mall," he said. "But [cable TV's] Viacom commissioned it to promote Nick at Night rerun programming. They put up a Ralph Kramden statue in New York, too."

The $720,000 for the new Capitol monument -- which was dedicated Sunday -- was collected from firefighters throughout Minnesota. "The Wave" at Target Field, the striking wind-veil sculpture enhancing one entire wall of a huge parking garage, was financed entirely by Target Corp. Several artworks in a plaza at the new 10-story Mozaic building in Uptown Minneapolis were paid for by its developer, the Ackerberg Group.

Large infrastructure projects such as bridges and light rail are public art's best friends.

A total of $3.25 million is budgeted for art on the Central Corridor line, plus $1.25 million at Union Depot. The latter project is funded by Ramsey County, but the Federal Transit Administration is covering 80 percent of the cost. That agency is also paying for half of the art along University Avenue, with various metro and state agencies making up the rest.

"Those federal dollars are earmarked for transit projects, so if they didn't come here, they'd be going to projects in Portland or Denver or Seattle," Collins said. The federal government recommends spending between 0.5 percent and 5 percent of capital costs on art. The Union Depot project is at "about .85 percent," he said.

Public art is also included in plans for the Vikings stadium, the Saints stadium in Lowertown St. Paul, the transit hub by the Twins stadium, the Hwy. 7 bridge in St. Louis Park and a new I-35 exit ramp at Lake Street in Minneapolis.

A national model

St. Louis Park has found an innovative way to get more art with less public money. The suburb is seen as a national model for asking private developers to pony up cash for public art as part of the deal.

Its latest success is "The Dream Elevator," a 44-foot-tall sculpture by Minneapolis artist Randy Walker that pays homage to the city's historic grain elevator. It's now under construction in front of a new senior-living complex at 36th Street and Wooddale Avenue.

Another trend encouraging officials to promote public art is a move away from so-called "plop" art -- works that don't have a direct correlation to their surroundings. Instead, artists are involved from the outset of projects, which not only saves money but results in art that better fits its environs.

Irrigate, an initiative led by St. Paul artists who live near the Central Corridor, is an example of the trend. A partnership between the city of St. Paul and two nonprofit arts organizations, Irrigate connects artists with neighborhood groups and small businesses along or near the six-mile corridor. One result: A colorful stained-glass design by artists Steve Bougie and Richard Fuller beautifies a chain link fence at University and Raymond avenues.

"It's not art for art's sake," said Mary Altman, public-arts administrator for the City of Minneapolis. "It's an organic part of the community, meant to be interacted with."

She cited the success of Minneapolis' new utility-box program. The city offers artist-created designs on vinyl that neighborhood associations can purchase at low cost to cover those ugly curbside fixtures.

"My phone hasn't stopped ringing" since the program was introduced, Altman said.

Liesl Fenner, who manages the public-art program at the national advocacy nonprofit Americans for the Arts, said that the thriving Twin Cities scene reflects a national trend, but that a downturn may come: "A lot of the projects being completed now were funded through capital-improvement dollars approved years ago."

Fenner offered another reason that elected officials mindful of being seen as spendthrifts might support public art in tough times: "When dollars are tight, people who can't afford to see a play or go to a museum can still enjoy public art. It's free and accessible."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046