Already, “Top Dog” is attracting strange looks.
People don’t know quite what to make of the stainless steel dog with the slanted bowler hat that stands like a sentry atop an 18-foot replica of a locomotive piston.
Maybe it’s a guard dog watching for unwelcome intruders to the neighborhood. Maybe it’s a dedication to someone’s long-lost pet, from an era when people still wore bowler hats, speculated passers-by at the Open Streets festival on Sunday.
In fact, “Top Dog” is one of five public art projects commissioned by the city of Minneapolis and now on display on W. 29th Street near Lyndale Avenue. The conceptual artworks are meant to reflect the history of the neighborhood, while paying homage to public spaces and the diversity flowing through this bustling area near Uptown in south Minneapolis.
All together, the installation cost $145,000 and was funded through the city’s Art in Public Places program.
“This area used to be full of railroad workers, and they had a tough, roguish quality,” said Kyle Fokken, the sculptor who designed ”Top Dog,” which was officially unveiled at a dedication event Sunday. “So that’s why ‘Top Dog’ has some attitude, some personality.”
The program has funded about 70 projects in 350 locations throughout Minneapolis, usually by integrating the art into existing building projects.
Each of the participating artists in the W. 29th Street project was relatively new to public art. None had ever completed an outdoor, permanent, three-dimensional artwork, said Mary Altman, the city’s public arts administrator. “We really wanted to engage more emerging artists, because it’s a small field of artists who can compete for these types of projects and we want to diversify the representation of artists,” she said.
Not all the projects are as large or imposing as “Top Dog,” which has 6,000 pounds of concrete and was lowered by an industrial crane last week onto its spot overlooking the Midtown Greenway. Another is a bike rack with images of flour sacks carried by locomotives that used to travel up and down this former railroad corridor.
Nearby is a conceptual bench created by Niko Kubota, a young architect from Minneapolis. The elliptical steel-and-wooden bench bends around in a circle, and the wavelike design is meant to project a feeling of movement and the flow of humanity, Kubota said. The hardwood panels on the bench contain small maps of various home cities — including Mogadishu, Somalia, and Cholet, France — of people he has met while walking the streets of Minneapolis. Carved below each map is the distance it took each person to travel to Minneapolis.
“I wanted to give a sense of how far people have come to be here,” he said. “It’s also about playful movement, which reflects this area.”
Of course, public art creates its own challenges. At a minimum, the artists had to prove their projects were strong enough to survive multiple Minnesota winters. Public art also requires more engagement with the community, because people tend to take more ownership of communal spaces and to be critical of changes to their surroundings, Altman said. A more unusual concern is how close one’s public art project is to drinking establishments.
Early on, Kubota said one of his friends, an engineer, cautioned him about constructing a public bench within a short walk to two popular bars on Lyndale Avenue. The engineer suggested that Kubota “stress test” his artwork by having two, 250-pound men (one for each bar) repeatedly jump up and down on the bench to mimic the behavior of drunken revelers.
To Kubota’s relief, the bench survived.