A dozen years after it landed in Chaska, “Nature Morte” still causes a ripple.
The massive abstract concrete and metal sculpture appears incongruous amid conventional suburban subdivisions. City Administrator Matt Podhradsky says his wife sometimes comments on the piece as they drive by.
“She’ll look at me and say, ‘Really? Did you guys really have to put that up?’ I tell her it was a citizens committee that chose it,” Podhradsky says.
In an era when public art is flourishing in Twin Cities suburbs, officials and artists alike are navigating the fissures in fickle public opinion, weighing aesthetic and economic concerns.
Communities are formalizing rules around how pieces are chosen, and by whom, sometimes opting to get feedback with public comment periods and “peoples’ choice” contests. Some, like Hopkins and Edina, are testing the waters with short-term installations before committing to permanent ones.
“There always are some people who love a piece and some who hate it,” said Juli Johnson, Eagan’s parks and recreation director. The city, now in the process of expanding its public art policy beyond parks to include all city-owned property, has a small selection committee but also a 30-day comment period for residents to weigh in. “It’s an investment, and we want to make sure it speaks to our community values,” Johnson said.
Eagan also regularly looks for ways to involve residents in the making of public art. Later this month, an artist-designed mural painted by residents 12 and older at this summer’s annual art festival will make its permanent home in Eagan’s Community Center.
But cities’ desire to be inclusive can sometimes be frustrating for artists dealing in the public realm. Marcia McEachron, who has wire and metal sculptures throughout the Twin Cities, said she once had to deal with a selection committee with 24 people. “There were just too many people from too many walks of life,” she said.
Victoria artist Deb Zeller said she was surprised this year when a selection committee in her town quickly and unanimously chose her preferred design for a sculpture she is to produce to mark the city’s 100th anniversary. “Getting that many people to agree on something usually takes a long time,” she said.
Zeller said short-term installations by some cities have helped educate people about art by exposing them to an ever-changing series of works.
“Cities find they get a sculpture that just creates a ruckus — people hate it, want it gone,” said Zeller, whose sculpture “Goddess of the Grapes” is one of six pieces on display for a year in downtown Hopkins as part of its Artstreet Program. “A community can tell people when a year is up they’ll get something else. In the meantime, that art did exactly what it was supposed to do — it got people talking.”
The short stints also allow cities to display art for a fraction of the cost of buying it outright. Chaska’s much-debated sculpture cost $23,000. Works in bronze can easily cost more than $50,000. A $17,500 artist-designed mural at Eden Prairie’s new aquatics facility recently figured into some residents’ complaints about the overall cost of the $21 million building project.
And when communities make artwork part of their infrastructure, the financial commitments go beyond just acquisition costs. “Maintenance is a big issue,” McEachron said. “In climates like ours, the weather can really beat up a piece.” Even things like road salt can affect a decision on where to place sculptures, she said.
Zeller said she failed in her first attempt to have her work chosen in a public art competition, later learning from the selection committee that her pieces were considered too fragile. “I was told they wouldn’t stand up to the wear and tear of being out in the public, having people interact with them,” she said. “I took the suggestions to heart, made some more robust pieces and started getting in.”
McEachron said she noticed a dip in cities’ interest in public art during the recession. Podhradsky said that’s probably because communities sometimes install public art to complement new housing and commercial developments, both of which fell off during the economic downturn.
‘Part of everyday life’
Now, a rebound in home and commercial building is fueling some communities’ increased interest in public art.
Hastings recently formed a group of seven citizens to establish guidelines for grants for public art, much of it to be incorporated in its Riverfront Renaissance redevelopment project. The goal is to avoid a random process where community art “is bought and plopped down,” said City Administrator Melanie Mesko Lee.
The Brooklyn Park City Council is expected to review a public art policy put together last year by a task force made up of city staff and residents. The city sees opportunities to include public art along its Hwy. 610 corridor, which continues to draw interest from developers, according to Alisha Gray, business development coordinator. A public relations company hired by the city as part of a rebranding campaign also recommended public art as a way of burnishing the city’s image, she said.
Jack Becker, director of the St. Paul nonprofit Forecast Public Art, said suburbs also find functional uses for public art, like wayfinding. “It can bring character and identity to areas that might be easily confused, like a trail,” he said.
Becker and others also say the expansion of light rail is creating more opportunities for public art, and not just at stations. Hopkins has plans for an “Artery” — an art-infused corridor linking its downtown to the future stop on the Southwest LRT line.
Susan Hanna-Bibus, director of arts programs and marketing in Hopkins, said she already sees people standing around discussing Artstreet pieces. She expects the same when the Artery begins to fill up.
“I think people are getting used to the idea that art is a part of everyday life. It’s not something that you have to go to a museum to see, and it’s just for somebody else.”
Podhradsky agrees, adding that a work like “Nature Morte,” by Minneapolis artist Zoran Mojsilov, serves a purpose: “It brings people together, gives them something to talk about.”