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St. Paul Brings Public Artists into City Hall as Partners in Creating the City

By Susannah Schouweiler

St. Paul, Minnesota, is spearheading a quiet revolution in public art. A 2009 city ordinance includes artists in the regulations by which the city makes and remakes itself. Here, artists don’t merely make sculptures and murals to adorn the urban landscape; they have a meaningful role in city government and participate in the conception, development, and implementation of all manner of city projects. It’s an “upstream” conception in which public art is so deeply placed in the workaday services of the city as to be indistinguishable from them.

Equally striking are the hybrid funding structures undergirding the city’s efforts. Long before ArtPlace and the “creative placemaking” boom, with its emphasis on public-private collaboration, there was Public Art Saint Paul. This privately funded nonprofit has, for 25 years, worked with civil engineers, urban planners, and public works staffers of St. Paul’s city agencies to embed artists in a variety of capital projects and programs, and they’ve done so through several mayoral administrations and city council shake-ups. Public Art Saint Paul leverages private funding for “city artists” to work alongside civil servants. “We fund the City Artists in Residence with private dollars so there are no taxpayer monies at stake,” explains Christine Podas-Larson, director of Public Art Saint Paul, “and in return the city agrees to provide our artists a place to work [in City Hall], giving them a seat at the table.”

The nonprofit similarly funds the position of Public Art Ordinance Administrator, currently held by Regina Flanagan. In September 2012, Flanagan released guidelines, available in hard copy and online [pdf], for interpreting and executing the 2009 Public Art Ordinance. The manual provides definitions and handy, descriptive capsules that translate into everyday language the administrative jargon found in the actual text of the ordinance, making the ordinance transparent to the artists, architects, engineers, public works staffers, urban planners, politicians, and organizations charged with putting it into action. Indeed, the guidelines are, themselves, an innovation in public art and a model for effective cross-disciplinary teamwork.

City Artists in Residence Program

St. Paul’s current “city artist” is Marcus Young, who refers to himself as a “behavioral artist,” has served in the role since 2008, and works closely with the Public Works Department. “When it came time to interview artists for the residency program, everyone assumed we would hire a sculptor,” says Podas-Larson. “That’s what most people think of when they think of a public artist. Then Marcus came in and said, ‘I have a lot of ideas and experience I’m eager to share with you, but I don’t make anything.’ Some people got nervous when they heard that, but others got excited. In the end, we recognized the promise of what Marcus’s fresh way of conceiving public art could offer: observations and insights that could make a real difference in city life.”

The experiment has proven so successful that the program was expanded in December 2012. Young now leads a team including two more City Artists in Residence: Amanda Lovelee, a visual artist with a proclivity for socially engaged art and photography, whose efforts for the city will include “temporal work and public engagement”; and Sarah West, a multidisciplinary artist whose work tends toward architectural and large-scale public art installations and whose residency will focus on “streets and open spaces.”

Young reports that, in spite of any early jitters on the part of his colleagues in public works, the city artists have been well received. “I’ve been welcomed into the conversation from the beginning,” he explains. “We’re guests, and we want to be very up front about that, but there’s genuine interest in the contributions we can make.” Far from fighting for a seat at the table, Young says that civil servants seek out the city artists. “We don’t have enough people yet to meet the demand. The truth is, even if I had a team of 10, we’d still have more than enough projects available to keep ourselves busy.”

Young’s most successful initiative as city artist has been Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk. As part of the city’s annual replacement of broken sidewalks, Young developed a program in which the Public Works Department now inscribes new sidewalk panels with poetry. New poems are selected each year from a pool of submissions by St. Paul residents. Several years into the program, hundreds of poems now grace sidewalks in neighborhoods all over the city.

The sidewalk project has not only garnered support from residents; it has brought unexpected accolades to the department. In 2012, the city sought accreditation from the American Public Works Association. In order to be accredited, a city is ranked on hundreds of measures, and high rankings not only recognize a job well done, but can help secure federal funding for infrastructure projects. Accreditation can add up to real money for capital projects. St. Paul got the highest possible rating for curbs, gutters, and sidewalks, according to Podas-Larson. “They’re doing everything well, but it’s the sidewalk poetry project that put the department in the ‘model program’ category,” she says.

It’s such a huge feather in Public Works’ cap, in fact, that the City of St. Paul proposed Young as their presenter in the annual American Public Works Association Conference. “This isn’t a conference for public artists,” Podas-Larson emphasizes. “These are engineers and public works people. The competition among cities to be represented by a presenter at the conference is fierce, so it’s a big deal—not just for us, but for the city.”

St. Paul’s Public Art “R&D Wing”

Young, along with artist and choreographer Olive Bieringa, is central to another upstream public art initiative, the City Art Collaboratory. This program is concerned with how artists might fit into the ecosystem of the city, and it brings together a cohort of scientists and public artists “to explore the complex systems through which cities are built, experienced, and sustained.” The arts-science partnership is designed to offer opportunities for cross-pollination, conversation, and collaboration between the disciplines.

Program Manager Shanai Matteson explains that the Collaboratory’s 14 artists and scientists meet monthly in person and, between times, online, and are focusing their discussions on the Mississippi River. “That seemed to us a good place to start thinking about the ecosystems of the city: St. Paul is a river city, close to the headwaters, and the Mississippi plays such an important role, culturally and naturally, here,” Matteson explains.

The artists and scientists go on field trips together each month or so, followed by a shared meal and conversation. They visited Lock and Dam No. 1 to find out about what’s being done to guard against invasive species like Asian carp; they toured the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant; and they went on a ride-along with St. Paul’s road maintenance crew as they salted the roads after a big snowfall. “Along the way, we’re always asking, ‘What could an artist do to contribute to these efforts? What would it mean to integrate public art in these city projects in a meaningful way?’” Matteson says.

The program will culminate in a series of public events. Five groups of artists and scientists will present “mini engagement workshops” in the city. One of the artists, Molly Balcom Raleigh (a former employee of Forecast Public Art, publisher of Public Art Review), is an avid wild-food forager; she’s enthused about the culinary and symbolic potential of Asian carp. After a recent Collaboratory experience procuring and cooking a silver carp harvested from the Mississippi River, she is mulling over a public project that would host community conversation about invasive species through cooking and eating carp and other native and non-native wild foods.

“The mini-projects are kind of a test run for how these artist-scientist relationships evolve further,” Matteson says. One option on the table is a grant program to support program alumni in further developing their work in the Collaboratory. Matteson and Young describe the Collaboratory as the city’s “R&D wing” for developing new public art projects, and like any good R&D effort, it involves some fluidity. “We’re creating a kind of prairie ecosystem for the arts in St. Paul and waiting to see what pollinates,” says Matteson. “It’s open-ended and something we’re allowing to evolve and develop organically. This isn’t a top-down program; and we aren’t working to achieve predetermined outcomes.”

This open-ended approach involves an element of risk, she adds. Unlike the current drive for creative placemaking, the Collaboratory isn’t focused on economic returns on investments. “What we’re doing is messy and harder to talk about than that,” she says. “But it also means that what we’re doing is responsive, both to the community and the natural environment of the city.”

Grassroots Art on the Central Corridor

St. Paul’s University Avenue, the “Central Corridor,” which connects the city with Minneapolis, has been ground zero in recent months for a massive, cities-wide light rail construction project. While the benefits of extensive, convenient mass transit are indisputable, the years-long construction has disrupted neighborhood businesses whose foot traffic and sales are impacted by “the trench.”

Artists from those neighborhoods have actively stepped into the breach, with both stand-alone entrepreneurial public art efforts and publicly funded programming. The most visible of these, making national headlines, is Irrigate. In late 2011, St. Paul received a $750,000 creative placemaking grant from the massive public-private partnership ArtPlace; local, independent fundraising efforts raised the total to nearly one million dollars.

The resulting program, Irrigate, encourages artists to work with area businesses to ameliorate some of the inconvenience and hardship that accompany the light rail project. Jointly managed by Springboard for the Arts, the City of St. Paul, and Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Irrigate trains artists who live and work in the affected neighborhoods with one-day “placemaking workshops,” then offers micro-grants to fund their public art efforts, connecting them with area businesses that stand to benefit directly from their work.

The aim of the program, beyond the immediate concerns of light rail construction, is to encourage long-lived connections among neighborhood artists, residents, and business owners. After a year, Irrigate has approved 84 projects involving 136 artists and some 70 organizations, most of them based in the affected neighborhoods. Funded projects have run the gamut: Asian dance in abandoned storefronts; family art-making events and community festivals; live dance, music, and theater events in otherwise neglected spaces; and a variety of visual arts, interactive projects, and public art installations designed to engage the community.

A like-minded, hyper-local venture, the Creative Enterprise Zone, emerged in the past year in the Central Corridor community of St. Anthony Park. It’s a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, and individuals, working under the aegis of the St. Anthony Park Community Council on a mission to cultivate arts and business partnerships that enhance “livability.” With an eye on what light rail will mean for the neighborhood, the Zone is taking steps to facilitate mixed-use growth specifically focused on artists: expanding the number of live-work studios; encouraging partnerships among cultural, commercial, nonprofit, and for-profit partnerships; and investing in infrastructure to encourage creative entrepreneurs to set up shop in the neighborhood.

Another start-up, this one with ties to both Irrigate and the St. Anthony Park Community Council, is the Starling Project. It began with University of Minnesota graduate students who, alarmed at the number of vacant storefronts near the campus, worked to make abandoned spaces along the Central Corridor available to artists and small organizations on short-term leases. The leaseholders benefit from affordable rent, and the area from more creative businesses and cultural events. Long plagued by neglected, half-empty storefront strips and derelict industrial buildings, the Midway neighborhood has become home to an assortment of pop-up galleries, ephemeral boutiques filled with local designers’ fashions, and productions by independent theater companies and choreographers. It’s a simple idea, but one with significant value for both artists and the surrounding neighborhoods.

These creative responses to the disruption of the light rail construction along the Central Corridor illustrate the contribution public artists can make to shaping the urban landscape, according to Sharon DeMark, program officer at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners and an instrumental funder for public art initiatives in St. Paul. “That rootedness, that sense of tangible contribution and give-and-take between public artists and the communities they serve is valuable all around,” she says. “It’s about the value and relevance of the arts in everyday life. As people have natural interactions with artists, as they would with their grocer or their dentist, then they get the value of art as part of the community, rather than as an add-on.”


Susannah Schouweiler is editor of mnartists.org.

Marcus Young installing a poem by Naomi Cohn as part of Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk

Photo: Travis Spangler

St. Paul’s City Artist in Residence team: Marcus Young, Sarah West, Amanda Lovelee

Photo: Tiffany Bolk

Pushpins map the locations of poems in Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk

Photo: Nic Hager

Amanda Lovelee and Colin Harris, Really Big Table Project

This collapsible 25-foot table functioned as a gathering space and activates streetscapes outside of Big Table Studio and a public plaza in downtown Saint Paul.

Nick Clausen, Relight the Victoria

To activate the now-vacant Victoria Theater on St. Paul’s University Avenue, Clausen projected footage of the Iny Asian Dance Theater as they performed traditional dances that reflect the vibrancy and culture of the neighborhood.

Photo: Irrigate

The Starling Project, What Needs to Be Said?

For one week, an empty storefront in St. Anthony Park provided the “setting and opportunity for all to say what they feel /needs to be said’ - however one wants to define that.” Responses were presented in a wall installation.

Photo: R. Krinke