Water fight: Soucheray vs. Rybak…and me

This past Tuesday, on the so-called Endless Bridge of the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak helped launch a project he called “not the least controversial thing I’ve ever done,” unveiling the designs for 10 artist-designed drinking fountains that will be installed throughout the city over the next few years. The project has not just the full-throttled support of the city’s public art coordinator–the indefatigable Mary Altman–but also the city’s Public Works director, who spoke glowingly of the project at the unveiling Tuesday, and if you can imagine the usual cultural differences between artists and public works folks, the guys who maintain your roads and sewers, you can begin to understand just how impressive this partnership is. (In fact, this city’s relationship between artists and public works is a remarkably progressive one, nurtured in no small part by the pragmatic Mary Altman.) Some folks, however, thought the fountains idea was all wet–and on Monday, after the Star Tribune published a letter I wrote supporting the project, I got soaked.

My letter sought to communicate not just the fuller scope of Rybak’s rationale but also the economic development argument for public art in general, concluding with a partly tongue in cheek admonishment of the least engaged naysayers–those operating without all the facts–suggesting they’d have less money to not spend on public art if the city was simply functional and not distinctive, drawing the creative class of workers that will arguably make the difference between the top and bottom tiers of states. But the naysayers just found more reasons to complain, suggesting I was “arrogant” and “condescending” for wanting to spend taxes will-nilly. I felt obligated to explain further, that the $500,000 approved by the City Council for the project simply represented the city’s usual commitment to public arts, spent all on one big project (the city’s Art in Public Places program, a  budgeted department of the city’s Capital Improvement division since 1992 has commissioned some three dozen artworks over the years). This was not money that otherwise would have been budgeted, say, to cops. And that’s when things really got weird.

I received a call at work from a producer of Joe Soucheray’s KSTP-AM show, Garage Logic, and within 10 seconds was patched into the live show. Soucheray said hello like this: “I thought your letter was terribly pompous and precious and overwrought.” This wasn’t going to be a conversation, but a confrontation. This was AM talk radio. What’s interesting is that I’m generally skeptical myself; I sit on the Minneapolis Arts Commission, which offered its blessing to the drinking fountain idea, and often have listened to artists’ concepts with bemusement or worse. Artists are an easy target: both their success and their vulnerability derives from their lack of selfconsciousness–imagine if Picasso cared what people thought–bordering on naivete. I may well have trounced the fountains idea myself if I wasn’t privy to the facts. Not that they seemed to matter to Soucheray, not on the air anyway: “The only fact I need,” he said, “is that this is costing $500,000.” And for a second, as when Soucheray argued that you couldn’t even use these fountains for half the year, you think, fair point. That’s the nature of the beast: say something emphatically enough and it sounds right. A little context, however, changes everything: beaches, tennis courts, boats–many things we enjoy in Minnesota shut down half the year. Does that mean we shouldn’t support them?

The context problem began with a Star Tribune article that asked fair questions about the expense of the project without offering many answers (other than that a typical drinking fountain costs $6,000).  How much have similar public art projects cost in other places? Was this an exorbitant amount of money or on par with the going rates? What was Rybak’s full rationale for supporting the project? In the article, Altman declares that the fountains are a great “bang for the buck.” In fact, when you consider what other projects have cost in other cities, that may be an understatement. In Denver alone, for instance, a 40-foot-high bear peering into the city’s convention center cost $424,000. A 32-foot-tall horse at the airport there cost $650,000 (and the artist’s life: he died when the torso swung out of control in his studio). As I said, I’m a skeptic–and so a project like the fountains appeals not just because of the marketing-savvy symbolism of promoting the City of Waters, the environmental argument of promoting the viability of tap water over landfill-clogging bottled water, and the statement in an increasingly privatized society that free and clean drinking water is the right of every citizen, but also the practical nature of it. Like many public works projects in the old days, when cities were proud to contract artisans to lend distinction to public works and buildings, these fountains are not just artistic but functional–at least, as Soucheray helpfully pointed out, for most of the year. In this sense, they’re downright conservative.

Since the unveiling of the designs, other media outlets have offered more helpful discussions of the issues, particularly Jason DeRusha’s spot on WCCO, in which he asks “Is public art worth the money?” Notably, he asks the Minneapolis police chief. You’ll have to watch to hear his response. And it’s also worth pointing to a recent article critiquing Minneapolis’ commitment to the arts; by comparison to other cities, it could be doing much much more. These are complicated questions, and I’m actually a little tired of the old saw that we’d simply be a cold Omaha without our creative scene here–clearly it doesn’t buy much purchase anymore. Though in truth we might be more like a warm Winnipeg. At least Nebraska has the Huskers.

** In other news… You won’t find a more inspirational art crawl than the FLOW: Northside ArtsCrawl going on this Saturday, July 26, up and down and around Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis. And they’ve really ramped it up this year, with a shuttle bus circulating along the route and some 300 artists involved. Highlights include a performance by the popular Buckets & Tap Shoes group, whose name sort of says it all, at the new Lunstrum Center on Second St. N., a showing of the winning film commissioned by the MOSAIC festival at the newly refurbished Capri Theater (where Prince got his start), and of course the popular talent show at the Cub Foods stage. There’s even beer tastings at Broadway Liquor and wine tastings at Merwin’s. I’d suggest starting at either the Cub Foods stage or the Juxtaposition arts center (at Emerson and Broadway, where live outdoor mural paintings will be underway).


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