Public Art, Urban Design and Selecting Artists for Nicollet Mall

Photo of Mary Altman

A Conversation with Mary Altman, City Public Arts Administrator

In January 2017, Mary Altman celebrated sixteen years as the first full-time Public Arts Administrator for the City of Minneapolis. She has worked on projects ranging from the Minneapolis Central Library to the gift of a statue of Emiliano Zapata, and one of the largest projects of her career – Nicollet Mall. I wanted to learn more about the behind-the-scenes work necessary to make this project possible, so we recently sat down to talk.

Regina: What is your background? How did you come to administer the City’s public art program?

Mary: I hold a degree in Studio Art from Macalester College and I have been an arts administrator for thirty years. At first, I was employed in museum education and community arts work. I was at COMPAS, an community arts organization, for twelve years and researched community arts development. In the late 1990s, I visited Seattle and saw the inspiring public art there. Six months later, this job opened up and I went for it; I was hired in 2001.

Regina: Was public art always talked about as part of the re-design of Nicollet Mall? When did it come up?

Mary: We anticipated the Nicollet Mall construction and were ready. The Arts Commission’s Public Art Advisory Panel drafted a White Paper because it was clear that decisions had to be made about the status of the existing artwork by both the public owners (the City) and the private owners (i.e., US Bankcorp who owns Continuum). The Downtown Council and the City hired Hammel, Green, Abrahamson, a local architectural firm, to do preliminary planning and a cost estimate using the White Paper as a resource. Funding for public art was included in the cost estimate and the City used the estimate to submit a request to the State legislature. Public art has been a part of the Mall since landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s original design of the 1960s.

Regina: Has the relationship between urban planning and public art changed over the years?

Mary: There are three big milestones in this relationship. The first was the Cultural Plan of 2000 which re-envisioned public art as connected to infrastructure; previously it was site-related or part of gateways. Then beginning in 2002, Mayor R.T. Rybak wanted to see public art integrated with more forethought, so I began working side-by-side with City planners to anticipate public art, and include it in the City’s long-range plans. For over a decade, artists have been collaborating with planners and principals in the City’s planning processes.

(For an exploration of the evolving role of public art in Minneapolis planning efforts since the 1960s, please visit Urban Design.)

Regina: How does the Nicollet Mall public art project downtown differ from your projects in the neighborhoods?

Mary: Nicollet Mall has its own collection of artwork resulting from a nearly 50 year history. There’s not such a long-standing tradition of public art in most neighborhoods. Those living and working downtown have experienced public art for decades. The contexts are entirely different – the scale of buildings and businesses include Fortune 500 companies downtown vs. local hardware stores and restaurants in the neighborhoods. The planning process is different in both places. Neighborhood groups, business associations, volunteers and residents participate in neighborhood planning, and downtown has the Downtown Council, Downtown Improvement District and powerful business owners and stakeholders. Community engagement possibilities are different – many downtown workers leave at 5 pm, for example.

… Those living and working downtown have experienced public art for decades… and have the view that they don’t need to love everything – so a range of artwork is possible.

Regina: Which constituencies seem especially interested in public art downtown? Why? Is there opposition?

Mary: Businesses, residents and visitors are especially interested. In the past, the art benches (commissioned for Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall) were problematic because of loitering. The landscape in front of the Federal Courthouse (designed by landscape architect Martha Schwartz) is viewed as a defensive design and not conducive to people hanging out. But the humorous bronze sculptures installed there by Tom Otterness are liked. In general, it’s less political downtown than in the neighborhoods because the art has been around longer – and people have the view that they don’t need to love everything – so a range of artwork is possible. There’s not the pressure that the artwork be perfect and please everyone. We don’t receive a lot of complaints about the public art downtown.

Regina: Who and what drove the scope for the nationwide open call for the Nicollet Mall public art?

Mary: The Arts Commission’s Public Art Advisory Committee, designer James Corner Field Operations and the Public Art Steering Committee developed the scope. They wanted the work to be super-special and iconic; to engage local artists; and to embody the values of the public art program.

Four artists were sought in the open call including: an artist to engage local artists to create a series of suspended lanterns; an artist to design a key feature; an artist to design and create a large-scale iconic artwork; and an artist to work with the design team to curate/integrate public art into the Mall design.

Regina: Why did they conceive of a role like mine – to integrate and curate public art? What was the need?

Mary: We wanted to engage contemporary social practice art in the project. Community engagement downtown is challenging and a unique approach was needed. We could’ve hired a curator, but wanted to invest in artists and create a position that did that. We didn’t need another design professional – this perspective was already at the table. We needed someone to address the big picture; how the art would be laid out on the Mall. The position is a hybrid between social practice and having an artist on the design team.

Regina: Who served on the committee that selected and interviewed the artists?

Mary: The Mall’s Public Art Steering Committee included artist Kinji Akagawa; Andrew Blauvelt, Walker Art Center; James Corner Field Operations landscape architect and principal Lisa Tziona Switkin; Minneapolis Arts Commissioner Deanna Newman; Project Site Representative and Nicollet Mall Implementation Committee member Dave Marquis of Target Corporation; Paul Ogren, City of Minneapolis Public Works; community representatives from Kulture Klub including Aaron Rogers, student, and Crystal Brinkman, administrator; and at-large members David Frank, City of Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development; Ben Shardlow, Downtown Council; and Kristi Haug, Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District.

Regina: Were they seeking a certain kind of public art? What were their expectations?

Mary: Each of the four options for artists called for a different approach. For example, regarding the iconic piece: we were not seeking a specific genre. The idea of a lighting element and variations on a linear theme came up before James Corner introduced the round lanterns in their design. But by the time the open call came out, there were quite a few givens in the Mall design. When the Steering Committee saw Blessing Hancock’s lanterns, they knew her work was a good match not only because of its media but especially because she was interested in engaging emerging artists.

Blessing Hancock and James Corner

Blessing Hancock’s work was a perfect match; her lanterns were very similar to those in James Corner’s rendering for the Art Walk

Regina: How did expectations change over time – during the selection meeting, and after the interviews?

Mary: They didn’t really change. Blessing Hancock showed the lanterns and her work was a perfect match. Then after she was selected and under contract, she decided to work with young writers. To engage other art forms was an especially exciting and innovative notion.

Regina: How much did the interviews influence the final selection of artists? What most impressed the committee during the interviews?

Mary: The work had to be captivating. Complementary aesthetics between James Corner Field Operations and the artist’s work was important. If artists came to the table open to collaborating with the design team and didn’t come with pre-conceived ideas – that favorably impressed the Steering Committee. Presenting concepts during the interview stage sometimes makes the artist appear less interested in being collaborative. Open-mindedness was a plus. Blessing Hancock expressed an interest in working with local artists and it was clear that she had a passion for it. Your interest in documentation made the Committee think differently about that role – that it could be the holder of the story – and it changed the Committee’s perspective.

Regina: When did the conversations about public art come into James Corner Field Operations’ design process?

Mary: We talked about it at the beginning because of Corner’s work on the High Line. Should an artist be a member of the design team? We had to be assertive with the process and the timeline. Not everyone was aware that they needed to think about public art early on – both about the removal of the existing art on the Mall from the 1960s-1990s and also the new art.

Regina: How have you worked with them on the public art aspect of Nicollet Mall?

Mary: The design team includes David Frank from City Planning; project manager, architect Peter Brown; Rick Kreuser, the lead staff from Public Works; and initially Lisa Tziona Switkin and Megan Born of James Corner Field Operations during design and now project manager Eric Becker during construction.

In addition to the new work for the Mall, a number of artworks installed in the 1960s-1990s including The Sculpture Clock will return. In an upcoming conversation with Mary Altman, we will talk about these historic works and also the fate of some artworks that will not be returning.