Urban Design and Public Art on Nicollet Mall

Public art gracing Nicollet Mall in the 1960s had its admirers - Alexander Calder sculpture in front of Dayton’s and the Sculpture Clock by Jack Nelson at 9th and Nicollet

Lawrence Halprin and Associates’ design for Nicollet Mall completed in 1968 featured the Sculpture Clock by artist Jack Nelson. Halprin and his spouse Anna, a noted modern dancer and educator, were well-connected with artists and writers. The landscape architect counted himself among them. Donald Dayton, owner of Dayton’s department store which included an in-store gallery, agreed with Halprin’s ideas about showcasing modern art on the Mall. Dayton loaned a sculpture by Alexander Calder for display in front of his store.

The Calder and Nelson’s Sculpture Clock, were cultural additions to the public realm before any plans, policies or ordinances were established to include art as a visible part of the downtown public realm. (For more about the history of public art on the Mall, visit Public Art.)

Arts and culture are acknowledged as one of our metropolitan area’s greatest assets. The City of Minneapolis is internationally known for its theater, literary, performing and visual arts communities and institutions. Recent studies detailing the prevalence and influence of the arts community found that our citizens enjoy the arts and participate in them more often than sporting events!

We have come to expect art as part of our shared public spaces. How did public art come to be part of public policy and City place-making efforts? Why is public art and the presence of the arts now considered so important to urban design, especially downtown?

Early Plans and Projects Set the Stage

Early projects and city plans set the tone and laid the groundwork for public art to become an ongoing part of City planning, urban design and place-making efforts.

The 1986 Report of the Committee on the Future of Nicollet Mall called for a strategy to employ “the creative use of the arts, open space and streetscapes to reinforce the singularity of the Mall.” The report also led to the formation of the Nicollet Mall Implementation Board to create a design framework.

In 1987, the Minneapolis Arts Commission launched its Art in Public Places Program four years after successfully sponsoring a series of artist-designed manhole covers. Later in 1988, the Commission’s artist-designed bench project installed four fanciful but functional benches along Hennepin Avenue.

Also in 1987, the newly-assembled Nicollet Mall Implementation Board issued a national call for design and engineering teams to address the re-design of an aging Nicollet Mall. Selection criteria included a demonstrated ability to design a functional and beautiful street by (among other things) “the creation of a street with exceptional qualities through such measures as the use of art and artists.” The Board was clearly interested in public art playing a significant role.

“Art for People’s Sake… reflecting Minnesota themes, such as the cranes pictured here.” - The New Nicollet Mall brochure, 1988 (left) and sculptural ensemble of birds created for the Mall in 1992 by artist Elliot Offner (right).

After the Mall re-design by local engineering firm BRW, Inc. was approved, the Downtown Council distributed a full-color brochure promoting it. An illustration of a sculptural fountain including two birds bore the caption: “Art for People’s Sake: Excitement will be added to the Mall by public art and open spaced reflecting Minnesota themes, such as the northern cranes pictured here.” One of the key goals cited for the re-design was “adding people-oriented public art that reflects Minnesota as well as signs, banners, landscaping, and flowers that will change with the seasons and other attractive amenities.”

1989 brochure for the re-designed Mall touted Minnesota Theme Art

Further design progress was publicized in a 1989 brochure issued by the Board. Drawings depicted streetscape elements such as pine trees and shade trees, decorative lighting, sidewalk cafes, a performance platform – and Minnesota theme art. A budget summary touted $1.4 million for the Arts Program (later reduced to $1,345,532 million; still a sizeable sum and equal to $2,618,937 in 2017 dollars.)

Around the same time, the Minneapolis Arts Commission inaugurated their Neighborhood Gateways Public Art Project, a multi-year initiative intended to serve the City’s neighborhoods.

Also in 1988, the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board inaugurated the 11-acre Minneapolis Sculpture Garden replete with the iconic sculpture Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen.

(For a full discussion of the public art and urban design context of the 1980s-1990s, visit this link Artistic Significance Report, Public Art for the New Nicollet Mall 1986-1992.)

Current Planning and Urban Design Now Include Public Art

Minneapolis ranks sixth according to the nationwide Creative Vitality Index (CVI); the only Midwestern city in the top ten. The City of Minneapolis Creative Index Report (2013 and updated 2015) employs the CVI and other metrics to establish the influence and importance of the arts economy and found that labor participation in the cultural economy and the resulting economic impact total over $4.5 billion annually.

Clearly the arts are significant contributors to our economy and the region’s national standing and reputation, but they are also a valued part of our community and its identity. Public art is the most visible of all the art forms because it is encountered in public places

Three recent plans are examined here – all recognize the importance of arts and culture and aim to make these assets a visible and celebrated part of the urban design of our city.

Released in late 2011, Intersections Downtown 2025 Plan was issued by the Minneapolis Downtown Council

Intersections – Downtown 2025 Plan

Released in late 2011, the Downtown 2025 Plan instigated by the business-sector was spearheaded by the Minneapolis Downtown Council.

Author Steve Berg, urban design consultant and journalist who synthesized research and wrote the report, worked with the Downtown 2025 Steering Committee chaired by John Griffith of Target Corporation and the leadership of Sam Grabarski, Minneapolis Downtown Council President and CEO, and Bob Parr, Director of Development, Ryan Companies.

Arts professionals serving on sub-committees included Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center, Tom Hoch, Hennepin Theater Trust, and Pat Grazzini, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Nine focus groups included neighborhoods, schools, and businesses.

Quoting Mayor Federico Pena who pleaded with Denver residents to imagine a great city in the 1980s when that city was flat on its back, the Plan asserts that no city can move forward without imagination; a city must clearly visualize what it wants to become.

Transforming Nicollet into a “Must-See” Destination

Among the Plan’s ten major initiatives, two bear on the current re-design of Nicollet Mall including the public art projects. One calls for the transformation of Nicollet into more than a “must-see” stop; it will be a “must-do” experience. The Nicollet corridor should be re-designated as a linear park covering twenty blocks from the Walker Art Center, through Loring Park to Peavey Plaza and north to the heart of the business and shopping district, and on to the Mississippi River, ending at the foot of the Father Hennepin Bridge.… The new Nicollet would be branded and marketed as running from the Walker Art Center to the river.

The street should provide the region’s premier walking experience with many “must see” destinations along its route – a linear park linked with tree, flower gardens, shops, restaurants. Public plazas featuring stunning art pieces should be interposed at intervals. With the addition of water features, dramatic lighting, interactive programming and other attractions, Nicollet could become the region’s signature place and iconic identity… The Plan directed that new plantings and art pieces along the street “should be first-rate.”

Downtown’s strengths include its creative class, cultural and entertainment assets, and architecture, among others

Creating a Consistently Compelling Downtown Experience

Another initiative recommends that theater, music, art and sports attractions should be leveraged to provide a pedestrian experience that inspires people to explore downtown 24/7/365 – that downtown should be an international center for creativity and design.

The goal is to inspire people to explore downtown through a seamless connection of visual, physical and social experiences; concentrated along a ‘triple spine’ of Nicollet, Hennepin and 1st Avenues – and make those streets the heartbeat of the city.

The Plan asserts that although Minneapolis has a concentration of arts, theater, design and music, “that those creative expressions seldom pour out into public places, or penetrate the consciousness of the wider public”. The Plan says the influence of the arts should be seen everywhere: in new and revived public gathering spaces; in upgraded landscaping; in high-quality materials used in buildings; in extensive programming that brings a wide variety of culture and entertainment to plazas and street corners…. Art and design will no longer be sequestered in institutions, but will spill out onto the streets to define who we are as a city and celebrate where we live.

The Plan recognized that establishing an arts corridor would bring visibility and focus to the creative community. “It’s unfortunate that so much of Minneapolis’ vibrant arts community operates behind closed doors. A string of live/work studios along Hennepin Avenue, or clustered near other cultural attractions would create the kind of arts district that brings traffic, business and attention to artists in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington DC and other cities. Such a district would also mend the weak links between Minneapolis numerous arts organizations.”


The Plan recognizes that Nicollet Mall (and downtown) should be not only a “must-see” place, but a “must-do” experience – that people treasure experiences, and downtown could be a vessel for those experiences. Downtown is not just a “destination” in planning terms, but is the aggregate of the design of the physical place, and of the experience of people interacting in that place.

However the language of the Plan seems to conceive of public art primarily as physical aesthetic objects, i.e. something you look at – and less about its potential for offering experiences. It calls for “public plazas featuring stunning art pieces” (a 19th-century idea) and “a major art piece that becomes a signature for Minneapolis” (a mid-20th century notion of the Modernist iconic sculptural object).

To draw a distinction between art-as-object and art-as-experience, a useful example is Chicago’s Millennium Park and the variety of art experiences it offers – from the interactivity of the Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, and the reflective stainless steel Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, to the lushly planted Lurie Gardens with its splashing watercourse. These highly engaging artworks make the space and invite, even demand, interaction. People flock to the park, creating its ambiance.

The Plan asserts that downtown is brimming with creative-class energy, but that “those creative expressions seldom pour out into public places or penetrate the consciousness of the wider public” and that “it’s unfortunate that so much of Minneapolis’s vibrant arts community operates behind closed doors.” This assertion is surprising, given that nearby Northeast Minneapolis opens wide its doors to the public during the intensive three-day Art-A-Whirl event each year, and there are numerous other examples of engaging public events such as the May Day Parade in Powderhorn Park. Artists live and work in these neighborhoods which ring downtown. Artists and artist-run organizations program these events and make them happen. Downtown could have similar events, if was a priority to coordinate with the arts community and program them.

The Plan-It Hennepin: Creative Placemaking plan (examined below) likewise points out that creative, cultural and sports organizations all have the capacity to conduct robust public programming. But apparently no downtown organization presently has a mission to take this on.

Plan-It Hennepin: Creative Placemaking for Downtown Minneapolis led to the creation of the West Downtown Cultural District (WeDo™) in 2015

Plan-It Hennepin: Creative Placemaking
Comprehensive Report December 2012

In November 2015, the West Downtown Cultural District (WeDo™) was christened; the result of Plan-It Hennepin, a long-term collaborative effort that began in 2011 when the Hennepin Theatre Trust, a non-profit cultural and educational institution, was awarded an “Our Town” grant by the National Endowment for the Arts. Spanning 1.7 miles with Hennepin Avenue at its center, WeDo™ runs from the Mississippi River to the Walker Art Center and includes part of Nicollet Mall.

Plan-It Hennepin was a one-year initiative to reimagine Hennepin Avenue as a revitalized cultural district. Led by Creative Community Builders, it was not conceived to be an implementation plan, but rather a vision; a set of desired outcomes and strategic steps arrived at through a creative place-making approach. Project collaborators were the Hennepin Theater Trust, Artspace Projects and the Walker Art Center.

West Downtown Cultural District - WeDo™ - from the Walker Art Center to the Mississippi River

The Plan states, “in the City’s past, major business owners used their influence—and money—to create the community they wanted to live and work in, building cultural institutions, establishing a world-renowned park system and investing in the present and the future of Minneapolis. Although these kinds of business leaders still play a part in the City’s development, the civic landscape has changed. It is time for leaders of the City’s nonprofit cultural and educational institutions to assume a leadership role at the table”.

Creative place-making is defined as “an approach being adopted by cities worldwide.… This process focuses on creating the conditions, collective will and overarching design philosophy needed to sustain long-term vision­ary change. It requires active bridging, bringing different sectors, disciplines and cultures together in an ongoing and meaningful way.”

Room-size interactive model of the district engaged stakeholders at meetings, workshops and events

Public art features significantly in the 10-Year Outcomes section of the Plan. One of five outcomes is the desire for Distinctive Public Art “of an eclectic and unpredictable nature reflecting different cultural aesthetics and appealing to the growing diversity of people visiting and living downtown.”

In several sections of the Plan, key locations and opportunities are identified for public art including:

  1. Iconic pieces anchoring either end of the district at the Hennepin Avenue bridge in the Gateway Park and the I-94 overpass in the Hennepin-Lyndale Gateway;
  2. Major outstanding public art for the Hennepin Light Rail Transit Station Area that reflects culture and heritage, creativity of Minnesota artists, and the values of Minneapolitans; and
  3. Interpretive art installations including historical markers and/or commissioned public artworks.

The Plan also asserts that artists should participate in a consistent, meaningful way in planning and design processes.

The Long-term Opportunities section of the Plan generated by public input has a grab-bag list of notions and ideas including locations, qualities, subjects/themes and practical requirements for public art:

  • Reflecting the importance of the Ameri­can Indian populations and significance of Saint Anthony Falls and of the Avenue as a cross-cultural meeting ground.
  • Making aesthetic connections and helping ground people within the Cultural District (i.e. signage).
  • Inspiring curiosity and compelling pedes­trian and bicycle movement.
  • Embracing the District’s density and “urban-ness” while also offering rest, escape, contemplation and areas to interact.
  • Responding to the needs and desires of diverse audiences and stakeholders.
  • Celebrating the social environment and engaging visitors and residents in ways to reinforce community connections.
  • Remaining attentive to safety concerns.
  • Investing in structures that require little maintenance.
  • Secure significant public and private funding to conduct an international design competi­tion to select key iconic public art commis­sions to enliven the underside of the I-94 over­pass, both temporarily and permanently, and for iconic works at the River Gateway, the Hennepin-Lyndale Gateway, and entrances to the Theatre District.

The Plan also envisioned involving artists in the design of street re-building, green spaces, wayfinding, transit, and infrastructure improvements…. Unique visual elements could be created to distinguish and identify the district, and bring a sense of visual unity to the entire district.

The Plan also called for a regular series of events that activate public space modeled after Walker Art Center’s Open Field or the Open Street Project to bring a burst of creative and cultural activity initiated by artists and other creative organizations to Hennepin Avenue. Beginning as an annual event, Open Street provides regular opportuni­ties in temporary and ongoing spaces along Hennepin for peo­ple, events and tours. The Plan asserted that creative, cultural and sports organizations all have capacity to conduct robust public programming. But a clear process for coordination and the implementation of programming was not addressed.


This Plan pointedly emphasizes arts and culture and both the creation of places and fostering experiences – it addresses the design, construction and financing of public and quasi-public spaces, and also talks about the activities within them.

Public art is conceived broadly in this Plan, and as a product of extensive public input; it must meet a wide range of expectations. However, it seems the public is less interested in work that is about creative expression, or work by visionary individuals. As expressed by comments in this Plan, they more interested in work that is a reflection or interpretation of local culture and heritage – art that is basically about themselves.

Many of the public art ideas mentioned in the Plan are not substantially dissimilar from other public art activities that have been ongoing in the district since the early 1990s. Familiarity with what has been successful in the past may have overly influenced the perception of what is possible in the future.

Some public art ideas parallel those mentioned in the Downtown 2025 Plan including the siting of iconic works in locations such as the River Gateway.

Since the Plan was published, the recommendation that storefront art and pop-up projects fill empty storefronts has been acted upon with the advent of the Hennepin Theater Trust’s popular Made Here project.

Joint initiative of the City of Minneapolis Planning and Economic Development and the Minneapolis Park Board addresses streets, public spaces, parks and trails downtown

Downtown Public Realm Framework Plan

October 2016, City of Minneapolis

The Downtown Public Realm Framework Plan is the City’s contribution to the Pathways to Places – a joint initiative of City of Minneapolis Planning and Economic Development and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

The City is generally in charge of streets and city-owned public spaces and the Park Board is concerned with parks and trails. They joined together on Pathways to Places which aims to holistically plan and vision downtown streets, trails, parks and public spaces.

The purpose of the Framework is “to provide unified guidance to inform and coordinate the work of public and private entities that shape and invest in the public realm.” The Plan surveys existing policies and contains new recommendations for shaping key corridors and the riverfront district, with an eye to influencing capital planning, site plan review, and public/private partnerships toward the enhancement of the public realm.

Encompassing fourteen neighborhoods, the Framework Plan aims to establish connections among all close-in neighborhoods and downtown, and also between neighborhoods

Fourteen neighborhoods are encompassed or intersected by the Plan. It extends beyond the traditional Downtown boundary because it seeks to establish connections among all close-in neighborhoods and downtown, and between the neighborhoods.

The Framework anticipates incremental implementation, over time, through the combined efforts of property owners and developers, the Downtown Improvement District, non-profits, businesses, individuals and multiple City departments.

Public Art and Artists

While the Plan does not include a discrete emphasis on arts and culture, it does recognize public art as contributing, along with active ground floor uses, street furnishings, greening, façade improvement and bike and pedestrian amenities, to enhanced street character and a sense of place.

Outcomes noted in the Plan include considering how existing municipal programs such as the Art in Public Places Program might contribute to enhancing priority corridors, and where to focus limited public resources to increase greening and wayfinding [in which public art often plays a role, providing landmarks], among others.

The City engaged public artist Stephanie Glaros to collect and catalog interviews with Downtown visitors, residents and workers. She connected with people on-the-street, asking individuals and groups specific questions about their experience downtown. The resulting audio and video recordings capture what it is like for residents, visitors and workers in Downtown. The one-on-one interviews with community members who shared their experiences and thoughts guided and informed policy recommendations as part of the planning process. Glaros’s interviews and photographs are sprinkled throughout the plan, adding multiple voices, observations and depth. Videos of the interviews may be viewed online at: Community Interviews

On-the-street interviews by public engagement artist Stephanie Glaros influenced policy recommendations

Context and Background

Changes downtown include significant growth in the residential population, expansion of sports, entertainment, and dining options, and an increasing focus on the Central Riverfront as a destination for leisure, culture and historic interpretation. The number of people living downtown has increased by 40% over the past 20 years; especially in the North Loop, Mill District and Downtown East.

An examination of existing conditions found that downtown, which is a nexus of creative and economic activity, had streets (nodes and corridors; especially Nicollet and Hennepin) that reflect downtown’s unique character – but these qualities were not apparent in the other streets in the central core: “in short, existing conditions in the public realm did not offer a curated experience to users on the street.”

A survey found disparities in the distribution of streetscape amenities downtown and no cohesive network of features. The inventory of 4,408 streetscape features included 172 Art Features along with vegetation, bike racks, seating, newspaper stands, garbage/recycling bins and wayfinding elements. The survey found the Art Features generally concentrated in the downtown core; located principally in the Frontage or Furnishing zone [adjacent to the building face or between the sidewalk and the curb]; often incorporated into pavement, bike racks, tree guard/ grates, building walls (murals), or fences. Sculpture is the most prevalent media.

When people were asked, “what would you like to see happening in parks and public spaces downtown?” –  arts activities and cultural events figured prominently. Responses included attending festivals and events; seeing or making art, dance or music; and learning about art, history or culture, among others.

Physical Framework

The Plan advocates a whole-systems approach to connect urban streets and plazas to the broader system of parks, trails, attractions and recreation opportunities.

Streets are identified as one of three corridor types: Destination Corridor, Local Commerce Corridor, or Connector Corridor.

Destination corridors including Hennepin Avenue, Nicollet Mall, 1st Avenue, Main Street SE and Washington Avenue are frequently associated with highly individualized programs or with the identity of their surrounding neighborhoods. They often incorporate significant place-branding strategies into their public realm. Policy recommendations include more accessible open space/courtyard/pocket-parks, and street furnishings that minimize conflicts with the flow of heavy pedestrian traffic and allow for intermittent spaces for rest, interaction and public art.

Local commerce corridor examples include Chicago Avenue S, Central Avenue SE, 5th Street N/S, 2nd Street N/S, and Nicollet Avenue S. These corridors contain a mix of uses (single-use and mixed-use office buildings) and a higher residential population. Although not mentioned in the recommendations, public art is shown in the corridor implementation illustration in the guise of a mural on City property made possible through City Planning and Economic Development Arts Administration, i.e. the public art program.

Local commerce corridors with mixed uses and a large residential population could consider including public art such as murals as part of streetscape amenities

Connector corridors such as 10th Avenue N, 11th Avenue, Portland Avenue, 7th Street N, 9th Street S and 10th Street S carry large volumes of pedestrians, bicycles and automobiles. Priority should be given to wayfinding, transit accessibility and pedestrian safety. Public art is not discussed in this context.

Central Riverfront Feature District

The Central Riverfront Feature District has many recreational and cultural destinations along with a thriving residential population. Not only a major attraction for recreation and leisure, the riverfront also provides a natural focal point for shaping and enhancing a sense of place and identity for the whole of downtown.

The Framework suggests improving connections to the Central Riverfront from downtown; elevating the presence and visibility of the area; and enhancing the resident, worker and visitor experience by investing in public amenities and programming. Clearer wayfinding to the riverfront and strengthening connections to and between parks and open spaces downtown are recommended.

The Saint Anthony Falls Historic District Design Guidelines and the Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park Plan talk about integrating interpretive materials into street furnishings to reveal and interpret past and present nature and culture.

Public art is also not directly mentioned in this section of the Plan.


The Downtown Public Realm Framework Plan, an ambitious multi-agency plan, results in policy recommendations that encourage a greater awareness of what a carefully considered and designed public realm could mean to downtown. Hopefully, it calls forth future in-depth urban design explorations that flesh out the aesthetic aspects of these policy recommendations.

It contains several direct references to public art and design, and artists, and the role of place-making. Public engagement artist Stephanie Glaros was a critical go-between; interviewing, photographing and video-taping residents, workers and visitors on-the-street. Her contributions are profound and give the Plan voice and personality.

When people were asked, “what would you like to see happening in parks and public spaces downtown?” – arts activities and cultural events predominated. These things result from programming but physical spaces/places downtown could also be made more hospitable and flexible, enabling them to happen.

Public art is conceived in a very limited way – as sculpture, murals or “art features” in the streetscape. The Plan does not fully grasp or explore the potential of local contemporary public art and artistic practice.

Our community has a growing cohort of social practice artists, many involved in social justice work. Their work is often performative and interactive. Recent examples include the Creative City Challenge projects, the result of a collaboration between the Minneapolis Convention Center, the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy of the City of Minneapolis and Northern Lights.mn. The Convention Center Plaza is annually transformed by artists and others into a space that “acts as a sociable, participatory platform for scheduled and impromptu onsite programs throughout the summer.”

Other artists are adept at collaborating with architects, engineers and landscape architects in the design of entire public places and their work imparts a unique flavor and identity to those spaces. The Target Station at Target Field features City Glyphs by artist Craig David. Mesabi etched granite figurative murals form the backdrop for the popular amphitheater.

The potential for public art was unfortunately by-passed when considering local commerce corridors with lively mixes of uses and a large residential population that might appreciate it. If unique character is missing from these streets, why not consider public art along with the functional features that were recommended? The North Loop area has a residential concentration that enjoys walking between destinations. Public art would be particularly appreciated in this context.

Another opportunity to highlight the potential for public art to create engaging landmarks was missed in discussions about wayfinding and interpretive materials in park areas and along the riverfront.

To read more about the three plans discussed here, visit the following links for the entire texts and illustrations and also for current updates, especially regarding the Downtown Council’s plan:

Intersections – Downtown 2025 Plan
Plan-It Hennepin: Creative Placemaking
Downtown Public Realm Framework Plan.