Nicollet Mall Public Art Reflects Contemporary Public Art Practice
The public art on Nicollet Mall is a time-capsule of the progress of public art in the Twin Cities and the State of Minnesota.
Jack Nelson’s Sculpture Clock, the earliest work, installed on the Mall in 1968 and for many years located at the corner of 11th Street and Nicollet, was prescient; a rare example of integrated public art before Minneapolis and many other cities were even aware of the potential of contemporary public art, or had established public art programs. Nelson, an eclectic early multi-media pioneer, found an advocate in visionary landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, the designer of the Mall. Halprin commissioned Nelson to create the clock as part of the Mall’s original design. (See Sculpture Clock for the story of this fascinating early public artwork and its current fate.)
1980s – 1990s
By the mid-1980s, the State’s most notable street was tired and worn, in need of renovation and planners agreed that the creative arts should play a role. A wave of local artists began working inter-disciplinarily, outside of the “art world” of museums and galleries. For Kinji Akagawa, Ta-coumba Aiken, Seitu Jones and Stanton Sears, who went on to create public art for the renovated Mall, this approach was an extension of beliefs and positions honed during the social, cultural and political turmoil of the 1970s.
These expansive notions of artistic practice, promulgated by artist’s beliefs and explorations, also influenced public policy. Local foundations and arts organizations began to support artists creating public work and several government-funded public art programs were established. The Minnesota Percent for Art in Public Places program, enacted by legislation in 1983, enabled one-percent of the budget for construction of any state building project over one-half million dollars to be allocated for works of art. The program continues to be active throughout the state.
At this time, two artist-centered public art organizations were also active and continue today: Forecast Public Artworks in Minneapolis (founded 1978) and Public Art Saint Paul (established 1987).
In 1987, four years after the Minneapolis Arts Commission sponsored a series of artist-designed manhole covers, they launched their Art in Public Places Program. The first project called for artists to design benches along Hennepin Avenue. Around the same time public art was included as part of the downtown Mall’s renovation, the Commission initiated their Neighborhood Gateways Public Art Project, a multi-year initiative designed to serve the City’s neighborhoods.
With the dedication of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 1988, the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board inaugurated an 11-acre garden featuring sculpture by the most important artists of the Twentieth Century and spaces for temporary installations, performances and experiments.
All of this concurrent public art activity had a synergistic effect.
Public art installed on Nicollet Mall during its renovation in 1991-1992 reflected the breadth of public art practice of the times. None of the works were set apart from the public on a base, pedestal or plinth. Many of the works were functional (Stanton Sears’ benches, Kate Burke’s manhole covers, seating ensemble by Kinji Akagawa) or integrated with infrastructure (transit shelter glasswork by Philip Larson, George Morrison’s granite mosaic carpet, bronze castings inset into the pavement by Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken) and meant to engage, celebrate and serve the public.
Even the most traditional work, Elliot Offner’s bronze sculptural ensemble, was distinguished from most figurative civic sculpture by the choice of subject matter (birds), style of figuration (expressionist) and a sophisticated integration with its urban environment. The artist and the Mall’s landscape architect collaborated on the design of the sculpture’s fountain structure, creating a naturalistic setting for the birds, setting an early example of interdisciplinary collaboration.
These works did not achieve the iconic and symbolic status of Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen commissioned during the same period by the Walker Art Center for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The work for Nicollet Mall reflected the careful and cautious approach of a public art process led by an architecture and engineering firm through the Nicollet Mall Implementation Board on behalf of predominantly business and government interests. The City’s Arts Commission was only indirectly involved in the process.
The Nicollet Mall project did advance thinking about public art in the Twin Cities and certainly the careers of public artists, including several who went on to develop national reputations for their work. However, the project lacked connections to the arts community. It was finally documented in 2014 and now its impact can be studied and acknowledged. (Visit this link, Artistic Significance Report, Public Art for the New Nicollet Mall 1986-1992 to read the report produced for City of Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development, December 29, 2020)
Late 1990s – 2000s
Downtown experienced an office-tower and residential building boom during the late 1990s. US Bankcorp Piper Jaffray headquarters was built across the street from the former Daytons department store that was briefly Marshall Fields, and by 2006, Macys. Target Corporation brought their corporate headquarters to the Mall and also built a large store to serve new downtown residents, re-energizing two entire city blocks. The Minneapolis Downtown Council, led by the former director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, encouraged public art and it prominently figured into these private developments.
Ryan Companies developed the US Bankcorp Piper Jaffray building and chose master stone sculptor Brad J Goldberg who proposed an artwork that unifies the interior and exterior of the building. Continuum, installed in 2000 features a pixelated paving carpet that interrupted the plaid paving of the Mall and continued right into the building’s lobby. Handsome granite monoliths and cubic seating, combining rough and finished surfaces, create indoor and outdoor rooms. Goldberg, who has training in landscape architecture, designed the entire streetscape on this block including solid granite seat wall/planters and landscaping.
Target commissioned renown glass artist Howard BenTre to create a plaza at the southwest corner of Nicollet and 11th Street, completed in 2002. Gathering Vessel, a vertical cast-glass fountain, is the centerpiece for a 30-foot diameter polished granite seating area. The artist coordinated the design of the entire space including the sculpture fountain, seating, lighting, landscaping and paving.
Public gathering places designed by artists reflected an evolution of the place-making possibilities that were first chronicled in Ronald Lee Fleming and Renata von Tscharner’s 1987 book Place Makers: Creating Public Art that Tells You Where You Are. The works created for the Mall in the 1990s were firmly in this mode – they captured and reinforced the unique character of the Mall, and in some cases, helped create it. Kinji Akagawa’s seating ensemble and Stan Sears’s shapely granite benches invited public gathering; Philip Larson’s etched glasswork on the transit shelters was a lens for viewing downtown architecture; Kate Burke’s manhole covers became small landmarks; and Seitu Jones’s and Ta-coumba Aiken’s shadow pavement pieces aided social awareness.
During the 2000s, the public art commissioned for the Mall by private interests presented another model for place-making – public places that were touched in their entirety by the hands of artists, expanding thinking about public art’s role in urban design.
A continuous thread runs from the City’s early public art projects (manhole covers, benches, neighborhood gateways) sponsored by the Arts Commission, through the work for the Nicollet Mall renovation of the 1980s –1990s, and the private commissions that created public gathering places in the 2000s, to the present time – where this history and tradition of functional work that serves the community has continued to influence expectations for the City’s public art.
The new artwork for Nicollet Mall reflects current public art practice. The Mall’s re-design by James Corner Field Operations (JFCO) choreographs movement along Nicollet Mall, and everything – the public, the art – become a part of that. This linear space is similar to Corner’s famous project, the High Line in New York City. But unlike the High Line’s elevated viewpoints, the design for Nicollet Mall emphasizes the street level with a series of unique urban places to experience like the Reading Room and the Light Walk, enhanced by extensive landscaping.
Artists Ned Kahn, Blessing Hancock and Tristan Al-Haddad are creating work for the Mall. They produce work that is phenomenological, experiential and participatory – each person experiences it differently with their senses – and the work will take advantage of this linear space and its choreography. With time, Nicollet Mall will be enclosed and defined by groves of trees and customized with activities stimulated by the public art and JFCO’s design.