More suburbs of Twin Cities are using public art to get a feel for the place

Lively murals and whimsical sculptures can be seen in further suburbs around the Twin Cities as the communities try to strengthen their personalities, develop a deeper sense of place, and perhaps even boost economic development.

In Hastings, two new metal sculptures have landed on the riverbank and a 30 meter high mural adorns the concrete block facade of a local non-profit organization. In Eagan, decorated “art benches” are scattered across the city. And in Savage, city officials recently hired a $ 30,000 advisor to help set guidelines for an arts program and identify possible locations for artwork.

“It’s a huge trending topic,” said Kersten Elverum, director of planning and development at Hopkins, which has a robust public arts program. “Even cities that might not consider themselves ‘artistic’ saw the benefits.”

Proponents of public art say it has power to create places or to bring out the sense of history of an area. Many of the new suburban art projects have focused on upgrading city centers and revitalizing neighborhoods or new developments. Many cities also organize art events every year or accompany the unveiling of works of art – with participatory elements, such as encouraging residents to help paint a mural.

“We really want to connect people to where they live, work and shop,” said Brad Larson, Savage City Administrator.

Muralist Greg Preslicka, who created two Prior Lake murals in July and completed another in the new Scott County Government Center, said he now paints more exterior murals for cities than interior work at YMCAs, a former mainstay.

He suggested a specific motivation for cities to add public art: “Often times, cities think, ‘Can we have these Instagram photo spots to encourage people to take a picture and share it on social media?’ “

City officials and artists extol the economic benefits of art. Bloomington, for example, says its arts and culture sector has an economic impact of $ 12.1 million from the spending of its 25 nonprofit arts organizations and the costs paid by visitors to their performances.

But even there, elected officials sometimes say that investing in art is not the best use of public money. The city council decided not to fund a new mural project, which would have cost $ 150,000 in 2020, citing the financial hardships caused by the pandemic.

‘Feeling for the place’

Prior Lake has incorporated public art into its downtown for the past three years, including two murals on businesses and five lighted ship masts on the median of the recently reconstructed County Road 21. The mural on the Nuvera Communications building celebrates the history of Prior Lake beginning with Indian and ends with modern images of a local water skier, said Jason Wedel, city manager of Prior Lake.

“We wanted … to create the feeling of place, that you have arrived in Prior Lake, not that you are just going somewhere else,” he said.

In 2019, the city held its first Chalk Fest, which encourages local residents and artists to paint pictures directly on the street. The festival “exploded” in popularity, he said.

Now the city’s economic development agency is hoping the city will add more public art to encourage downtown redevelopment in certain areas, he said.

“Developers will look at cities that invest in themselves,” said Wedel.

Art and art events can also create a geographic identity where there is, of course, none. Eagan, which has no downtown area, hired a consultant a few years ago to create a sense of place there, said Julie Andersen, a supervisor at Eagan Art House, the city’s arts hub.

Today the city has declared the square mile, which includes City Hall and other city buildings, its “art block,” said Andersen, and is hosting its two-week September arts festival there. The city owns 31 public works of art, 29 of which it has acquired in the past five years.

Among them, officials have spent $ 150,000 on art benches that combine aesthetics with a place to rest. The city has 20 benches in 20 different parks. “We like to say that art can be found all over Eagan,” she said.

Financing options

Funding for art in public spaces comes from a variety of sources: city budgets, non-profit organizations, private companies or fundraisers can take this into account.

In Hastings, a task force has commissioned three works of art with around $ 40,000 in city money in recent years to join the five murals in the city center. Pieces include a newly dedicated 90 foot long mural, a small sculpture depicting local landmarks, and a brightly painted shipping container that has been converted into the heat house of an ice rink.

Other projects were joint efforts. On Wednesday, the city’s public works department helped install two metal sculptures, including an oversized creature called the Leatherback Turtle. The works are loaned for free by local artist Dale Lewis, city spokeswoman Dawn Skelly said.

But funding for art, which some see as “extra”, can lead to disagreements. Bloomington leaders destroyed a mural last fall when the cost seemed excessive to some officials.

Councilor Jack Baloga said he believes the arts are “the soul of a community,” but declined to spend money on the mural intended for an Interstate 35W underpass because the city was COVID-19 related Budget deficit was faced. “One hundred and fifty thousand dollars for art … seemed like an exorbitant sum when we laid off employees,” he said.

But he said he was looking forward to four small sculptures and a larger songbird sculpture that will be created next year.

Much of Bloomington’s public art endeavors are part of “creative space design,” where art is central to the planning and development, said Alejandra Pelinka, Bloomington’s Creative Place Making Director.

The city and its nonprofit partner, Artistry, have focused on the South Loop, an area that the city has made accessible, dense, and mixed. The commission’s budget is $ 430,000 annually from the city’s alcohol and lodging taxes. A recent effort was the creation of the “WE” mural, actually a colorful 750-foot collection of murals that 10 artists completed earlier this month. A block party followed at sunset.

Elverum, Hopkins’ director of planning, said art can also help the suburbs counter the notion that they’re just filled with chain businesses and carbonless apartments.

“People want to feel like they’re living in a special place that they can be proud of,” she said. “Art can do that.”

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781

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