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Minneapolis taxpayers drop $772,000 on sculpture out of $2 million public art budget

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The Minneapolis City Council will spend $772,107 in taxpayer money on a hanging sculpture and related costs for its new downtown Public Service Building.

The sculpture is designed to alter its form in reaction to climate conditions, described in the contract to “create a mesmerizing visual effect through subtle shifts of light, shadow and reflections, akin to a rippling lake or a flock of birds.”

An Atlanta-based studio is building the sculpture, which has come under criticism for both its cost and its abstractness.

City Arts Administrator Mary Altman told The Center Square the sculpture is intended to draw awareness to humans’ stewardship over the environment.

An independent panel including art experts, employees, and community members selected Tristan Al-Haddad’s Atlanta-based Formations Studio to build the sculpture, Altman said in an email.

A city ordinance requires 1.5 percent of capital projects to be spent on public art, Altman said of the building’s $2 million public art budget, which is in the capital budget, separated from the city’s operating budget.

Altman said this price tag “has been emphasized at every public presentation.”

Altman said the $772,107 breaks down to $394,517 for the Suspended Lobby Sculpture and $377,590 for related ceiling and light costs for the motorized, moving sculpture’s tracks and new lighting.

Altman said large civic buildings across the U.S. have works of public art, and that community input requested a signature sculptural work similar to City Hall and the Father of Waters Sculpture.

Fourteen of 16 artists the city hired to create artwork in each of the buildings’ 16 floors hail from Minnesota, Altman said. 

City Council member Andrew Johnson told The Center Square he thinks the 1.5 percent public art ordinance is good because it aligns with residents’ values and the thriving local arts community, adding that “one of the most quintessential symbols of ‘Minneapolis’ is a cherry on a spoon – a large piece of public art!” 

Johnson said that sometimes a piece is selected that draws criticism regarding the content or price.

The ordinance was meant “to lift up local artists and the local creative economy,” Johnson said, adding that the council needs to decide if the ordinance should be updated to require the selection of only local artists.

Catesby Leigh, a prominent art critic based out of Washington, told The Center Square that civic art for a government building should be figurative and employ a symbolism everyone can understand.

“What’s disturbing about this is that it’s a kind of misappropriation of funds,” Leigh said. “We should be commissioning civic artwork for our government buildings from traditional artists,” he said, adding that there was no symbolism to this sculpture.

“So what you have here is an entirely inappropriate intrusion of conceptualist, modernist art on civic terrain where it really has no place,” Leigh said. “This piece should be in a modern art museum, not a public building.”

The Public Service Building project is concurrent with Minnesota Police Chief Medaria Arradondo’s requests in July to the City Council’s Public Safety and Emergency Management Committee to hire 30 more police officers this budget cycle, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Arradondo said police couldn’t respond to 1,251 “priority one” 911 calls, including assaults and shootings, over the last year due to a short-staffed force.