Soon to step down, Christine Podas-Larson talks about her 28 years at Public Art St. Paul

Photo by Bill Kelley
Christine Podas-Larson: "We are prepared to make our argument in a public forum and through public process. We have to be well prepared to win and, if it is the will of the people, to lose."

Christine Podas-Larson will retire soon as head of Public Art St. Paul, a nonprofit agency that she started 28 years ago to foster art in the Capital City.

Over the years, the organization has been a major player in St. Paul’s community art scene. Remember the sidewalk poems? The Western Sculpture Park? The city’s public art ordinance from 2009, which allocates 1 percent of public building projects to art? All Public Art St. Paul projects.

Podas-Larson’s name came up a couple of times at a recent forum, when five St. Paul mayors, past and present, spoke about the role of philanthropy and the arts in the city.

We talked with Podas-Larson, who has a double major in Russian history and theater from the University of Minnesota and an master of arts in education from the University of St. Thomas, about the growth and evolution of her work in St. Paul.

MinnPost: What’s the elevator pitch on the organization’s goals and mission? 

Christine Podas-Larson: Public Art Saint Paul brings artists together with communities to shape a public realm that fosters imagination, explores civic values and the community’s evolving history, and strengthens public places as vessels of public life.

Our  work beautifies the city and brings art into our everyday civic lives; it’s our civic connective tissue. We know that artists illuminate social and environmental conditions, and our work fosters a deep fondness for this place of our personal histories and civic lives. 

MP: Some examples?

CP-L:  We place City Artists within City departments to impact new thinking about how the city is planned and built. That’s resulted in Everyday Poems for City Sidewalks, the St. Paul Streets Public Art program that re-imagines traditional street elements such as stop sign posts and rain gardens. And there’s the Urban Flower Field at Pedro Park.

And we produce major public art projects, like Minnesota Rocks! in 2006 where Philip Rickey worked with artists from around the world to create public artworks from Minnesota stone. The University Avenue Project 2010 was a six-mile, six-month exhibition by Wing Young Huie. In 2014 the Community Meal by Seitu Jones culminated with dinner for 2,000 in the middle of Victoria Street. 

We transformed a vacant property west of the Capitol into the Western Sculpture Park, a vital cultural gathering place with a rotating sculpture exhibition. We also care for historic public artworks and have restored and maintain important works like Nathan Hale, Indian Hunter and His Dog, Schiller, Ibsen, the New York Life Eagle.

MP: What were you doing before PASP?

CP-L: I have always been an entrepreneur, from junior high school organizing theater companies and other ventures. In the late 1970s I was a corporate art consultant working with American and Northwestern National Banks in St. Paul, Cray Research, Pillsbury Company and The St. Paul Companies. 

MP: Your projects then led to bigger ideas, with support from the Latimer administration.

CP-L: From a show at The St. Paul, civic leaders gathered in 1986, we spent nearly two years in study and held conversation throughout the community. The conclusion: People across a range of interests thought that public art was important to the city’s future. Because St. Paul is a municipality, county seat, state capital and federal river port, a singular municipal arts commission was not a solution – the idea was to take a look at the entirely of the public sphere. So the nonprofit Public Art Saint Paul was established to serve as a big tent for this purpose.

I was hired as the president/CEO – Dave McDonell (of the St. Paul Companies) was the first board chair, Latimer aide Dick Broeker and George Reid were advisers.

MP: How has it grown?

CP-L: In the beginning I was the sole employee and our office was in my house, and we had a $50,000 budget. In the early 1990s we moved into shared office space in the Minnesota Building downtown. Since 2000 we have had our own offices, currently in Lowertown, and our staff has grown to include a director of operations and administrative assistant, two City Artists, and an education director. Our budget is now about $900,000 per year.

MP: Over the years, I remember Mayors George Latimer and Chris Coleman being very big supporters.

CP-L: Latimer was and is a force – he was at our side from day one and continues to serve on our advisory committee. And we have made big strides over the past eight years in our city partnership because of the steady and spirited support of Chris Coleman. We have worked as a city partner through five mayors, more than 20 City Council members and a changing cast of department directors. 

MP: What are your highlights of the 28 years?

CP-L: The three downtown parks – Kellogg Mall, Mears and the Saint Paul Cultural Garden (an extension of Kellogg Mall). They are beautiful! They serve the city well. They set models for collaboration. The Wabasha Street Bridge – though the V-mast was not built (it should have been). Western Sculpture Park – it taught us to listen to neighbors; this was really the idea of the Fuller Aurora Neighborhood Association. Also, Minnesota Rocks!, University Avenue Project, CREATE, The Neighborhood Meal. The City Artist Program – now 10 years old and an ongoing engine of ingenuity that will change the city’s DNA.

MP: What hasn’t worked so well? What would you do differently?

CP-L: We should have figured out a way to build the V-Mast cable-stayed Wabasha Street Bridge back in 1993. We were close and I will always regret that. Sometimes there can be too many balls in the air – it’s hard to make choices.

MP: There are always critics of spending public money on public art. How do you respond to them?

CP-L: Yes, there are vocal critics, but I have to say that I am very proud of our city. In 2009 we enacted a very robust Public Art Ordinance. Through extensive polling prior to City Council action, the overwhelming majority of residents favored the ordinance. Citizen desire for public art is reflected in a plethora of neighborhood plans. In Sidewalk Poetry, not only do few complain, but there is a tidal wave of requests for poetry in sidewalks. So my response is that public money requires public process. We are prepared to make our argument in a public forum and through public process. We have to be well prepared to win and, if it is the will of the people, to lose.  So far we have won in very public processes. Also, a big part of this is courtesy – people don’t like surprises, the more they know the more inclined they are to be supportive.

MP: How much of your time is spent working with artists and planning, versus fundraising?

CP-L: I spend about one-third of my time fundraising – writing grant proposals, networking with prospects, working on our annual campaign and special appeals, producing an annual fundraiser. I spend a great deal of time as “executive producer” of public art programs and projects, and I think this is quite different from many public art organizations. We are actively involved throughout as the producer. It makes life worthwhile to be engaged deeply with artists and their collaborators.  

MP:  If all this hadn’t come together 28 years ago, how different would St. Paul be?

CP-L: There would be no City Artist program and either no/or a less robust Public Art Ordinance. The City’s historic public art collection would have deteriorated further.

MP: Where does the organization go from here?

CP-L: On to a brilliant future! We have an amazing board of directors and they have been working diligently for nearly a year in transition planning, including search for the next leader, who will be named before I leave in June.

MP: And what’s next for you?

CP-L: My husband, Kent, and I are sailors/boaters. We will take off this summer to circumnavigate the Eastern U.S. (the Great Loop). I am not retiring from life, but honestly I need a break – working without ceasing for all these years is wearing. I want more time with my family and to study.  So I’ll come back fresh for a new adventure!

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