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Checking out Loring Park’s Ole Bull and other Twin Cities statues of cultural figures

The statue of Ole Bull was erected in Loring Park in 1897. Bull stands atop a pedestal, playing a violin, with a little line of music carved into the granite below him.

A statue of violinist Ole Bull was erected in Loring Park in 1897.
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

Last month, ARTINFO published a list of the hundred most iconic works of art of the past five years. I thought it was a really smart list, though I was sorry I hadn’t been able to see a lot of the more site-specific work in person. That’s the problem with living in the Midwest sometimes – unless you make regular trips to New York, it’s hard to see the really major event shows (though at least one Minnesota artist made the list, Alec Soth, whose The Last Days of W. came in at #55). In particular, I’m thinking of the first three on the list, The Clock, The Artist is Present, and This Progress, all of which I really should’ve made a special trip to New York to experience in person. I will almost definitely regret in my old age not having seen them all. Oh, well. 

Speaking of Andy Warhol and New York, though, I actually did manage to see one on ARTINFO’s list the last time I was there. All the way at #97 on the list is Rob Pruitt’s The Andy Monument, which was on view through 2011 and ’12. It’s exactly what it sounds like – an impish-looking oversized statue of Andy Warhol, near the former location of his Factory on Union Square, carrying a shopping bag from Bloomingdale’s and with a Polaroid camera around his neck. Keeping with the Warhol aesthetic, the statue is completely silver polished chrome.

When I returned to the Twin Cities, I started ticking off a mental list of cultural figures that have statues of them around here. Not politicians or athletes or generals, but cultural figures. Who are the artists, writers, and musicians we’ve built monuments to? Not even necessarily figures from here, but that had some sort of impact or importance locally. A cursory list: novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (Mears Park), New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Swedish poet Gunnar Wennerberg (both in Minnehaha Park), German poet and playwright Johann Friedrich von Schiller and Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (both in Como Park), Star Tribune reporter Sid Hartman (Target Field), Norwegian violinist Ole Bull (Loring Park), fictional TV reporter Mary Richards (Nicollet Mall), and, uh, Snoopy (numerous locations). Poor Charles Schulz! Here we have an artist who surely deserves a statue built in his honor, and instead he gets those awful fiberglass statues of his most famous creation all over St. Paul. You can’t win, Charlie Brown! 

New York obviously works a bit differently from the rest of the country, which is why I was unable to see the top artworks on ARTINFO’s list. Warhol wasn’t “from” New York; he grew up in Pittsburgh, and only came to New York after college, where he shed the biographical details of his Rust Belt background, becoming “Andy Warhol” and inseparable from the cultural life of New York City. The impulse in the Midwest around lionizing local cultural luminaries is usually the opposite; it’s only the figures who have left for good to make their careers elsewhere that get recognition. Those “Walk of Fame” stars on Hennepin are a good example of this. Why anyone has taken the time to commemorate Vince Vaughan, a lesser comedic actor whose ties to Minnesota are beyond tenuous and whose contributions to the cultural well-being of the city are almost zero, is an absolute mystery to me. 

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Perhaps I’m being ungracious. In commemorating artists and cultural figures with public art, there’s a delicate walk to be done through a minefield strewn with notions of populism, self-identity and perceived aesthetic worth. For an example of how easily those mines can blow, witness this nasty, thoroughly uninspiring episode in another Midwestern city, Milwaukee, over a local initiative to build a statue of fictional Milwaukeean and cultural icon Arthur Fonzarelli.

Ole Bull Statue
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Ole Bull statue in Loring Park

Which is why it might be useful to look a little more carefully at one of the statues noted above, Ole Bull. The statue was erected in Loring Park in 1897, standing atop a pedestal and playing a violin, with a little line of music carved into the granite below him. Bull was an internationally renowned Norwegian violinist whose connections to the state and its Norwegian community were strongly felt. As late as 1920, decades after his death, the Minneapolis Tribune referred to him as a “Minnesota violinist,” despite his never living here. He traveled through Minnesota many times, as far back as 1856, and cultivated strong ties with the Norwegian community here.

Minneapolis is of course a heavily Scandinavian city, with two noteworthy provisos: one, it was not always a Scandinavian city, and two, we often we lump “Scandinavians” into a homogenous mass.

In 1897, when the statue was erected, Scandinavians were only just beginning to rise to positions of influence in the civic and social life of the city and state. The first Scandinavian-born governor wasn’t elected until 1893 (that was Knute Nelson, who also served as one of the state’s first Scandinavian-born congressmen, representing the 5th District starting in 1883). In fact, Minneapolis didn’t have a mayor of Scandinavian descent until well into the 20th century. The power in the city resided with a handful of old New England-born families. Scandinavians were a politically underrepresented ethnic minority for most of the 19th century, grouped together into crowded, impoverished parts of the city.

Moreover, Norwegians themselves were a minority within a minority. Norway didn’t become an independent constitutional monarchy until 1905. Throughout the last part of the 19th century, at the same time Norwegian immigrants were settling Minnesota and its cities, Norway was busy creating a distinct national identity separate from that of Sweden and Denmark, the dominant cultural powers in Scandinavia through much of the past millennium. Bull, as a composer in the romantic tradition and virtuoso violinist, drew on specifically Norwegian idioms in his own music. It was these movements in art, music and literature, to which Bull contributed greatly through his fame and his work, that helped create the modern Norwegian identity.

bull statue pedestal
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The poignancy of the statue of Bull is in the fact that it’s a triumphant assertion of civic influence and cultural cache.

So the poignancy of the statue of Bull is in the fact that it’s a triumphant assertion of civic influence and cultural cache, on behalf of an immigrant Norwegian community in the city that had, within a generation or two, become an enormously important part of the civic character. Bull was not a Minnesotan, per se, but his success reflected the aspirations of the Norwegian diaspora. The fact that the city’s Norwegian community chose to portray an artist, captured in the act of playing his instrument, over a political or community leader, is a testament to the power that art can have.

Someday in the near future, there will likely be statues built to Garrison Keillor and Prince. There’s a decent chance there may someday be a statue portraying noted local painter Scott Seekins, probably also in Loring Park. Who else? Tom Davis? Eleanor Mondale? Meridel Le Seueur? Robert Pirsig? I also imagine that there are Somali and Hmong artists who will, in the coming decade or two, have monuments built to them on the parks and street corners of the Twin Cities, as the Norwegians of a century ago built a statue for Ole Bull.

Note: I’ll be taking the next two weeks off, but not to fear: I am leaving The Stroll in very capable hands. Next week, Oct. 10, your guide will be writer Peter Schilling, author of “The End of Baseball.” The following week, Oct. 17, you’ll have pleasure of following McKnight Fellowship-winning photographer Carrie Thompson around town. See you soon!