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Minneapolis’ sense of itself revealed in artist-designed manhole covers

On Nicollet Mall, and on 6th and 7th Streets between Nicollet and Hennepin, there are a few pieces of highly functional public art: manhole covers designed by artists between 1983 and 1990.

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
Good public art isn’t supposed to be obtrusive or needy. It’s supposed to complement its surroundings, and these manhole covers do just that.

In downtown Minneapolis on Nicollet Mall, and on 6th and 7th Streets between Nicollet and Hennepin, you can find a few pieces of highly functional public art, utilizing a nontraditional medium: manhole covers, designed by artists between 1983 and 1990. The first group of these covers is from 1983-84, the work of 11 different artists, and the second set is from 1990, all designed by a single artist. According to this overview in the Skyway of Love blog, they were at one time apparently the city of Minneapolis’s most-asked-about pieces of public art. 

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With the exception of some mentions on photo and downtown-focused blogs, they seem to have largely fallen out of the public eye. At a certain point – maybe after 10 years, maybe after 20 – a piece of public art is absorbed completely into its surroundings. In a sense, to not notice a piece of public art is the greatest compliment you can pay it. Good public art isn’t supposed to be obtrusive or needy. It’s supposed to complement its surroundings, and these manhole covers do just that. Most people walking over or around them downtown don’t seem to notice them, but they’re ready to be noticed when someone is taking the time to observe their environment.

Though they may have been a subject of intense inquiry for Minneapolis’ citizens, information about the manhole covers is pretty sparse on the city’s website in 2013 (only this PDF self-guided tour makes mention of them). You have to use the Internet Wayback Machine to see the full, illustrated listings for the 1983-84 covers on the city website circa 2002. Low-profile or not, though, this cluster of manhole covers – along with the other non-artist manhole covers – can tell us a great deal about the city’s sense of itself over the years.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

Most manhole covers weren’t designed to look particularly appealing. Manhole covers can stay in use for decades, and so most are simple, pragmatic designs that are meant to be stepped on and driven over for 30  years at a time. There are still quite a few not-unattractive covers reading “N.S.P. CO.” in a heavy, all-business sans-serif. They’re reminders of the old Northern States Power Company, before it became Xcel Energy. I wish Xcel Energy Center were called “Northern States Power Center,” but then again, I wish the Wild were called the North Stars or the Fighting Saints. Oh well. It is jarring to realize that manhole covers are old enough to outlast the company that placed them in the street to begin with. I saw another one that looked even older, bearing the imprimatur of the “TCWC,” whatever that may have been. I presumed it must stand for “Twin Cities Water Company,” but that doesn’t ring any bells on Google.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

Of course, there are plenty of sewer department manholes, too, bearing the familiar “City of Lakes” Minneapolis logo that consists of those two spiky sailboats stuck together.

None of which is that compelling, right? City officials must have thought the same thing. In 1983, they selected 11 artists out of 460 applicants to create designs for new manhole covers around the theme of “entertainment in Minneapolis.” Thirty years later, they’re all still in place around 6th and 7th Streets, testaments to the durability of the manhole-cover medium. That may be the most compelling thing about them, the fact that in terms of wear-and-tear, they have a fairly timeless quality to them that you don’t typically associate with city infrastructure. In terms of aesthetic quality, they’re all over the place – in fact, the best ones are only loosely related to the theme – but many are quite good and hold up as both artifacts and as living pieces of art.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

On 6th Street near City Center is a cover designed by the husband-and-wife team of Marcia Stone and Wes Janz. Apparently now living in the other -Apolis, in Indiana, Stone and Janz’s design tosses the shapes of all of the city’s lakes against a wall, and spells out “Minneapolis City of Lakes” in a splattery water font in front of them, slanted at a jaunty angle. This design plays an interesting trick of history. Fifteen years ago, it may have looked ridiculously dated, but in 2013, it so effortlessly captures a certain early ’80s new-wave cool that it now looks completely contemporary. I can imagine walking into Transmission at Club Jager on a Wednesday night and seeing a 22-year-old kid wearing a purple t-shirt with this graphic on the front in teal.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

Nearby is an old-timey cartoon fella, peering out from beneath another manhole, with a little graphic on top of it alluding to the “mini-apple,” our city’s most cringe-inducing nickname. This guy doesn’t mind if you think “mini-apple” is silly, though; he’s giving you an “A-OK” sign. I’m not entirely sure, but I believe it’s the work of Frank Antoncich, a cartoonist and illustrator who died in 1994 at age 88 – the cache of the city website doesn’t include an image under Antoncich’s name, but it looks a bit like some of his other work I can find online. It is so guilelessly corny and endearing that it’s impossible to dislike. I like knowing that if it is indeed Antoncich’s work, he created in his 70s, and that it refers explicitly to 1930s and ’40s cartoon art of his youth. “Guilelessly corny” is a risky aesthetic move, but come on, just look at that little guy. He really wants you to have an A-OK trip to downtown Minneapolis. You know: the Mini-Apple!

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

Also worth noting: Wayne Salzman’s New Yorker cartoon-styled depiction of a downtown luncheon (as far as I can tell, Salzman is now a painter of Eastern Orthodox icons in Massachusetts). David Atkinson’s grill-out cover, with its brats and burgers, is pretty great, too.

But the best of the bunch is probably Stuart Klipper’s quiet, contemplative cover, right in front of a heavily used bus stop on 7th Street: an “X” marking the latitude and longitude of the spot (“YOUR PRECISE LOCATION”), with a suggestion to “KNOW WHERE YOU ARE + BE WHERE YOU’RE AT.” I actually had noticed this one before, though not knowing it was Klipper’s work. I was surprised to learn it was his – I’m a big fan of his wide-angle cityscapes, and his photos have appeared in this column before. I was doubly surprised to learn that it was as old as it is. I’d always figured it wasn’t more than a few years old. It doesn’t look particularly dated, probably because the graphics and the sentiment are so simple and straightforward.

manhole cover
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
This cover doesn’t look particularly dated, probably because the graphics and the sentiment are so simple and straightforward.

When Nicollet Mall was redesigned a few years later in 1990, the city undertook a massive public-art project that also included the frosted glass bus shelters that still line the street. The city commissioned Kate Burke, a Provincetown, Mass.-based sculptor, to create a series of designs. She seems to have been instructed to not repeat the theme of “entertainment in Minneapolis,” but stick to what she calls “icons of the state”: ladyslippers, walleyes, apples, oats, Northern pikes.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant

Burke’s work is beautiful, and the covers have a timeless quality to them as well – the presentation of the natural elements, such as the apples or oats, woven together in a pattern-like grid, calls to mind the sorts of patterns you see in a lot of these manhole covers. They bring a sense of easygoing natural beauty to that least beautiful of infrastructure: heavy irons discs covering sewer lines. 

That said, I prefer the early ’80s covers. The 1990 covers are, on the whole, stronger, more confident pieces of artwork. But I find the selection of “Minnesota icons” reductive and somewhat limiting. In its self-identity and presentation, I sometimes think that Minneapolis can seem embarrassed to be a city, like it’s some kind of bizarre cosmic accident that there’s a city of 400,000 inhabitants here and not a  Hennepin County-sized Lutheran church camp out on the prairie. Loons, pikes, and corn are certainly important parts of the state’s mythology, but I’m not sure if you could say that of the city’s mythology. The vast majority of people using Nicollet Mall and walking around downtown (including me) probably don’t give much thought to loons, pikes, and corn on a daily basis.

What I like about the 1983 covers is that, for all their aggressive whimsy, there is a cosmopolitan quality there that says, yes, here’s our city, with its dancers and lunching ladies and grilled meats and splattery new-wave fonts. It feels more like the Minneapolis I know. As Klipper suggests, it’s good to know where you are, and be where you’re at.  

Thanks to super-reader Chuck Pederson for the suggestion.