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Growing new art ideas along the Central Corridor

Far from simply decorating the light-rail route, St. Paul’s Central Corridor Public Art Plan is redefining art in the public sphere.

Christine Baeumler displays a model of her stormwater project
Photo by Bill Kelley
Christine Baeumler displays a model of her stormwater project
at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Gallery.

Is your idea of public art a work of visual art or sculpture permanently placed into a public space, including “plop art,” a monument, or a statue in the square? Then the Central Corridor Public Art Plan would like to disabuse you of that notion. Vigorously.

Yes, along the Central Corridor Light Rail line, the Metropolitan Council has commissioned permanent public art for the transit stations that reflects the context and history of each community, from artists Nancy Blum (West Bank, East Bank, Fairview Ave.); Roberto Delgado (Stadium Village, Fourth & Cedar St., Snelling Ave.); Janet Lofquist  (29th Ave., Capitol East, Tenth St.); Andrea Mykelbust/Stanton Sears (Raymond Ave., Westgate, Union Depot); and Seitu Jones (Lexington Parkway, Dale St., Rice St.)

But after observing that process, and realizing that the art would be confined to the stations and platforms, “We felt strongly that there needed to be a more comprehensive view of the role of public art along the Central Corridor,” says Christine Podas-Larson, president, Public Art Saint Paul. “The Central Corridor is about more than linear rail lines. There are neighborhoods on both sides of the line, and there’s a vast streetscape from Lowertown to downtown Minneapolis.

“We thought: Of the entire universe of what is possible with public art, we can check off permanent visual art on the platforms. The Met Council has taken care of that,” she continues. “Now, we want to do everything else.”

That “everything else” encompasses a broad and continually evolving definition of public art, which is currently being addressed by the Central Corridor Public Art Plan (CCPAP). The plan is a project of Public Art Saint Paul in partnership with the City of Saint Paul, the City of Minneapolis Art in Public Places Program and the Office of the City Coordinator, the St. Paul Design Center, and the Capitol Region and Ramsey Washington Metro Watershed Districts. Funding for the plan comes from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

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(Another ongoing strategy along the Central Corridor is Irrigate, an artist-led initiative along the corridor’s six miles. The project connects artists with communities — and artists within the communities along the rail line — in investing in their neighborhoods through creative placemaking activities with lasting impact.)

The CCPAP, according to its website, “is a collaborative venture that seeks to develop a long-term, far-reaching vision for creativity along the Central Corridor that excites artists, sparks community initiative and action, and provides direction and an enduring foundation for bringing public and private resources behind implementation of art projects.”

Re-defining public art

The “far-reaching vision for creativity” will include public art that involves media other than the visual (such as sound), and is perhaps temporary rather than permanent. But don’t use phrases like “creative placemaking,” says Podas-Larson. “The practice of public art is really more dynamic than that. In this area of the country, it’s a socially based practice. Meaning that artists have, in their work, a very distinct idea about creating a thing or an experience, but underlying it is an intention to change behavior, whether those behaviors impact the environment or social interaction.”

Artists living and working in communities along the Central Corridor are “in a position to lead discussions about what makes a healthy, sustainable, viable community, because they’re already grappling with these issues,” says Todd Bressi, of the Pennsylvania-based firm Urban Design • Place Planning • Public Art, who is leading the CCPAP consulting team with Cliff Garten of Cliff Garten Studio in California. Also on the consulting team are Rebar (a California studio working at the intersection of art, design and ecology), the Twin Cities-based Works Progress, and Via Partnership, a St. Louis-based public-art consulting group.

Seitu Jones, speaking at the final Talk-It Hennepin forum
Photo by Bill Kelley
Seitu Jones, speaking at the final Talk-It Hennepin forum

For example, Seitu Jones is developing a multi-year project that examines food systems and urban agriculture in the Frogtown neighborhood, which will culminate in a community dinner at a 3,000-foot-long table. “Seitu tells this story about how, from his studio, he sees people carrying bags of food from the convenience store,” says Podas-Larson. “He’s concerned about food as a public-health issue. His idea is not just about buying from the store, but how food is grown, brought to market, prepared and consumed. He’s examining food as a system.”

A public-art project by Christine Baeumler, the Capitol Region Watershed District Artist-in-Residence, will involve making the processes of stormwater infrastructure visible so people understand why it exists and are offered clues as to how their behavior contributes to water quality.

Christine Podas-Larson in front of Public Art Saint Paul's Lowertown headquarter
Photo by Bill Kelley
Christine Podas-Larson in front of Public Art Saint Paul’s Lowertown headquarters

“In other words,” says Podas-Larson, “the artists are looking at the living systems in the city, which will make our plan a dynamic plan. We want this plan to take a good look at long-term impacts on big issues of the urban future, including the health of the environment, the health of the population, the social dynamic of the population, the quality of the infrastructure at all levels, and people’s understanding of the infrastructure.”

More than a train on University Avenue

The Central Corridor lends itself to this approach for singular reasons, says Lucy Thompson, principal city planner, Department of Planning & Economic Development, St. Paul. “Mayor Coleman has always said, ‘If all we get out of this is a train going down the middle of University Avenue, we’ll have squandered a huge opportunity.’ We see public art and community involvement as catalytic investments in revitalizing neighborhoods.”

Thompson adds that along the Central Corridor, some citizens continue to fear the $1 billion transit project will “tear their neighborhood apart. So ongoing conversations around systems, and artists bringing people together around issues not related to transit specifically but to community issues, provides a way to jump over divisive issues and think positively about the future of a neighborhood.”

Podas-Larson anticipates the plan will be completed by the end of 2012. Bressi says his hope for the plan is “not so much to stimulate projects — which come from the artists and communities — but to imagine structures that will support these projects and efforts. We are really trying to think about how the practice of public art can be relevant to serious questions about the health and future of cities. And we’re thinking about how that can be done in ways that support the career trajectories of artists.”

The journey versus the destination

Thompson says she hopes for a final product “that will guide our public-art investment along the corridor and in the neighborhoods.” But she adds that since the project began, “I’ve lost sight of what the deliverables will be. I’ll just know it when I see it. What’s become more important is the journey getting there.”

For example, “Todd and Cliff have really embedded themselves in the communities, and done more sociological and psychological mapping than anything. That’s taken us in different and productive directions. It’s a whole new experience in public art.”

Todd Bressi, California-based urban designer and CCPAP consulting team leader
Courtesy of Todd Bressi Urban Design
Todd Bressi, California-based urban designer and CCPAP consulting team leader

Bressi adds that the public art and community processes thus far are leading the consulting team to “invent a new, rarely tried paradigm for how public art is practiced. We call it ‘beyond percent-for-art.’ We’re looking at what’s essential about how cities and communities operate, and how artists can be part of the essential conversation.”

“We hope our vision,” concludes Podas-Larson, “will set an example for a new national model for the practice of public art.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.