Public art can draw attention

Joe Carlson

“The big silver thing by the bookstore” is both a common reference point for East Bank pedestrians, and one of several examples of public art on campus.
The true purpose of public art is debatable, some say, but its importance is not. Public art, both outside and indoors, is often an inseparable part of the urban experience.
“A lot of people think public art has to be a monument,” said Stephanie Fox, an art history senior and administrative assistant of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. “It doesn’t have to be boring.”
It serves numerous purposes, from landmark and conversation piece to political statement. “The function of art is inspire, to ask questions and to open the mind to new avenues of exploration,” said Charles Rausch, the director of the St. Paul Student Center, which has many pieces of public art.
“It has the potential to change an environment from one that might be mundane to one that might be positive,” Rausch said.
Fox said, “I think as long as the sculpture is an impetus for dialogue, it’s good.”
Public art can also become an integral part of a community. “We identify a certain location with a certain piece of art,” said Geoff Maciejewski, an architecture junior.
“It’s neat when people can integrate public art into their lives,” Fox said.
Public art can also be a unifying element for a community. “It moves people to see something in themselves that they connect through,” said Theresa Winge, a fashion design junior and employee of the Larson Gallery.
Rausch stressed the importance of public art in places where most people do not know one another, like student unions. “In a building like that, having something to focus on is important part of opening communication.”
“It’s a step above asking about the weather,” Rausch said.
But because of limitations of space and materials — and weather if the art is outside — the main ideas of a piece are sometimes missed. “It tries to evoke a response,” said Tracy Zank, a graduate student in anthropology. “But some of it can be pretty vague.”
However, Winge said that this can be a side-effect of all public displays of art.
“Once you display art, no matter where you display it, you leave meaning up to the observer,” she said. “As an artist, your meaning may be lost.”
Maciejewski said, “you can never really tell what it is, but you notice it.”
Many people at the University agree that the three campuses could use more public art. “The University could use more landmarks that aren’t buildings,” Maciejewski said.
“There needs to be more art on campus,” Winge said. “I spend my time primarily on the St. Paul campus … we have this huge yard out here, and the trees are beautiful, but some sculpture would be great.”
On the East Bank, “The Mall would be a great place for some art,” Fox said. She also suggested that the University use sculpture as a way to overcome the division imposed on the Minneapolis campuses by the Mississippi.
“What I’ve been dreaming about is to connect the East and West banks,” Fox said. For example, she would place similar pieces of art, such as distinctive arches or gateways, on both ends of the Washington Avenue footbridge to remind passers-by that they are still on the same campus.
But Stefanie Kuecker, an architecture junior, cautioned that “it would be hard to design a piece that’s part of the overall design and not just stuck into it.”