[Featured image: Photo by Rick Pepper – Silo Art Project by Australian artist Guido Van Helten in 2019]
I feel as though we’re getting to the point where when people hear the name “Mankato,” they immediately think of art. Am I wrong?
We have Minnesota State University (plus Bethany Lutheran College, South Central College and Rasmussen, of course). We lost the Minnesota Vikings training camp just about the time the MSU football teams started making trips to the national championship game on a pretty regular basis. But then we got the CityArt Sculpture Walk. And then we started covering downtown electrical boxes in bright, colorful art. And added some pretty damn cool murals. And now, the mother of them all, the Ardent Mills Silos.
Yeah, it’s pretty hard to miss those silos. Thanks, Guido Van Helten and everyone who made a donation so that could happen.
I feel as though we’re getting to the point where when people hear the name ‘Mankato,’ they immediately think of art.
This art doesn’t just happen. Nearly 15 years ago, I served on a Culture Arts and Community Enhancement Task Force that laid the groundwork for a lot of what is happening now. Among the recommendations from its 2007 final report: raise the awareness of various forms of arts and culture; make arts and cultural education a priority; encourage multiculturalism; develop an Arts and Cultural District, making that district a destination; and build a supportive atmosphere for arts and culture in the community.
City Center has pretty much become that Arts and Cultural District, though not formally named or designated as such. But an emphasis was placed on enhancing downtown Mankato and North Mankato, and from that has sprung new ideas and collaborations.
Standing on Their Shoulders
We didn’t start it all. There were LOTS of people who had been talking about the value of art, especially in downtown, for decades before that. Before the Twin Rivers Council for the Arts, for example, there were several other incarnations of an organization whose primary focus was bringing arts to the community.
A “Popular” Example
Let me use the Mankato Piece as an example. I know, I know…many of you don’t want to hear about “The Piece,” but it plays an important role in Mankato’s ascendance in arts promotion!
On April 6, 1968, “nationally recognized contemporary sculptor” Dale Eldred was in Mankato to meet with representatives from Fine Arts, Inc., who were looking at the “parklet” on East Hickory Street to house a new piece of art. Today, it would be across from the civic center performing arts center. Eldred had been recommended by Dean Swanson, curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
In June 1968, Eldred showed off a scale model of his sculpture, and the concrete base construction was well underway in September. The sculpture had been purchased for $8,000 by Brett’s and First National Bank to commemorate their centennials, with the city donating the land, and others donating the concrete and trucking. The 70-ton sculpture was to be shipped from Kansas City, Missouri, on September 11, according to Bob Seibert, president of Fine Arts, Inc.
The sculpture drew attention – and criticism – from before the time it was put together. “It’s a bunch of malarkey, as far as I’m concerned,” said C. A. Hanson, a South Broad Street resident, in the Sept. 20, 1968, Mankato Free Press. His was one of the few negative remarks, although some bystanders who were noted by writer Roy Close were not directly quoted.
“This is really great, that Mankato takes an interest in art,” said Jan Pederson of North Mankato. “It’s our time, it’s what we’re trying to say.” Said Jim Lokkesmoe of North Mankato: “It might be too bad. I still think they could have painted murals on the (parking ramp) wall.” Jim was ahead of his time, apparently!
As far as the name goes – Mankato Piece – that was definitely the choice of the sculptor. Wrote Ken Berg in a Sept. 26, 1968 column: “By leaving it untitled, the finished art work can be a living presentation of any generation.” And that’s how Eldred wanted it. He added “Mankato Piece” to other works called “New York Piece,” “Kansas City Piece and “Azuza Piece,” each named for their locations.
Although the Mankato Piece has moved a couple of times, finally landing at Riverfront Park – where it continues to draw both accolades and consternation – I can’t help but wonder about its role in starting 52 years ago what has become a sort of Artistic Renaissance in Mankato. Would we be where we are today if that Fine Arts, Inc. organization hadn’t decided on a collection of steel girders and concrete to introduce the Mankato community to contemporary art? By tweaking expectations, has it made average citizens more welcoming to brightly colored murals, steel and brass sculptures in more recognizable shapes, and cultural images on a 122-foot-tall set of silos in the middle of town?
If so, congratulations, Fine Arts, Inc. You can take a great deal of credit for a resurging downtown landscape.
Arts in Mankato is an eclectic, shared column of the writers of MankatoLIFE and occasionally other guests. Ideas for the column are welcome and can be submitted via the MankatoLIFE Contact Page.