TCS interviews Christine Podas-Larson, director of Public Art Saint Paul

[An example of Marcus Young's work for Public Art Saint Paul's artist-in-residence program.]


[PUBLIC ART SAINT PAUL (PASP) headquarters, in a forgotten 19th century two story rowhouse sitting in the shadow of a looming freeway bridge at the very edge of Lowertown Saint Paul. Midafternoon. Early summer. A partly sunny day, not too humid.

TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS (TCS) appears and knocks on the unlabeled door. PASP's office seems empty. Moving boxes are still scattered about.

CHRISTINE PODAS-LARSON (CP-L) appears, a smart yet casually dressed older woman with medium-length grey hair. CP-L takes TCS into an empty conference room filled with posterboards and easels, remnants of community meetings past. They sit down awkwardly at a conference table as TCS fumbles with his recording equipment.]

Twin City Sidewalks: [Finally getting his recorder situated, sticking inelegantly out of his shirt pocket.] How did PASP get started?

Christine Podas-Larson: One of the first things that we did was to take a look at the riverfront which in 1985 was just a sewer. George Latimer was the mayor at the time, and there was a lot of conversation about what are we going to do to revive our riverfront but no big thing had formed. We concluded we would use a gallery to at the St Paul Companies to have a show of art related to the river. We had things borrowed from the Historical Society as well as new art about the Mississippi River.

The other half of the show we worked with Latimer’s office to approach the waterfront center in Washington DC to find out what they were doing about riverfronts. We brought in all this material, drawings models of what other cities were doing with their riverfronts, particularly along the Mississippi. Everybody liked it so much that they said keep it up for a little longer. We'd like to take some action based on this great context.

They pulled together all the movers and shakers and said, let's have a big weeklong symposium on our riverfront. The direct outcome of that was the formation of the St Paul riverfront commission. Art show leads to symposium leads to civic commission.

At one point in 1985, I said we should do something about public art in America because there is so much going on now. Not only at the federal level with all of their buildings, but cities like Seattle and others have begun to dedicated municipal dollars to public art. Saint Paul should be doing that. They all agreed and by this time, Mayor Latimer's office was into this paradigm. So they said, ok let's do what we did with the riverfront development. Let's put together a show, have a symposium, and then have an arts commission. They thought that would be how it worked.

Well we did the show, but it was much more complex. With public art, St. Paul is not just a municipality but it is a state capital and a federal river port, and so you want all over the city, you have to figure out a way to work with all of those jurisdictions. The St. Paul Companies commissioned me and Latimer's deputy mayor to spend a year looking at this and look back. And we did.

There were a lot of people working on this study. The conclusion at the end of all this was that to have the kind of vision and flexibility that would be needed, and the trans-jurisdictional view of the city, there needed to be a non-profit into which all these interests could come. So in 1987 that was formed, and I was hired to be the head of it. The Saint Paul Companies had a commitment that for 5 years they would completely fund this new nonprofit.

TCS: [With raised eyebrows.] Wow.

CP-L: We didn't even ask them for a grant. We just sent them our bills. They gave me a little bit of a salary. It worked out. They also made a commitment that certain people would be on our board. There ahs been people on our board from all these levels of government, plus…

TCS: [Helpfully] … the business community?

CP-L: … the business community, plus the arts community and the design community and what I call civic activists. So our current board chair is an attorney, but we have on our board people from the director of Parks and Rec, public works, architects and designers...

TCS: [Quickly, pompously.] OK, well how do you define public art? What is it? How do you know the difference between public art and a museum?

CP-L: Museum art is in the museum. There's a simple definition right there. I think public art has to be informed by a public sensibility. It can be in any medium. Looking at the evolution of it every since we started, and since these conversations really began after the civil war and there was a proliferation of public art of a monumental heroic commemorative militaristic nature…

TCS: [Curiously.] What’s an example of what you’re talking about?

CP-L: All you have to do is look at the upper summit avenue where you have 1907 Nathan Hale, the first statue of a revolutionary war figure west of Ohio, you have the Josiah King memorial near the big on the plinth near the cathedral, which is the first union volunteer for the civil war… its called the soldiers and sailors monument.

On the one hand you have those kinds of national heroic figures. At the same time the war was over, and there was a kind of renaissance of American art and you had pretty significant figures: Daniel Chester French, who did the quadiriga on the capital dome and also the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC.

[The New York Life eagle perches on top of Ramsey Hill, Saint Paul.]

You had Augustus Saint-Gaudens who did the big memorial in Boston to the civil war, and who did the New York Life eagle here, among other things. There were very significant national figures who were working here at the end of the 19th century, early 20th, but there were also some home grown immigrant sculptors who were here.

But you had different kinds of things happening. It was all about sculpture. It was all sculpture. You had no paintings, and certainly no murals. It was pretty much defined as sculpture usually in a public place like a park. And as new buildings called for that, there was a lot of great stuff done on the libraries and the state capital and even our courthouse.

But you had all of the soldiers and war people, and the interesting phenomenon was that new immigrant populations finally got settled enough that it was time to say something about where they came from. They weren’t only being absorbed into America, but wanted to say something about how where they came from mattered.

[A statue of Gunnar Wennerberg stands in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis.]

And was important. So they started commissioning work for public places themselves. And invariably it was a statue of an artist. Ole Bull in Minneapolis. Ibsen in Como Park. Schiller in Como Park. Gunner Wennerberg who was a Swedish poet and singer, in Minnehaha Park. That’s who they thought would best convey the importance of the place that they came form. They almost never brought in the guy who won the war over there.

TCS: [Adventurously.] Except for Leif Ericson?

CP-L: Leif Ericson as an explorer, not as a warrior. You know. Same with the Italian-Americans, it was such a big deal when they did Christopher Columbus. They called off school that day. It was such a big deal to see what the Italians did, and they did not choose a war figure. They chose both Leif Ericson and Christopher Columbus as explorers.

There was a lot of that going on, and there was a great deal of allegorical work. Certainly the horses at the capital and others are meant to convey principles and ideals in some way. So for a long, long time public art was really sculpture, where in a few cases in the interiors of some buildings there were opportunities for painting to be going on, but by and large it was sculpture in a public place.

TCS: [Imposingly.] It was meant to look imposing? Or to impress people, or to be …

CP-L: … to send a message. It sent a message about what do we have in common. Whether the progress of the state is all about agriculture and industry. Those two ladies holding those horses, this is us. This represents all of us. And these are the things we have to contend with. We have to contend with the weather.

TCS: [Obviously.] You’re talking about the horses on top of the capital.

[The head of Henrik Ibsen looks through a spruce grove in Saint Paul's Como Park.]

CP-L: Yes. The message that they’re sending allegorically is a message about good government, they wanted to send that message or, these are our heroes, or in the case of these artists, and people like Ibsen and Schiller these are great world figures and we’re proud of them and their writing, their music, touched the human soul. It had the idea of public spiritedness, whatever form it was taking. And it was reflective of our common ideas and experiences and goals.

Then you get into the period where architectural styles change. Things are actually not heroic any more. If anything, they’re anti-heroic. You get into the difference between …

TCS: [Sans serif.] Now you’re talking about modernism?

CP-L: Yeah. You get into the difference between the federal building in Saint Paul on Robert Street.

TCS: [With an empty stare.] Is there a sculpture there? I guess I never noticed.

CP-L: Yeah. Its in my view it’s a very nice modern sculpture. But at the time that governments actually started commissioning these things, the GSA (General Services Administration) beginning in the 60s, started saying as long as we’re building we’re going to make it the way we do business.

Unfortunately they were doing it at the time that sculpture started saying we could no longer be integrated into the building like it was into the courthouse. They didn’t need to mandate that for the art deco courthouse b/c the architect would never have dreamed of doing it without the sculpture in it.

TCS: [Simply.] But modernism is all about getting rid of ornamentation.

CP-L: Yes absolutely. So then what do you do? You’ve got the little apron of the building, you’ve got the little piece in the plaza there, and so a lot of modernist buildings have some modernist sculpture in the front, usually selected in the early days by an elite museum based panel of people who know art and who basically take things that were meant to be museum art blown up to public scale.

TCS: [Thinking of the movie, Blues Brothers.] The classic example that comes to my mind is in Chicago? The Picasso sculpture in front of their city building.

CP-L: They’ve got that, and they’ve got Calder. Calder in Michigan. And here we have Charles Ginnever who was… At the time it was put it, the judge in the building went up and wrote on the sculpture how much he thought it cost. Modernist works no longer had this relationship to the people. It was about something else.

[Back in 1981, Tilted Arc cut through the Javits plaza with all the subtlety of a hippo at a daycare center.]

And how you chose to respond to it was based really on the level of your sophistication as somebody who knew something about art. And that message was not lost on the public, so you get get all of these clashes. Certainly the biggest example of this was in New York, with the Richard Serra piece. And the Jacob Javits building, where it went on trial, and they actually had a trial of Tilted Arc.

And there are no winners or losers for a thing like that. The way it was set up, was as almost deliberately anti-public. So what is public any more? And in fact the Richard Serra thing forced a lot of rethinking about the level to which you somehow reengage the public.

And everybody’s been struggling with that ever since. Because as Public Art Saint Paul, I think we have as a nonprofit a lot more freedom than these formal public art programs of municipalities where its Minneapolis or anyplace else, because those are legislated programs, and the only money you have is based on capital projects. Therefore, the public art must be defined under those programs as an object.

TCS: [Solidly.] So it has to be something tangible that will last.

CP-L: Absolutely. It has to have… even they’ll say … they’ll give it a number years, they’ll say it has to last seven years or more, because the funding source is a capital budget. On the other hand, some of the most interesting work happening in public places is not visual art, its not permanent object. Some of it is performance art. Some of it is temporary installation.

For example transit systems. The sound of the train when you’re coming in. in my view, and certainly it’s the kind of official position of this organization, public art is multiple media. Not multi-media, but multiple media.

TCS: [Chooing on his pencap.] Tell me more about what you mean about the sound of a train?

CP-L: ... get a composer.

TCS: [With a ringing voice.] Instead of that bell?

CP-L: M-hm.

TCS: [Haltingly.] That bell seems like, people who talk to me, it really touches a trigger for people who are worried about how the train is going to affect their daily life. The sound of that bell, it seems to upset them the most sometimes.

[Like Jacob Riis, 100 years before him, Wing Young Huie's University Avenue project projects photos in public.]

CP-L: And maybe you just don’t like the sound of the bell, and it isn’t distinctive to the place at all. And it certainly isn’t a creative thing. Well here we are in Saint Paul at least the home of the American composers fund. Why don’t we get some composers working on this? I think that when you talk about public art, one part of the definition is about medium. In the lines officially written into the program, there’s a definition that says it is permanent visual art. That is not the position I would take, but regardless of how you talk about ht medium, it can be any form of art and it can be there for any period of time.

And the other part is, what you said, what is the difference between what you find in te museum and what you would find on the street. And I think Wing’s work begins to deal with that. Wing made a deliberate choice long ago...

TCS: [Putting on airs.] Well, some of his early work…

CP-L: Yeah.

[Finally, at 27:28, TCS is overwhelmed by a the task of transcribing. He looks at the dirty dishes in his kitchen sink, thinks of his dwindling bank account, and remembers the coming semester.]

TCS: [Closes laptop with a flourish.] Screw it!

[Too bad, he thinks. There is a lot of good stuff in the last half of the interview. CPL talks about WING YOUNG HIUE's University Avenue project, and MARCUS YOUNG, the current holder of PASP's wonderful artist-in-resident position, whose work is really truly not to be missed and who will be, perhaps-nay-certainly, the future subject for another exciting edition of 'TCS interviews'.]


[For the brave, the full enchilada.]


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