Attitudes about a city’s role in supporting public art mature as a city matures. Great cities enthusiastically embrace – and pay for – public art. Cities that relegate support for public art to afterthought or extravagance tend to be second-rate places.
Fargo and Moorhead are on the cusp of significant changes in the way city leaders and residents view the value of public art. As Fargo city commissioner races underway demonstrate, candidates are not on the same public arts page. Indeed, some are not familiar with the book of livable, attractive cities. Others, however, understand that the broad categories of public art – from sculpture to architecture to park design to street and bridge beautification – are vital elements in making a city more than an efficient deliverer of urban services. It is that additional factor in city planning that distinguishes a city.
Among the sentiments expressed strongly by a couple of candidates for commissioner is that a city should encourage art (whatever that means), but not put a public dime into public art. That would mean, for example, that Fargo would never commission a fountain or sculpture for a civic space. It would mean that the additional design costs of Veterans Memorial Bridge that make the span one of the most beautiful in the Midwest, would have been vetoed. It would mean the stone and brick history pedestals would not have been part of Fargo’s downtown renaissance. It would have meant the city would have scrapped the extraordinary design elements in the floodwalls on South University Drive and on Fourth Street South near the water plant.
Public art takes many forms. It can be grand as, it is hoped, Fargo’s new City Hall will be grand. It can be modest but effective, as Moorhead’s proposed sidewalk poetry project. It can be integrated into architectural restoration, as the restored and re-purposed buildings in Fargo’s historic downtown. It can be startling and iconic, as the great Viking ship enclosure of Moorhead’s Hjemkomst Center. It can be as moving and controversial as Fargo’s Ten Commandments stone, or as benign as a colorful bison statue in front of a business place.
Public art might not be the priority for a city, but it should be a priority. It must be a public-private partnership that includes expenditures of public funds. Those who seek election to be in municipal office, but don’t grasp the vital role of public art, are not qualified.
Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.