Common Ground

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Reframing our perspective of familiar places

In the past few weeks, several stories connecting art with parks have surfaced across my screens and in print (yes, I still get the newspaper delivered to my doorstep every morning). With limited options to connect with art inside, we are seeing the power of creativity springing forth in our shared public spaces.

And for good reason. Parks are common ground we all share and places where we should experience wonder and surprise.  Earlier this winter, an art provocateur placed an unsanctioned installation of a prehistoric figure frozen in ice within Theodore Wirth Park drawing hundreds of onlookers deeper into the park. Last week, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), in partnership with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, placed several ice sculptures of popular works within their collection in parks across the system, enticing people to travel to new places to see them before they melted.  And this weekend, the Mississippi Park Connection hosted an evocative light show at the Upper Lock at Saint Anthony Falls featuring a Dakota story of struggle and restoration.  In each of these instances, artists incorporated the park itself into the experience and in each of these installations, a sense of impermanence – light and ice – were set within a context that feels permanent.

The news articles and status updates were about the artwork – the ice sculptures, the light projections.  But ultimately, the stories were about the power of place and the insight created by adding the unfamiliar to familiar surroundings. Like parks, art is not about the object, but about the change it creates within us. Most of us are not traveling to new places these days, so we need to reframe our perspective about familiar places in new ways. Pop-up art has a power to transform the places we know very well into something different.

Perspective is even more important as we come to terms with who has traditionally designed our public spaces and around whom the spaces have been centered. In Minneapolis, that has been from a predominantly white perspective. Important changes are taking place at the Park Board, Parks Foundation, and other agencies working in our parks, centering the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous, and communities of color at the intersection of parks-making and social justice. Recently, Paul Bauknight and landscape architect and activist Kofi Boone explored how public spaces are experienced from a Black person’s perspective and how we have an obligation to ensure that the parks reflect a kaleidoscope of experiences. If we do it well, our civic commons – and art within them – will speak to each of us in more meaningful ways.

As we look ahead to the changing seasons – with winter releasing its grip and spring teasing us through into April, I am intrigued by how we’ll experience parks differently. As the world cautiously opens up, it’s worth noting how we’ve been changed. Parks themselves are a canvas on which we see ourselves. I suspect that this year, we’re likely to see ourselves and our parks differently than ever before. And while art installations can be the catalyst for the new perspective, the enduring treasure is the common spaces we share – our treasured parks.

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