For Art's Sake!

What takes seven years to build, costs nearly $600,000, and looks like a boondoggle?

Rafala Green made the first cut. It was the summer of 1992, and the St. Paul-based sculptor's plan for a public art installation at the corner of Franklin and Chicago avenues in south Minneapolis--on the spot where a liquor store had just been razed--was one of five finalists culled from 20 different proposals. Neighbors wanted a landmark for the site, located in the northeast corner of Peavey Park, something to signify renewal in what had long been one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

In her final design, submitted in August of that same year, Green outlined an ambitious project that called for tiled paths leading to three arched entryways that would link to a series of concrete benches covered with tile mosaics; the seating would encircle a small central plaza meant as a performance space for live music. There would be an apron of landscaping around the installation--perennials, a flowering vine trained over the main portal, and a half-dozen evergreens. But perhaps the idea's most persuasive selling point was the artist's scheme to involve neighborhood kids, specifically "ten teenagers, two from each ethnic group represented in the Phillips Community"--Asian, African, Latino, European, and Native American--to have a hand in tiling the benches. Green noted that she expected to have the installation completed within six months, though she added the caveat that "this timetable is an approximation due to the unknown schedule of other parties involved."

The potential patron was the Minneapolis Arts Commission (MAC). Founded in 1974, the city agency, which occupies a small office tucked on the second floor of city hall and boasts a current annual budget of $250,000, is charged with promoting cultural ventures paid for by taxpayer dollars--civic art, in other words. Green's brainchild was in the running to be what's known as a Neighborhood Gateway Project; each of the city's 13 wards would eventually get one of these artistic "welcome mats," and each would be funded with city money meted out by the commission.

Rafala Green, the artist in charge, says the extraordinary time and money sunk into her public art installation is "just what it took"
David Kern
Rafala Green, the artist in charge, says the extraordinary time and money sunk into her public art installation is "just what it took"

The MAC embraced Green's vision on August 24, 1992. As the group's executive secretary David Hanson recalls, though, the 17-member volunteer board was a tad wary that the budget laid out by Green--one with a bottom line of $32,500--was nearly ten percent above what other gateways were being budgeted for at the time. So the MAC earmarked $30,000 for the installation and gave it the go-ahead.

That was seven years ago. Today the Phillips gateway remains unfinished. One of the four concrete benches is a gray bloblike slab bereft of decoration. Weeds have cropped up in the crevices around the structure. If Green's current projections hold, by the time her welcome mat installation is completed, its total cost will amount to almost 20 times the original budget, or nearly $600,000.

Two-thirds of the project has been paid for with public money. What's more, that not-yet-final bottom line includes some $15,000 that Green says she still needs to raise in order to wrap things up by her current projected completion date: October 17.

What happened to the original $30,000 budget and six-month timetable? Green says she suspected when she submitted the application that it would take more cash and more time than the commission was given to understand. The schedule she presented, she explains, was "a duck shoot--I mean, how the hell would we know?"

Still, seven years and a tab that has already broken a half-million dollars? How could Green have been so wildly off the mark? "Because," she offers, "that's just what it took."

Now a 60-year-old mother of seven, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of four, Green earned an associate's degree in commercial art from a community college in her hometown of Cleveland in 1979. When she was in her late thirties, she migrated to New York for further study, earning a bachelor's degree from the Parsons School of Design in 1982 and a master's from City University of New York in 1990, both in sculpture. To pay the bills along the way, she taught art in public and private schools.

While she was visiting her brother in the Twin Cities in 1990, he showed her the redevelopment of the Northern Warehouse in lowertown St. Paul. The industrial space, rehabbed under the aegis of the local nonprofit Artspace Projects, offered below-market rents to artists for living and studio quarters. Green liked the fact that she could "see the sky" in Minnesota and thought the Northern would be a great place to settle in. She has lived and worked there ever since.

By her own admission, Green had never before undertaken a project of the scale and scope of the Phillips gateway. Neither had the Minneapolis Arts Commission. Work on the installation began in earnest during the spring of 1993, when Green set up shop in a vacant Applebaum's grocery store at Lake Street and Tenth Avenue South near Peavey Park. There, she and a handful of kids from Phillips began to design patterns and prepare mosaic work to be installed on the gateway's benches.

From the outset, the timetable and the budget Green had outlined for the arts commission bore little resemblance to what unfolded. For starters, there had been no mention of a workshop, or any of its associated costs, in her original itemizations. And while she wasn't paying rent for the space, she used MAC funding to pay for cleanup in the grocery store before she moved in, as well as for utilities and insurance. (The original budget called for $1,000 to cover liability insurance, nothing more.) That budget earmarked $3,500 for stipends for the ten kids who worked on the project. But in the first year, that number jumped to 17--kids recruited other kids, Green says, and she didn't want to turn anyone away--all of whom were paid $4.25 an hour for their time. With the installation still in the fledgling stage, time and money were already running out.

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