For Art's Sake!

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

The MAC promptly approved another $32,000 for the gateway, bringing its total contribution to more than $125,000. Including the pending NRP funding, along with smaller chunks from private donors and the city's Park & Recreation Board, arts commissioners approved a new project budget of just over $230,000. But they also attached to it the proviso that no more MAC dollars be spent on what, several members agreed, seemed to be a public work of art going financially haywire.

Recalls Larry Gorrell, who was a commissioner in the spring of 1994: "When it was originally planned, it was supposed to come in at X number of dollars, but the project did have cost overruns. We weren't totally alarmed at first, but as it got to be more and more, we got more alarmed." Yet even now Gorrell doesn't question how Green was spending her allowance. "Financially," he reckons, "everything was above board, but expensive."

According to the MAC's then chair Tom Nordyke, the 14-0 vote that day was deceptive. "There was a lot of division within the commission at the time," he remembers, adding that several commissioners were more than a bit skeptical about the project's burgeoning budget. (Then, as now, Nordyke was employed by Artspace Projects, on whose board Green sat at the time. He says he disclosed the relationship to MAC staffers, who deemed the potential conflict of interest a nonissue.)

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"

Although the proviso seemed to indicate otherwise, the MAC wasn't quite finished bestowing money on Green's endeavors. Betsy Sohn of the Partners Three Company (which was now renting space to the gateway workshop) was serving as the project manager. In September 1994 she approached the commission with what had by then become a familiar refrain: The Phillips gateway needed more money. This time the commission was asked to pony up $15,000. Sohn outlined a plan to turn the gateway into a self-sufficient, stand-alone operation that could, with a little help from its friends at the MAC, raise enough money from private donors to stay afloat. The $15,000--strictly a loan, Sohn assured--would serve as seed money to begin this fundraising push.

According to the minutes of that meeting, the anticipated campaign would "secure resources to support the extension of the project through September 1995." The prospective budget for the gateway now? An estimated $450,000, including the private money Green and Sohn hoped to raise. The commission unanimously approved the loan.

Private donors, it turned out, were as enamored of the project as was the MAC, especially its stated emphasis on youth and community involvement. During 1995 and 1996, Green's installation amassed nearly $170,000 from foundations and corporate supporters. The biggest contributor, the McKnight Foundation, gave $50,000 each year. The Minneapolis Foundation pitched in another $20,000 to the pool, as did the General Mills Foundation (adding to the $20,000 it had previously donated). Prospects were looking up.

The time seemed ripe for a celebration. Although the park corner was far from finished--benches had finally been installed, but not tiled--a dedication ceremony was held at the site in October 1995 (price tag: $9.000). Neighbors came. Politicians came. Green, Sohn, teen workers, and mentors--together with some of their funders--milled around the little plaza under the entryway arches, which had been wrapped in weaving to resemble a Native American dream catcher.

But by the following year, the arts commission had finally grown weary of the project. It had agreed to serve as Green's fiscal agent, i.e., to act as a go-between administrator for her other funders. Now the MAC reasoned that its involvement--nearly four years and counting--was distracting members from other, more pressing business. Helping to get the gateway built, it appeared, was more than the commission had bargained for. At a meeting on June 19, 1996, the MAC voted to forgive the $15,000 loan. Commissioners also voted 9-0, with two abstentions, to cease its association with the Phillips gateway as of October of that year.

Rafala Green pressed on. She set up her own tax-exempt nonprofit, called Nguza Saba Community Studios, to spearhead the installation. By the end of the year, her total expenditures on the project had topped the $400,000 mark. But the MAC had bailed out and private funding was drying up. To top things off, Green became ill; as she puts it, "I lost a couple of feet of intestines." During 1997 no significant money was raised, no substantial work done.

 

A year ago Green found a new advocate in Rep. Karen Clark, a ten-term Minneapolis DFLer whose district includes the Phillips neighborhood. The state representative had asked Green what she could do to help with the stalled installation. Quite a bit, as it turned out. Clark helped secure the Phillips gateway a substantial piece of new funding: state money. Last spring the Department of Children, Families & Learning agreed to make a two-year grant totaling $122,527 from its Office of Drug Policy and Violence Prevention. Mary Ellison, who directs the drug policy division, says her department pitched in as part of its "community-building mission. My understanding," she recalls, "was that the money we would be providing would be helping them complete it."

But once again those projections haven't come true. By Green's current calculations, she still needs another $15,000--on top of the state money and $15,000 she has managed to raise from private sources this year--to wrap things up by October. Simply put, she has run out of money again.

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