For Art's Sake!

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

When speaking for the record, everyone with a stake in the Phillips Gateway remains fully behind the project--politicians, commissioners, and private donors alike. One of Green's many financial supporters, though, showed considerably less enthusiasm after requesting confidentiality. "It has been a very frustrating project from our perspective," says the source. "It seemed to have the life of Job. It's been a little hard to feel real clear where's fiction, where's fact, and where's reality with this project."

According to a project overview Green compiled this year for her funders, the gateway's only income in 1998 was from the state--$93,000 from the two-year allocation. Four artist-mentors were paid almost $45,000. During that time nine kids--a tad more than two kids per mentor, in other words--were collectively paid a little more than $8,100 for work done during the main season, which over the years has generally run from May through October. Construction and installation costs amounted to less than $1,000. Project manager Sohn received $12,000. Green collected $17,000. The balance went for administration and fundraising, photodocumentation, and workshop-related costs, including a workshop assistant. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that all that money didn't yield much in the way of concrete results: In 1998 the only significant work done at Peavey Park entailed the tiling of a single bench.

In that same report, Green noted that between 1992 and the end of 1998, she had raised $533,859.50 for the gateway, some two-thirds of which came from public sources. Add to that the remainder of the state grant paid out in 1999--a little more than $29,000--plus the additional money Green now says is required for the finishing touches, and the total budget registers just a few dollars under $593,000. (That doesn't take into account the value of volunteer time or donated materials, which a 1995 Star Tribune story pegged at $250,000, bumping the bottom line up to nearly $843,000.)

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"

Where did all the money go?

A fair chunk went to Rafala Green. Through the end of 1998, personnel costs topped $324,000, of which Green collected more than $63,000 as the artist in charge. The project's managers--first Partners Three Company, later Sohn individually--received more than $66,000. Upward of $104,000 went to pay 20 artist-mentors. The 85 kids who helped lay the walkway and build four benches split a little over $76,000.

Sohn, who has been in the construction business for 20 years and is increasingly involved in nonprofit projects, defends the spending. "If I was under the impression that people were working on this full time, 50 weeks a year, then I would have some serious questions, but that's not the case," she asserts. "I am proud of this, and I don't have qualms about how this money was spent. I see it as an investment."

When asked why so much has been spent on what was initially presented as a $30,000 artistic symbol of renewal in Phillips, Rafala Green prefers to talk about the kids and the neighbors who were involved in creating the installation, not about the money. "It's a distraction," she says, dismissing the question. "That annoys me. It wasn't about making a killing."

Beyond payroll, Green spent about $90,000 on the gateway's actual construction, installation, and material costs--three times as much as the total amount the MAC initially approved for the entire project. And there was the $30,000 for moving and storage back in 1993--an expense that could have been avoided had the original timetable been honored. More than $47,000 was spent on workshop-related costs (including utilities and insurance) and $15,000 paid for two school residencies.

One budget item absent at the outset also seems worthy of note: For thousands of photos taken at the park corner during the past seven years, Green has spent a total of $16,250--or more than half the project's entire original 1992 budget.

 

On a recent evening, at the corner of Franklin and Chicago, two men withering in the summer heat sit down for a moment's rest on one of the Phillips gateway's very expensive, very photogenic benches. One flicks a cigarette into the weeds around the walk, adding to the already sizable pile of extinguished butts. The other shades his eyes with a callused hand, gazing up at the dream catcher, on which a parched vine hangs quietly dying. Any guesses on how much this work of art cost? "Oh, I'd figure on maybe a thousand, two thousand," one of the men answers. Higher. "Five?" Higher. "Ten?" Higher. At that his friend lets out a breath and asks, "For real, how much?" Nearly $600,000.

"Damn," he replies. "You know what you could do with that kind of money?"

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Mississippi River, in a residential garage in Prospect Park, Green's teen workforce has dwindled to just five kids, working for eight dollars an hour. Iris Hall, a 19-year-old who has been toiling on the gateway project off and on for years, is busy there, fitting colored tiles into a design on a makeshift workbench. As she leans over the pieces to fiddle with the pattern, she quietly muses, "I like doing it because I like puzzles. It's like a puzzle to me."

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