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.

It wasn't long till Green was back before the Minneapolis Arts Commission seeking more funding. Her pitch? The Phillips gateway was different from other gateways. The involvement of more kids from the neighborhood than she'd planned on had made the project more costly. And, Green argued, a surprising amount of enthusiasm had sprung up around Phillips: Folks wanted to see the thing come to fruition.

Kicking in another round of funding wasn't unheard of for the commission. The first gateway to be completed, in downtown's Elliot Park, had relied on a $13,000 boost from the city over and above its initial $35,000 allotment. (The rest of the gateways around the city have come in right on or below budget; these days the cap on MAC funding for gateways is $50,000.) But the projects were generally conceived as art installations, not employment opportunities.

On May 12, 1993, the MAC weighed the matter of pumping additional cash into the park corner. Ultimately, commissioners seemed to share Green's excitement: It was, they agreed, a unique program meant to inspire creativity in young people. So strongly, in fact, did they believe in it that they resolved to support Green at unprecedented levels. On a 7-3 vote the MAC approved a new budget of $93,593.74 for the project--a hike of more than $63,000.

Still, several who were in attendance that day expressed concern that Green's gateway had already grown too unwieldy and looked as if it were headed for trouble. Donna Norberg, for one, voted against the supplement. She liked the concept but, she says now, believed that it was "unfair" to fund one gateway in such a lopsided manner. Toby Rapson, another commission member, also voted nay. "There seemed to be some expectation on the artist's behalf that the project just get funded to completion," he recalls today, "irrespective of how much it was going to cost."

Fueled by the infusion, the gateway rolled on. A "project status report" composed by Green and her project manager in June 1993 outlined where all the money had gone to date: $1,992 to an architectural firm for putting together a site plan (original budget: $200 for "working architectural drawings"); $4,686 for fabricating steel bench supports (original budget: $100 for a single reinforcement bar); workshop assistants had been paid $500 each for their help (original budget: zip).

Across the board, costs were substantially in excess of what had been outlined, and additional money was being funneled to unforeseen expenses. The original budget had called for spending $2,500 on ceramic tile; the report showed that Green instead spent $6,175 (for tile made in Italy), plus another $870 to have it shipped from a distributor in Portland, Oregon. The bill for concrete work on the plaza had amounted to nearly $15,000; the budget called for $400. The cost of fabricating the entryway had been set at $5,000; Green's summary revealed that she had paid out nearly $8,000 to a local contractor for the work.

Green had no experience in overseeing what the Phillips gateway was becoming: a complicated, costly, and unpredictable construction project. She began soliciting additional funding from private corporations and sources, including the Honeywell Foundation and the Minneapolis Foundation, to supplement her ballooning budget. In addition, as the gateway grew, the MAC thought it might be best to retain a project manager, Partners Three Company, to oversee the nuts and bolts. That meant, of course, that Partners Three needed money, too: In June 1993 their bill for construction management stood at $4,900--another line item that had been nowhere in sight in the original budget.

It was at about this time that Green decided to link her installation to classrooms around Phillips, including a ten-week residency she and other mentor-artists conducted at Four Winds School, which sits on the southeast corner of Peavey Park. A $10,000 grant from the city's Minneapolis Community Development Agency paid for that.

By the end of the 1993 season, the gateway was nowhere near completion, and Green's tenancy agreement at the Applebaum's space was running out. The four concrete benches were far from being ready for placement at the site; they, along with the workshop's contents, wound up being moved into storage for the winter, on semitrailers in a locked loading dock. The price tag for that? Close to $30,000.

 

 

The following spring Green came before the arts commission once again. She updated members and presented a slide show to illustrate the installation's progress. The Phillips gateway had just scored another $70,000 in city money, this time through the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), a fund that makes dollars raised through tax-increment financing available for projects thought to be deserving by neighborhood groups (in this case the now-defunct People of Phillips). The NRP's policy board had approved the grant; the Minneapolis City Council would soon bestow its rubber stamp on the proposal.

In her request to the NRP, Green had stated that she needed more cash in order to pay workers and secure another workshop. An attached budget called for $16,000 to lease the space (plus utilities and insurance), $10,000 for materials and supplies (Green didn't specify for what), $23,000 to pay kids, and $21,000 for artist-mentors, the project manager, a workshop assistant, and Green. "While remaining true to the intent of the original proposal," Green aptly noted in her proposal, "the Phillips Gateway Project has evolved into a unique life of its own."

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.)

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.

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.)

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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