In a deathbed scene reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane's, millionaire cartoonist Charles Schulz picked his waning days in 1999 to murmur the word Snoopy to Randi Johnson, owner of Tivoli Too. Previously, this sculpture-manufacturing company, with design studios in Minneapolis and St. Paul, had been responsible for those cute Rainforest Café animals and mini-golf-course props. Since Schulz's benediction--one of his final business decisions--Randi Johnson's company has created the prefabricated statues of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy that have given people a reason to visit downtown St. Paul for the first time since...well, for the first time. According to Tivoli Too, Snoopy worshipers turned out in droves: around 450,000 people with an estimated economic impact of $25 million in the first year alone.
After St. Paul, Tivoli Too put together 100 donkeys and 100 elephants for Washington D.C.'s "Party Animals" this past summer. And this winter, the company hopes to bring Minneapolis, and greater Minnesota, some of the same joy that comes with a city's very own "statue event." Minneapolis and beyond won't be getting Woodstock, Linus, or Peppermint Patty. Instead, we'll be stormed by snowmen, or SnowMN as they're called by the "Roamin' for SnowMN" group. (Joining Tivoli Too's campaign are Border Foods--Minnesota's largest Taco Bell franchisee--and Children's Hospital, which will receive 50 percent of the net proceeds of the event.)
Why SnowMN? Isn't there something more specifically associated with Minnesota? Hart Johnson, vice president of Tivoli Too and Randi's little brother, reports that the "Roamin'" group brainstormed fiberglass turtles or walleyes around the lakes but eventually decided on the SnowMN. In his words, "What's more Minnesota than winter? And what's more winter than a snowman?"
We searched for our own answer to that question: How about a drunken snowmobile fatality in a gully along a state highway? Or a snowed-in Chevy Cutlass, towed during Minneapolis's three-day plowing operation? Ultimately, we gave up on Hart Johnson's icy riddle and posed some questions of our own. Will people actually travel from states with habitable climates in order to visit a blob that looks like the love child of Casper and the Michelin Man? What kind of self-respecting artist would relish the prospect of finishing someone else's aggressively cheerful crafts project? (A hungry one with rent to pay?) And what would be the criminal penalty for treating these public displays as interactive art--say, with a can of spray paint or a hacksaw?
Given the spirit-sapping length of the Minnesota winter, it makes sense that at some desperate point, Ma and Pa Fridley might bust out of the house for a night of downtown SnowMN viewing and spiked hot chocolate on the way to the Holidazzle Parade. But what to make of Hart Johnson's assertion that people have come from 59 countries and all 50 states to see Charlie Brown? Is it really possible that Ma and Pa Boca Raton would get on a plane to see our statues--leaving
scads of discretionary income at the businesses along the SnowMN trail? For a straight answer, we called Theresa Rollings of All About Travel in West Palm Beach. Rollings assured us, in a warm, honeyed twang, that her clients are familiar with snow--they book skiing packages to Utah and Colorado all the time. But would that well-tanned clientele want to come up to Minneapolis and stand outside in 20-below weather to have their picture taken with a fiberglass snowman?
"Well, Steve, they would probably want to see real snowmen, don't you think? If they're going to go all the way up there, they're going to want to see the real thing."
Well, who knew? When the residents of West Palm Beach became sticklers for authenticity is anybody's guess.
It turns out that at least a few Minnesotans are also hung up on the authenticity thing. Though cities like St. Paul, Burnsville, Bloomington, and Mankato are on board for what's being billed "Minnesota's Winter Wander," Minneapolis has been a little, well, frosty to the idea. Seems the Minneapolis Public Art Commission is examining whether the SnowMN are actually "art" under the city's definition. While generations of philosophers and fully trained professors have spent lifetimes defining what is and is not "art," the Public Art Commission, in the spirit of efficient government, hopes to settle the matter in a public meeting on November 6. So if the SnowMN aren't art, what else could they be?
Public art administrator Mary Altman explains, "Many examples of the [designs] for the SnowMN include corporate logos. Like a SnowMN with a Timberwolves jersey. So in order to do logos, the SnowMN people could have applied for a sign permit."
But what SnowMN would settle for the status of commercial signage when it's possible to be real art? And what does Minneapolis deem as "art," anyway? According to Altman, the definition of public art is "publicly accessible original art that enriches the city and evokes meaning." Altman says that the guidelines also take into account the site, the context, and the audience, in addition to how the selected artists will be compensated.
Although Altman assures us that the guidelines were in the works before Mary Tyler Moore made her appearance on Nicollet Mall, the new rules would seem to make it tough for Lou Grant to join Mary Richards anytime soon. Still, considering the economic benefit, could the SnowMN make it after all?