The Abominable SnowMN

Suck on this, Snoopy: A fiberglass Frosty threatens to storm our city streets

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.)

The love child of Casper and the Michelin Man? The invasion prototype for the SnowMN
The love child of Casper and the Michelin Man? The invasion prototype for the SnowMN

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?

Feeling snowballed by the ins and outs of Minneapolis's public-art policy, we decided to talk to the artists who will be responsible for turning prefab objects into postmodern sculpture. We called Ta-coumba Aiken, a well-known public muralist and self-described "people's artist," who has managed to color inside the lines on both a Snoopy and a Charlie Brown ("my favorite was Charliemagne," he notes). For a counterpoint, we contacted Amy Toscani, a sculptor who helped her friend "slap some paint" on a Charlie Brown once but hasn't drawn a Snoopy check herself. Aiken promotes the event, maintaining that artists "can make a buck and get their names out there." (The sponsorship fee for each SnowMN is $3,600 to $7,000. Artists make around $1,000 for working on a statue.) Toscani argues that "we're dumbing down the appetite for Twin Cities contemporary sculpture to a first-grade level."

To foster this debate, we asked these amiable artists Important Questions like the following:

 

City Pages: How can you rage against the machine here? An anatomically correct SnowMN?

Ta-coumba Aiken: Well, you do three designs, and a board makes sure they're appropriate. You know, they didn't want them near bars. The Schulz family didn't want any Lucys with whips and chains. It would be unfortunate if parents had to say, "Oops, don't look at that one. Ohmigod, I didn't know that was on the other side!"

Amy Toscani: I heard for the Cows on Parade in New York, an artist cut off its head and stuck it up its butt. [Laughs.] But then they wouldn't show it. And on the call sheet for Lucy, it said you can't defame her.

 

CP: Is there a stigma attached to doing one of these? Will there be a HUAC that names names someday?

Aiken: No. There may be some snobbery from the people that don't do it. But they'll do it the next year. Between that and cleaning toilets, I'll do the Charlie Brown. And I don't do it outside of my artform. My pieces look like my paintings.

Toscani: I don't know many artists that have done that kind of work. But when I first saw the call for artists, I was like, "Whoa, easy money." Then I saw them. And now I'm kind of saddened. I feel like when you say you're a sculptor, now the vast majority thinks of Charlie Brown and Mary Tyler Moore. And now all the money is in this mass-appeal stupid sculpture.

 

City Pages: Do we really need more white people in downtown Minneapolis?

Aiken: I look at the SnowMN as the perfect blank canvas. Artists have so much time on their hands with cabin fever in the winter, some people will be able to be really clever with it.

Toscani: God, enough whiteys in Minnesota!

 

Having probed the soul of the artist, we moved on to the cool and rational perspective of the expert. Dr. Lisa Zotterelli, an Idaho State University sociologist, is currently conducting a research project on what she calls "Temporary Public Art." She provided a little history to start things off. Though it feels that Snoopys and their ilk have been with us forever, evidently Cows on Parade was launched in 1998 in Zurich, Switzerland. A year later, this invasive species crept over to Chicago. Today, 82 communities have held some form of the event, ranging from horses in Lexington to turtles in Tampa (one turtle was painted by a dolphin!). Despite the epidemic pace of proliferation, Dr. Zotterelli doesn't consider the phenomenon a mere fad. "Some fads, like Beanie Babies or pet rocks, don't have any social worth," she says. "But this seems to be a useful product fad. Like a cell phone. Cell phones started out as a fad. Computers started out as a fad. But they became more permanent in our society because they become an indispensable, useful product."

Meaning what? That soon we'll all keep a video-wired fiberglass ostrich on the lawn to watch our children? What's the practical application of the SnowMN? "There's a movement to get art on the street," Zotterelli says.

"There are fine-art themes that flow through these sculptures. An homage to artists like Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh is recurring. And there is historical reference and social commentary, too. It serves a purpose for social cohesion and community building. More so than some of the art in our galleries. The fact that people are responding and interacting and debating--that's important. It gets people thinking about things that they might not otherwise."

To finish her point about interacting with public art, Zotterelli talks about "spontaneous poop." "People would create these other art objects--cow dung and horse dung--behind the animals," she says. "The cows would be on the sidewalk, and people would create art behind it." Like the SnowMN or not, Minneapolis, here's a warning: This winter, look out for yellow snow.

If this art truly is interactive, what would be the consequences for, well...modifying a public SnowMN without the express written consent of Frosty, Tivoli Too, and Taco Bell? "Clearly the charge would be damage to property, but there's no specific language in the law that applies to artwork," says Pete Cahill, Chief Deputy County Attorney for Hennepin County. And whether it's a felony, gross misdemeanor, or misdemeanor is based on the financial amount of damage as measured by cost of the repair or fair market value if it's destroyed. So this is when it gets difficult. If its value is destroyed, what would be its fair market value? We probably wouldn't have a felony there--most of them would be misdemeanors if they come through."

What if somebody broke into the MIA and put a big mustache on the Rembrandt--isn't that the same thing? "Well, then we would have a felony burglary charge, because somebody entered a building with the intent to commit a crime." What about this "interactive art" phenomenon? Could that sway the mercy of the court?

"We wouldn't charge that criminally. Not unless it damaged the art itself. If you put a rubber nose and glasses on a SnowMN? It may be questionable judgment, or even questionable humor, but nah, that's not a crime."

Every time I watch Nick at Night, I've wanted to slap some sense into Mary Richards. So I have your permission to slap her around on the mall? "As long as you don't knock her off her base and she shatters into 1,000 pieces, go ahead. You can take out your Nick at Night frustrations on a bronze statue, as long as you don't harm her."

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