Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Set to Reopen After Controversy Over Sam Durant Sculpture “Scaffold”
“It’s a different era,” said Tom Oslund, landscape architect and founder of oslund.and.assoc., several weeks ago. We were standing on top of the Walker Art Center looking into the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which he and his team helped design, and discussing the ways in which the garden’s new design is more open and accessible than before.
When the late Martin Friedman, the Walker’s former director, created the first four quadrants of the garden in 1988—designed in conjunction with Edward Larrabee Barnes—they were outdoor galleries enclosed by arborvitae and thus meant to be discovered, Oslund explained. When the Cowles Conservatory and the north part of the garden (the latter designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh) were later added, they were also objects not integrally connected to the rest of the garden, Oslund argues: “The garden was a cloister before… [and] a freestanding object even though the Walker is across the street.”
The new garden, which is maintained by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, reopens on June 10. But the “physical, visual and cultural accessibility [that] guided the reinvention of the sculpture garden,” as Oslund described the park, has undergone a challenge that’s made national news.
The Walker owns and maintains all of the sculpture. One of the new acquisitions, “Scaffold,” by non-Native artist Sam Durant, a massive piece (two stories, and 34 feet high, 47 feet wide, 52 feet deep), was inspired in part by the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
As numerous news stories have pointed out, the artist (who has shown the work in Europe) intended the piece as a wake-up call for white people not sufficiently “woke” (as the term is now) to cultural histories other than their own. The Walker’s director Olga Viso viewed the piece as artistic commentary on capital punishment. The Dakota, however, indigenous to this area, saw the piece as an affront; another example of non-Native artists, arts institutions, and communities capitalizing on its history of death, desecration, tragedy, and suffering.
The question remains, truly: How was “Scaffold” selected, approved, paid for, and erected in a public sculpture park in the first place? But that’s a different story, whose answer may never be fully revealed. Obfuscation and art speak rule the day. At least as of this writing, occurring as the sculpture is being dismantled, the wood placed in a dumpster (and guarded by the Dakota), to be possibly burned in a sacred ceremony, perhaps near Fort Snelling.
Clearly the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is not entering the era of accessibility that Oslund or the Walker Art Center imagined. Still, the moves the landscape architects made in the garden, in conjunction with the park board and the museum, were “about creating a new sense of place,” Oslund said. “The garden isn’t just an object now, but an integral part of a campus.”
The Walker’s entrance was moved back to Vineland, with a new open glassy well-lit foyer designed by HGA Architects and Engineers. The crosswalk between the museum and the garden was narrowed from 80 to 34 feet, bringing the two properties closer together. Arborvitae enclosing the garden’s sculpture galleries was replaced with forsythia, allowing visual access into the garden. The same deciduous trees and bushes were strategically planted in the garden and around the Walker, providing another sense of continuity. The Alene Grossman Memorial Arbor on the north end of the garden was sliced in half to allow for unobstructed sight lines from one end of the garden to the Walker’s redesigned entrance.
The conservatory’s frame, roof and upper walls were left intact, but the bottom glass removed, transforming the structure into pavilions. A new building designed by Julie Snow has restrooms on one side, park board staff offices on the other. “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” the iconic fountain-sculpture by Claes and Coosje van Bruggen Oldenburg, now sits in a re-engineered pond above a new 80,000-gallon underground cistern, which will irrigate the garden and keep runoff out of storm sewers. To the north, three new sculptures—including Katharina Fritsch’s bright blue “Hahn/Cock”—rise from pod-like lawns sited in a wet meadow, reached by ADA accessible walkways.
“The successful nature of looking at the properties holistically as a four-block long piece makes a stronger statement about public open space and art together,” Oslund says. Sure enough. But the metal infrastructure and concrete slab for “Scaffold” still stand in the garden, adjacent to the whimsical “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” a sickening juxtaposition that’s reminder enough of the power of public art, for good and for ill.