A mountain out of a bronze molehill?

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August 30, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// The Sid Hartman statue stirs debate about public memorials Downtown //

OK, no one disputes that the guy deserves a statue.

Sid Hartman, the nonagenarian sportswriter who has spent the last 65 years reporting for the Star Tribune and WCCO, is probably getting bronzed. The Department of Public Works is ironing out technical details for installing a metallic Sid replica, complete with TV reporter microphone and newspaper tucked under the arm, right outside of Target Center and a block from the Twins stadium, at the corner of 6th Street and 1st Avenue. The Public Works assessment is the final stage in a roughly six-week approval process to get the statue out into the public.

No one’s upset about that. As Nick Legeros, the artist who designed the memorial, puts it, “Every family has a photo album. A city has a sense of community identity, as well. In this case, this is our Grandpa Sports.”

But does the statue really have to bear the names of Hartman’s employers, both commercial media businesses?

Emblazoned on Hartman’s microphone is a WCCO flag, and molded onto his newspaper is the name “Star Tribune.” While these details don’t necessarily qualify as logos — they’re both “rendered artistically,” accordingly to Public Arts Commissioner Mary Altman — for some, they still smack of advertising. Especially since those paying for the statue, friends and colleagues of Hartman, hold positions of power at both the newspaper and the television station. CBS, which owns WCCO, is the official applicant for the permit to put the memorial on city property.

The Minneapolis Arts Commission, tasked with recommending the permit, debated this point at an Aug. 18 meeting.

Critics ask, “Is it art, or is it not art?” But the Commission has to tackle a more policy-centric question: “Is it art, or is it a sign?”

“I was surprised at the size of it [the WCCO flag],” commented Commissioner Carol Daly, who only first saw the microphone label during a WCCO news cast the night before — when the station zoomed in on its own call letters. “I was wondering about it as an advertisement. [The Star Tribune label] was pretty clear, too. It took me aback.”

Tim Gihring, a commissioner who’s also an arts editor at Minnesota Monthly magazine, has been most vocal in questioning the embellishments. Those paying for the statue, he worried, might “not have been interested in commissioning [it] had those logos not been clear enough for anyone to distinguish them. To me, that qualifies as advertising.”

Kenneth Koense, another commissioner, disagreed. “Without the logo, as a native New Jersian, I have no idea who Sid Hartman is, no concept whatsoever. Without the logo, I don’t think it gives it any context.”

Gihring also questioned whether the statue fulfilled the community involvement criterion that the Commission requires of public art. He asked if anyone from CBS had solicited input from the businesses or pedestrians, the people who will live with the statue in their midst. Altman said she didn’t think so.

Later, Joanne Kauffman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association, confirmed that no one had formally approached her group about the statue. But she added that none of her members have a problem with it.

“I think it’s a slippery slope when you don’t have agreed-upon, community-based guidelines in place,” Gihring said after the meeting.  “People have said, if there’s a Mary Tyler Moore statue on Nicollet Mall, then surely Sid Hartman rates one, which to me is a depressing argument that just points to the need for memorial guidelines. And I think approving this statue sets a problematic precedent.”

Steve Poor, the zoning administrator whose job it is to determine if public art violates the city’s signage rules, has deemed the statue legit, at least code-wise.

The embellishments in question, he said, “were really quite diminutive. They’re really just to record who Sid Hartman was.”

Ultimately, the Commission voted to recommend the Hartman permit. Gihring was the sole naysayer, although two other commissioners abstained.

And if all this sounds like petty nitpicking, Legeros agrees. Shrugging off the debate, he said, “There are always issues with every public piece. That’s just the nature of the business.”

The “logos” weren’t even his idea. He says they were included in the original call for artists.  Plus, “they’re actually almost unreadable from more than 8 feet away.”

But the debate has uncovered a public art problem much bigger than a few small bronze embellishments. The city, it seems, lacks a well-articulated vision for public memorials. Altman admits that there’s no big-picture strategy for ensuring a thoughtful roster of bronze luminaries Downtown. It’s why we have Mary Tyler Moore on Nicollet Mall and a few dozen polyurethane Joe Mauers.

Neither project came before the Minneapolis Arts Commission.

“The Mary Tyler Moore statue precedes any public art policies for putting art in the right-of-way,” Altman said, noting that public art policy work only started in 2001. The Mauer statues didn’t go before the Commission, because “they weren’t considered art. They weren’t designed by an artist.”

Grey areas abound. Zoning administrators can only go by the rules on the books regarding signage and advertising in the public realm — rules that mostly apply to murals. But when it comes to things like memorial statues, the Arts Commission is often called in to answer the is-it-art question.

“That discussion that the Commission had last night [about the Hartman statue], they have it all the time,” Altman said.

And the city rarely gets proactive to commission memorials itself. More often, the Commission simply reacts to whatever outside proposal comes its way.

“That may be one thing we may want to look at. Should the city commission any [statues], and how should that work?”

A more refined policy for memorials — like the ones history-heavy cities like Philadelphia have in place — could lend a huge amount of clarity to the issue.

“These are important questions for the city to consider,” Altman said. “Who should we memorialize? That’s a pretty important civic dialogue.”

With debates like the recent Sid kerfuffle, “I think we’re getting into the next layer of policy development.”

Gihring added this perspective: “In this case, I think Sid’s real legacy, ironically, may be as the impetus to finally get some memorial guidelines — guidelines that may have kept this particular statue off the street.”