Psychedelic Convention Center mural stirs controversy

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March 3, 2003 // UPDATED 9:08 am - April 30, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

Council art critics pan 300-foot-long neon artwork

In Minneapolis City Hall, a hallway television displays the goings-on behind the double doors to Room 317, the City Council Chamber. Beyond the purview of parliamentary procedure and etiquette, you can drink your coffee, chat and, if so provoked, even guffaw or giggle.

On Feb. 24, when Greg Ortale of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association presented a 4-foot-long scale model of a proposed gift of artwork for the expanded Minneapolis Convention Center, all hallway coffee drinking and chatting ground to a halt.

"Whoa," said one man, stepping back from the monitor and steadying himself against the wall. The TV image of the proposed 5,500-square-foot neon airbrush/watercolor image prompted another man to declare, "Psychedelic Minneapolis."

Inside the chambers, Ortale addressed sometimes pointed questions from the council's Ways and Means Committee who was reviewing the gift's contract before the full council voted on its acceptance Feb. 28.

After a long meeting strategizing over state cuts to the city's general fund, several weary councilmembers were quick to shake their heads at the model and announce they were declining comment on its artistic merit. Instead, they criticized the closed process and the choice of a Plymouth man, Anthony Whelihan, to do artwork on a visually prominent 300-foot wall along 3rd Avenue South at 12th Street, visible to any driver entering Downtown from the south and nearly every convention-goer.

Ortale explained that because a private business paid for the work (and wishes to remain anonymous, he added, due to budding controversy), a public review and selection process wasn't required. He also noted that the artwork saved the city $300,000 it had budgeted to fill the glassed-in space.

Nevertheless, councilmembers Sandra Colvin Roy (12th Ward), Paul Zerby (2nd Ward) and Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) expressed concern that a Minneapolis artist wasn't picked, especially given that the city funds were allocated.

Natalie Johnson Lee (Ward 5) brought up a different problem. Running her hands through her hair and leaning forward in exasperation, the Downtown/North Side representative said, "I hate to be the one who always brings this kind of thing up, but I don't see any people of color in there."

Although the model's proposed image includes a swirling variety of multi-colored faces of difficult-to-discern ethnicities, the plastic people included to provide a visual cue to the project's scale didn't look like they came from the variety pack.

Johnson Lee, along with Niziolek and Colvin Roy, voted against accepting the gift, resulting in a 3-3 tie vote.

At their fast-paced full council meeting Feb. 28, the City Council approved acceptance of the gift 9-3 with little discussion.