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Published January 07 2014

Forum editorial: A new era for Fargo public art?

If the Fargo City Commission follows through on an expressed desire for more public art in the city, it will be a historic change – and a good one.

Commissioners this week established a public art task force that will be charged with assessing existing public art, setting priorities for new pieces and creating a permanent public art plan. Members have yet to be named. The ambitious initiative is welcome and overdue.

Public art has not always been held in high esteem by city officials. The two most visible public pieces in the city were prominent at the south end of Broadway from about 1978 to 2002. Lowell Reiland’s “Dedication to a Birthplace” was a timber and tar double staircase-like structure that symbolized the two river communities. Luis Jimenez’s “Sodbuster” was (is) a fiberglass ox and farmer that paid tribute to pioneers who first plowed the plains.

Both are gone, victims of weather and railroad vibrations and lack of significant support to fund repair and restoration. “Dedication” was bulldozed in the dead of night in 1991 when the city’s call to the arts community to come up with funding for repairs went unanswered. “Sodbuster” became the property of the Plains Art Museum. The damaged piece was removed in 2002 and has been in storage ever since, apparently unable to attract funds for restoration.

The fate of the two iconic examples of Fargo’s public art confirms the lack of enduring commitment to public art in the city. The commission’s action this week, prompted primarily by Commissioner Melissa Sobolik, might signal a change for the better.

A progressive, sophisticated city should embrace public art. Fargo has moved in that direction in recent years. Several projects, including the architectural restorations of old downtown buildings, qualify as public art, even if the investments were not direct public money but rather combinations of private dollars and public tax incentives. The publicly funded Veterans Bridge and associated riverside features could have been just another utilitarian concrete slab. Instead, the bridge is a striking feature of a modern, dynamic metro. It cost more but is so much more than merely a city street bridging the Red River.

Several statues of historic figures have been in parks and plazas for generations, somewhat forgotten and neglected. And efforts to raise appreciation for and fund new public art have been more fits and starts than a concerted plan. So the commission wins applause for what appears to be a serious proposal to advance public art. Stay tuned.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.