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A Proper Place for Public Art
By Cara Hetland
October 22, 1999
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Michelangelo's statue of David has been described as artistic perfection. Travelers from round the world flock to Florence in Italy to see the gigantic marble figure, completed in 1504. You might think any city would be happy to have a high-quality replica of David, but in Sioux Falls, the controversy over where to put just such a statue has triggered a larger debate about the proper place for public art.

David is in a secret storage spot known only as a parks department garage.
SOME SAY SIOUX FALLS is embarking on a Renaissance as it opens significant new downtown buildings, including its new concert hall. Augustana College art professor Steve Thomas says it's only fitting that Michelangelo's replica statue of David is at the center of one of the controversies.
Thomas: This was one of the most, if not the most, important artist of the Renaissance, so to have that piece in Sioux Falls at a time in its history, at a time when the city has unveiled its new performing arts center, and it's just great the thing is laying down here on a trailer and we talk about where is it going to go and we ask why.
David and a replica statue of Michelangelo's Moses were donated jointly to the city and Augustana College in 1971 by inventor Thomas Fawick. Augustana has Moses on campus and for years David stood in a park named for the donor. Two years ago the 18-foot David was removed from the park for an environmental clean-up and has been in storage ever since.

David is in a secret storage spot known only as a parks department garage. It lays on its back on a flat-bed trailer. Augustana professor Steve Thomas was chairman of the committee charged with finding a permanent home for David. The committee's recommendation to place David at the new performing art center was rejected by the city council as a result of public opposition.Opponents said there just wan't enough room for the massive statue downtown. They were concerned about it getting in the way of cars and pedestrians. For those who didn't want to look too closely, David was just too apparent. For those who wanted to see him,- they said they couldn't get far enough back to view the full 18 foot statue.

Despite numerous suggestions as to other places David could go, there were always objections. And so David will return to the refurbished Fawick Park - its original home. Thomas says the mistake the city is making is saying placement of public art is permanent.
Thomas: We're always moving things around in our home and I think the city of Sioux Falls needs to move these things around too so we see them and keep communicating about them. And that's the issue with David.
But it's not just David that has the people of Sioux Falls talking about statue placement. A local woman commissioned a carving of a buffalo to place at the falls of the Big Sioux River - Sioux Falls' namesake. Again, city leaders couldn't agree as to where the buffalo - named Monarch of the Plains - would reside at Falls Park. The Visual Arts Center Director Shirley Sneve says the quality of the pieces matters as the city obtains more works of art.
Sneve: Apparently in this town it doesn't matter what the sculpture is. It's going to stir up controversy. Which is great. I think it's wonderful that the situation with David and the buffalo recently have gotten so many people involved in talking about it and thinking about it. One of the roles of the visual arts is to get people to think.
Augustana has Moses on campus and for years David stood in a park named for the donor.
Photo: Cara Hetland
Sneve says there needs to be a clear process for public art placement. A new sculpture garden is empty as Sneve works to bring artists in to create in public. Augustana College professor Steve Thomas says the recent controversies tell a lot about the history of the residents.
Thomas: Learning to appreciate the visual arts and to have them become integrated is something that happens slowly, and people in this part of the country are raised by Depression people, and so what's happened is there has been this slow kind of awakening; but now being an art educator, I think that more and more and more of this consciousness, this awareness of design, this awareness of art, is something that is no longer anything but necessary, and parents, frankly, are demanding it. They want their children and they want their community to be filled with the visual arts and the other arts as well.
Thomas points to churches as an example of how art is an accepted, and necessary, part of the larger function of a building. He stands outside St. Mary's Catholic Church. A statue of Mary holding the Christ child is displayed beneath the bell tower and in the midst of a mosaic-tiled pond. He says churches see art as an event rather than an object. He says we're able to feel and see the emotions of stories that otherwise are simply words.
Thomas points to churches as an example of how art is an accepted, and necessary, part of the larger function of a building.
Photo: Cara Hetland
Thomas: If we want to look at art as something that is just a frill or something that is a decoration, we might have a kind of propensity to not take it as seriously as those who know that art has the capability to change the world - not only for our children but for each of us everyday. When we walk by St. Mary's, by this pond in the midst of this architecture, and the bells and the sculpture, it can feel pretty nice around here.
Thomas says Sioux Halls mayor Gary Hanson needs to keep the art debate going. Thomas wants an advisory panel of professional artists created to advise the city on art placement. He says it's the first step toward more public art in Sioux Falls.
Thomas: I mean we aren't going to build a building without an architect. We aren't going to build a swimming pool with out an engineer. We aren't going to go to court without a good attorney, and there's no reason to think we're going to place the statue of David without a group of professional artists. I think that just stands to reason. But you have to come into a mindset as a city where you acknowledge the fact that the arts are more than personal taste but rather they are a professional consideration.
Thomas and Visual Arts Center Director Shirley Sneve point to a South Dakota law requiring a certain percentage of new construction costs goes toward public art. It could be landscaping, pictures in the lobby, or statues. Sneve says the city should be more progressive when it comes to public art. She says the visual arts are the best tourism attractions the city could have.

The debate over David isn't finished. Discussion of which way the giant statue of a man - wearing only a smile - should point has only begun.