Behind the Scenes of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Renovation

Installation of new artworks in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is no simple task.

With its first major infrastructure renovation in 30 years completed this past summer, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is open to the public once again. The changes are stunning, including grand-scale, stately landscaping and 17 new works created by artists from around the country and the world. With additions like the 13-foot tall blue rooster Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch, constructed in Europe and installed here on a 10-foot pedestal, we got to wondering: How on Earth (or sky or water) do these magnificent masterpieces get moved to and placed in our very own backyard?

A ground-breaking alliance
The short answer is to think of it as a four-part process—preparing the garden itself, preparing each individual site, moving an artwork to its site, and installing it on the site—a highly coordinated undertaking involving artists, construction and transportation experts, the Walker Art Center, and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The long answer goes back nearly 30 years, to Walker Art Center director emeritus Martin Friedman’s question about city-owned Parade Park, located directly across the street from the museum: “Wouldn’t it be great as a sculpture garden?” Through a museum/park partnership forged in the 1980s, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden opened in 1988, the first major private/public urban sculpture park of its kind in the United States.

Dana Murdoch is employed by the Minneapolis Park and Rec Board. She is the project manager for the reconstruction of the sculpture garden. “We own the property,” says Murdoch. “We operate it. We maintain it.” In the reconstruction, Park and Rec has been responsible for “everything except the sculptures,” she says. Which is where Joe King, Walker Art Center’s director of registration, comes in: “We’re the department that deals with the care and movement of artworks throughout the museum,” King says, including those placed in the sculpture garden.

Preparing the garden
Murdoch says that one of the biggest considerations regarding overall garden preparation for the reconstruction is that much of the park’s soil is former marshland. “We decided to return a large part of the northern part of the park to native plants, grasses and flowers,” also called a “fresh meadow,” she says. There will be three large circles of manicured lawn, each with major sculpture installations. Surrounding these circles are fresh meadow perennials, planted last fall. “They’re little now,” she says of the plants, but once they grow to their expected heights of 2 feet and more they will define pathways in and around the sculptures. The park board is also responsible for planting over 300 trees, installation of bike racks, trash containers, new restroom facilities, and sidewalks and ramps. “There are only a few stairs left,” Murdoch says, and these are flanked by ramps. Making the sculpture garden ADA-compliant was a big part of the impetus for reconstruction, she says.

In general, says Murdoch, “The park board has the responsibility of meeting the needs of our parks’ owners”—the people of the city of Minneapolis. Although decisions about placement of individual artworks are left to the Walker, in one instance Murdoch had to advise the museum of a potential conflict between the site they’d selected and an unexpected hazard: out-of-the park home runs. The baseball field next door to the sculpture garden is the home field of Augsburg College and “balls are known to come over that fence,” Murdoch had to tell them. The Walker adjusted its plans.

Preparing the sites
Joe King shared installation particulars for three of the 17 new artworks now gracing the sculpture garden: Dutch artist Mark Manders’ commissioned piece, September Room (Room with Two Reclining Figures and Composition with Long Verticals); American artist Theaster Gates’ Black Vessel for a  Saint, also commissioned; and Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock. The uniquely exacting nature of each of these three installation plans underscores the scope and complexity of the sculpture garden’s makeover.

September Room, says King, is a single artwork with three large elements, the heaviest of which weighs over 10,000 pounds. King worked with a foundry in Belgium for specifics on the concrete footings for the work. The Walker has its own structural engineers, who then designed the footings of custom concrete and rebar on-site in Minneapolis. “We worked with the artist on exactly how he wanted the artwork oriented on the site in order to place the footings correctly,” says King.

Black Vessel for a Saint is an architectural space likened to a small, circular Renaissance temple, constructed of black bricks and more than 20 feet tall. It houses a statue of St. Laurence (the patron saint of librarians and archivists) salvaged from a Chicago church. Gates designed the plan for the enclosing temple-like structure and supplied the Walker with the materials; the Walker executed its fabrication on-site.

Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock is not a commissioned work but one purchased by the Walker. Its 10-foot tall, 30,000-pound pedestal is made of steel and was fabricated in Shakopee. From Shakopee, the pedestal went to Hugo, where it was sandblasted and painted to the artist’s specification (a light gray). It was then installed in advance of the rooster, on custom footings in the sculpture garden.

Moving and installing the artworks
Moving and installing each artwork was accompanied by unique constraints. The three huge elements of Manders’ September Room were transported on a cargo container ship from Europe to Norfolk, Virginia, says King. From there, they were loaded into three trucks and transported to Minneapolis. “We met the trucks with cranes at the sculpture garden,” says King. “When each truck arrived, we offloaded the element and then waited for the next truck.” Although Manders had visited Minneapolis on two other occasions, he was unable to be present when the artwork arrived. So “when we set the pieces in place, we were Face-timing with him,” says King.

The concrete statue of St. Laurence, over a century old, was shipped from London (where it had been on display) to Chicago by air. It was then moved to Minneapolis on a truck, says King. Gates himself was present for a final aspect of installation—covering the statue with tar, says King.

Fritsch’s blue rooster (Hahn/Cock) was fabricated in Switzerland of seven separate pieces of fiberglass formed over a stainless steel armature. Deconstructed, the elements were flown to Minneapolis. Here, on the ground, six segments were pieced back together over the interior framing and then lifted onto the pedestal. The seventh piece, the rooster’s tail feathers, was installed last, when all other aspects of the artwork are in place.

The nature of nature
While Murdoch of Minneapolis Parks and Rec said it was rewarding to be so involved in the garden’s transformation, she also noted one of the most challenging aspect of the renovation: weather. “Working on an outdoor project, you are driven by weather,” she said. “Last summer there were a ton of rain days and this spring was wet.”  Sun prevailed, however, and we can now formally welcome long-traveled artworks to their new home.

In June, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, Jayne Miller from the Minneapolis Parks, Walker Art Center executive director Olga Viso and Sen. Amy Klobuchar gathered to cut the ribbon at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.