Don’t know Jack about public art?


Twenty-nine years after he founded the arts organization FORECAST — and 25 days after he got a new heart — Seward resident Jack Becker stood to receive a national public art award, a plaque proclaiming “Jack Becker Day” in St. Paul.

The gathering of 130 assembled friends and colleagues at the Minnesota Center for Photography honored Becker and his organization, FORECAST Public Artworks, for decades of work in the field of public art. National nonprofit Americans for Public Arts, presented Becker with its 2007 Public Art Network Award. Liesle Fenner of Americans for the Arts praised FORECAST and Becker for originality, impact, excellence, commitment and passion.

But for many of the people who packed the event, it was a chance to lay eyes on and throw arms around Becker less than a month after he underwent a heart transplant at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. The surgery appeared to have been a success as Becker moved about the crowd like a man with the heart of a 20-year-old — which he is said to be, thanks to a young organ donor.

“With so much positive energy [from well-wishers], no wonder I’ve recovered so fast,” Becker said in accepting the honors. “All things considered, this has been a really good month.”

Many in attendance had worked with Becker and FORECAST over the years on public arts projects as artists, community volunteers, arts administrators, government or foundation staffers. “It’s like seeing the history of FORECAST before my eyes,” Becker said, looking out into the crowd, adding with a smile: “But not flashing before my eyes.”

“Jack helped me in so many different ways,” said Wing Young Huie, a photographer with a studio on East Franklin Avenue best known for documenting the Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul and “Lake Street U.S.A.” in Minneapolis. Both projects started with grants from FORECAST.

Heather Doyle, a blacksmithing artist who serves on the Minneapolis Arts Commission, said public art projects can require a lot of know-how to pull off. “It’s not a learning curve; it’s a sheer cliff,” she said. She credits Becker with guiding her project from idea to fruition.

One artist at the event spoke perhaps for all local artists creating public art when he said, “You have to know Jack.”

Still, most of the public for whom public art is made don’t know Becker or FORECAST Public Artworks. Becker joked that the organization’s last award, from Mpls.-St. Paul Magazine, was for “Best Unknown Arts Organization.”

FORECAST publishes Public Art Review — since 1989, the world’s only magazine devoted to public art; administers a grant program for emerging public artists with funds from the Jerome Foundation; and consults on public arts projects of all kinds, near and far.

The magazine gives FORECAST an international profile that complements its local presence in local public art. Eagle-eyed Bridge readers may have spotted FORECAST or Becker in articles about local a number of Bridgeland projects, from Elwell (Turtle) Park in Marcy-Holmes to the Merwin statue at Seward’s Triangle Park and the Brackett Rocket, to be re-installed as public art at North Longfellow’s Brackett Park this summer.

Becker said in an interview that he sees FORECAST as an “enabler,” hooking up artists with sites, communities, money and permission. “Artists had ideas that they could do in public if someone would just let them,” Becker said. “The grant program [is] all about that.”

FORECAST’s grants attract 50 applicants a year, Becker said, “and half are people we haven’t heard of.” He sees growing interest in and awareness of public art, in part due to educational efforts. He helped found the Marcy Arts Partnership, which links artists with students from Marcy Open School (which Becker’s daughters attended) with the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. The University of Minnesota will soon introduce a new minor in public art, building on articles that have appeared in Public Art Review.

Becker’s background in theater has served his enabler role — many public art project are temporary, , he said, like a limited-run performance. Becker also has a background in visual art; he’s a 1976 graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

In 1977, before founding FORECAST as an artists’ collective gallery in the Warehouse District downtown, Becker and other artists created “Bridge Space,” a one-week art show on the nearly-finished Tenth Avenue Bridge linking Southeast Minneapolis and the West Bank. Becker’s contribution was a do-it-yourself fountain: a bucket on a long rope tied to the bridge railing. People scooped a bucket of river water, pulled it up, and then swung the bucket back out, hurtling droplets back to the river.

Becker cites a stint as gallery director for the 1970s federal CETA arts program as inspiring his career path. He discovered that, with a phone and a desk in City Hall, he could make things happen. He’s been doing just that — and intends to continue to do so — for nearly 30 years, in the field he has helped to grow.