“Holding the water for us to see it”: New artist-designed outdoor drinking fountains in Minneapolis


Minneapolis City Council approved $500,000 last January for the construction of 10 new public drinking fountains, each designed by different Minnesota artists. Invigorate the Common Well, a trilogy of performances being staged over a two-year period at In the Heart of the Beast Theatre (HOBT), inspired the project. Sandy Spieler, artistic director of HOBT, writes in a public letter that the show began as a meditation upon a broken drinking fountain in the lobby of the group’s Avalon Theater. It is a “sad shrine,” she writes, to widespread neglect of the value of water.

Now, Spieler and Staff from HOBT are providing overall artistic direction for Minneapolis’s ambitious drinking fountain project, which means they will work with the fountains’ artists on the overall concept, artistic themes and designs. HOBT will also design and oversee the creation of one new fountain. Final designs, and possibly one or two fountains, will be unveiled as part of Minneapolis’s celebration of its 150th anniversary this July.

The new drinking fountains are expected to cost $50,000 each: $40,000 to cover the artists’ design and fabrication services, and $10,000 to cover Minneapolis’s costs. Minneapolis’s costs include site excavation and restoration, bringing plumbing to the location, and consultation from city plumbers. A representative from Most Dependable Fountains, Inc., drinking fountain brand used at Minneapolis’s Midtown Greenway, said that their fountains cost between $1525, for the most basic outdoor model, and $4300, for a model with “all of the bells and whistles,” like stainless-steel construction and freeze-resistant parts.

The City Council of Minneapolis approved funding on January 18th for 10 artist-designed public drinking fountains. Here are the sites, with links to information about the Minnesota artists selected to design them:

1. Mill District (Sandy Spieler/Heart of the Beast Theatre)

2. Nicollet Mall (Marjorie Pitz of Martin & Pitz Associates, Inc.)

3. Lake Street near the Midtown Exchange (Gita Ghei, Sara Hanson & Jan Louise Kusske)

4. Franklin Avenue near the Library and the American Indian Center (Peter Morales)

5. Plymouth and Penn Avenues North (Doug Freeman)

6. Dinkytown (Seitu Jones)

7. Central Ave NE (Mayumi Amada)

8. Uptown (Andrew MacGuffie)

9. and 10. Marquette and Second Avenue South. (2 fountains, artists TBA)

So when asked why roughly $15,000 worth of functional equipment and plumbing needs $35,000 worth of decorative art around it, Spieler said she hopes these fountains will be not only pretty, but also educational, “People will, of course, see the fountains, but I hope the fountains enable us to see the water, in a new way, with gratitude.” Spieler said, “The art holds the water for us to see it.” And though each fountain is guaranteed to be unique, Spieler said she would use her position as the project’s artistic director to encourage designs that educate the public and foster reverence for water.

Minneapolis currently maintains only one outdoor drinking fountain, located on the Midtown Greenway near 31st Street W and Chowen Avenue. St. Paul, by comparison, maintains 98, said Joe Buzicky, Building Trades Supervisor for St. Paul Parks and Recreation. Buzicky said the estimated cost for Minneapolis’s new drinking fountains seemed within reason. He added that he gets calls every spring asking why St. Paul is behind Minneapolis in getting all of its outdoor drinking fountains turned back on. Buzicky said he tells callers that yeah, it takes St. Paul longer, but Minneapolis, he quips, has only got to turn on that one fountain.

Of the total $500,000 Minneapolis budgeted for its new fountains, the City’s Water Fund will spring for $250,000, and Art in Public Places, a division of Minneapolis’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, will contribute the other half. City Council began annually funding Art in Public Places in 1992. Since then, more than three-dozen capital improvement projects have been commissioned through the program. The first focus of Art in Public Places was neighborhood gateways. The first was Michael Sheridan’s Elliot Park Gateway: Sky View (1992) at 5th Avenue S and 10th Street. Since then, the program has expanded to include a range of types of projects. Minneapolis’s website offers the interactive “Minneapolis Public Artworks Map” as a guide to these and its other public art sites.

In order to have more of the drinking fountain project ready in time for Minneapolis’s 150th anniversary, the Minneapolis Arts Commission decided to use a more abbreviated Request For Proposals (RFP) process, as opposed to the Request for Qualifications process that Minneapolis typically uses to select artists. A Public Art Advisory Panel, selected by the Minneapolis Arts Commission, chose the artists. The panel includes two artists; an arts administrator from an appropriate organization; an architect or landscape architect; three arts Commissioners; two engineers or technical representatives (i.e. Public Works); one planner or developer; three community representatives; and, if necessary, other experts, as non-voting members. Despite the rushed timeline for choosing artists and designs, the artists themselves will have over a year to finish building and installing the fountains.

Private partners, rather than Minneapolis, will perform daily sanitary maintenance, annual maintenance and winterizing. Annual maintenance to prevent significant freeze damage and replace broken plumbing parts is estimated to cost approximately $600-800 per fountain. Minneapolis’s Public Arts Administrator, Mary Altman, oversees Art in Public Places. Altman said that Minneapolis is still negotiating with these private partners, and will be announcing the partners publicly in mid-July. Each partner will be contracted to maintain their fountain, and Altman will monitor these contracts.

Spieler said she appreciates private partners being enlisted to maintain the fountains, because this will allow a more reciprocal relationship between the fountains and the communities in which they are built. People near the fountains, those who presumably will see and use them most, will be more aware of the condition of the fountains, and when they need attention, Spieler said. Members of the immediate community, not Minneapolis, then become responsible for tending the common well, she said. Spieler hopes this project will remind people, “You’re always upstream from someone, and someone is always downstream from you,” she said. “It’s bigger than just your personal water.”

Daily Planet contributor Jason Ericson (jasondericson@gmail.com) lives in Minneapolis.