Fly, Space Bird, fly! Duluth City Hall changes up its artwork, bringing in new artists, colors, and stories

Space Bird by Michael, a middle school student in Duluth, is part of the latest rotating art exhibit in the Duluth City Hall, an effort to decolonize the art in this important civic space, and bring in new artists and new ideas.
Left: A bust of Michael Colalillo, a Duluth west sider, son of Italian immigrants, and a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.
Right: New student artwork from “Our Neighbors” exhibit.

Emily Larson became Duluth’s first female mayor in 2016, and one of the changes she’s brought to City Hall is new art for the walls. It’s a lesson that other civic leaders should follow.

The Duluth Art Institute now helps curate rotating art exhibits in City Hall’s rotunda and the Mayor’s reception room. The first rotunda installation (2018) was a series of Anishinaabe art by Anishinaabe artists, said Christina Woods, the Institute’s executive director. Another installation focused on what it’s like to be homeless in Duluth, including artistic renditions of recipes from the street.

“Lots of people living on the streets have beautiful art to offer and never have a chance to have gallery space,” Woods said. “It goes deep in building awareness among public officials about what life is like when you don’t have a home to go to or a place to keep your things.”

Photos of Duluth mayors, 1870-1911.

The current installation, “Our Neighbors,” comes from students who live in the same zip code as the Lincoln Park Middle School, a zip code where people have shorter life expectancies. These students have participated in the Art Institute’s Birkenstein Arts Movement, a year-long program around art and leadership.

“Our Neighbors” will be on display through March. It provides an interesting contrast to Duluth City Hall’s historic art and plaques.

Stained-glass window in Duluth City Hall.

This blog has explored issues around art in public spaces and the messages it sends about who belongs, who has power, and what values we hold most dear. People across the South are pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments. Here in Minnesota, we had a long debate over images of Manifest Destiny embedded in art in the Minnesota State Capitol.

Are we stuck with the heroes (and the artwork) chosen by our grandparents? How do new generations choose to live into a fuller understanding of our history and lift up new heroes?

Duluth City Hall has a relatively sparse selection of historic art. The photo montage (above) is typical of what you would find in many city halls, an array of past mayors. You get to read their names, and that’s it. Missing is the narrative about all the city residents who had great leadership potential who never got the opportunity just because of their gender or race. Viewers, including children, are left with the subliminal message that white men are natural and rightful leaders.

Remember the Maine plaque in Duluth City Hall.

Tucked in a stairway leading to City Hall’s ground level is a stained-glass window of a half-naked Indian and white settler (or explorer). There is no title or explanation. Seems like they are having a friendly chat, indicating friendship and trust. Both are on the same level, indicating some balance of power. The bubble captions I imagine are the Anishinaabe man saying: “You gotta check out that piece of land just over that hill. You’ll love it!” The settler says: “Wow, you really didn’t have to, but thanks!”

The subliminal narrative: The Anishinaabe and settlers had a peaceful and respectful coexistence. That’s far from the truth. The missing narrative is the violence settlers and the U.S. government committed against Anishinaabe people, including the theft of Anishinaabe land. The stained-glass window offers an image that justifies the status quo, hides the truth, and dehumanizes Indigenous peoples.

Work is underway to interpret the stained-glass window in a modern context, Woods said.

I’m Different, Too!

City Hall also has a “Remember the Maine” plaque installed in 1946 by Spanish-American War veterans. Fought at the turn of the 20th Century, the United States won that war, kicked Spain out of the Caribbean region, and claimed some of its Pacific “possessions.”

The war was sparked by an explosion that sunk the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor. Cuba was fighting Spain for its independence at the time, and U.S. “yellow journalists” blamed Spain for attacking the Maine. The U.S. government bought that story line and declared war on Spain. “Remember the Maine” became a U.S. battle cry.

It wouldn’t come to light for decades, but Spain most likely didn’t sink the Maine, the damage appears self inflicted, likely resulting from an on-board fire. The plaque rightly recognizes soldiers’ sacrifices and their commitment to “freedom, patriotism and humanity.” But it risks glorifying war by failing to tell the larger story. The Spanish-American War was all about U.S. territorial ambition. It’s important to remember all the reasons people are sent to fight and die in wars, and they are not all virtuous. That narrative is missing from the plaque.

As one last twist, the plaque has no direct connection to Duluth. If you were just starting from scratch to decorate City Hall in 2020, would you choose a generic plaque to the Spanish-American War? Me neither. Other more local and important issues need to be raised up.

Many walls in City Hall are blank.

The rotunda’s rotating art exhibits are doing that job, bringing in new local artists, colors, and values, such as the piece (above): “I’m Different, Too!”

I want to applaud Duluth city leaders for having the courage to change up their art and spark conversation. (That, and I think Space Bird is really cool, with the special beak-protecting space helmet.)

The good news is that most of the Duluth City Hall hallways are a blank canvas, with plenty of room for new art.





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