Grand Forks, ND

Public Art Is Everywhere In Grand Forks - Why The City Has Such A Thriving Arts Scene

Jeryl Brunner

Bruce Gjovig cannot imagine a world without art. “Art often defines civilization, culture and a community,” says the founder and CEO of the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation Foundation which is an entrepreneurial incubator.  “Ever notice how many people take a photo in front of a signature work of art when they visit a new city? No better way to say, I was there and saw the good sights.”
One of the iconic blue head planters downtown North Dakota Tourism/Greater Grand Forks CVB

As the Chairman Emeritus of the North Dakota Museum of Art who serves as Vice Chair of the Public Arts Commission of Grand Forks, Gjovig is grateful to live in Grand Forks where art, especially public art, is thriving. He sees how artists have been embedded in the foundation of Grand Forks for years. “Grand Forks is a university town, it has a long 125 year history of embracing arts and culture,” explains Gjovig.

Art is everywhere throughout the city which contains more than 162 works of sculpture on display in many public spaces like the dramatic blue planters in the shape of heads that are sprinkled throughout downtown. 

“Far exceeding many communities of similar size, the neighboring cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota are a proud home to a variety of artists, art organizations and venues,” observes Julie Rygg, executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Visitors Bureau. “This provides both residents and visitors unique opportunities to experience art in an assortment of ways ranging from attending performances and events to visiting a gallery, even while enjoying a cup of coffee or walking down the street.”

Why is Grand Forks so committed to support and nurture artists?

University of North Dakota (UND) has educated a significant arts audience, both students and the community. An early artist of great influence was Margaret Kelly Cable who started working at UND in 1910.  She became a nationally prominent potter, whose Cable pottery was highly collectible, been featured on the PBS Antiques Roadshow, and is the subject of several books.  Many of her works show strong Art Deco and Art Nouveau influences, although some also show Native American, Western, and prairie influences.  Cable retired from UND in 1949, so she had nearly 40 years of prominence as an artist and educator. UND had many other visual and sculpture artists who produced artworks (paintings, sculpture, prints) that have been collectible to a wide audience, and influenced many young artists to study and locate here. The students also produced art for sale, but in a limited way typically once or twice a year. 

Who are some other people who influenced arts in Grand Forks?

Another great educator of the regional arts audience is Laurel Reuter, Executive Director of the  North Dakota Museum of Art which dates back to 1972, nearly 50 years ago and is the state’s official art museum.  Laurel started with an art gallery in the UND student union, and in 1989 opened a world-class, small art museum on campus that has seven to eight exhibits per year with one to three artists at a time, featuring regional, national and international artists, mostly contemporary and modern art, but also sculpture, fabrics, environmental, prints and photographs. As she approaches 50 years, that is over 500-700 artists or more.

Laurel has an uncanny ability to spot outstanding, emerging artists early in their career. Because she is one of the best arts writers in the nation, publishing many prominent art books, artists seek her out so their work will be reviewed, exhibited and published.  As importantly for the community, she has gone out of her way to make art available and accessible to the public by a very strong educational program with artists talks, excellent labeling and educational materials, great docents, youth and family  programs, traveling exhibits to rural areas. She is committed to arts education and quality art, which is a great combination for our region. 

Also, Laurel Reuter doesn’t shy away from controversial exhibits.

Laurel has brought in controversial exhibits, like art made from AIDS blood by Barton Benes. As rural as it is, it resulted in no controversy in the Grand Forks trade area. The art was highly controversial in urban centers, but not here. Stockholm refused to show his exhibit until the art went through an autoclave, damaging the exhibit. Some cities refused it to be shown.

Through Laurel’s educational efforts she made challenging and difficult art accessible, even if people did not much care for it. It was still worth the experience, and the challenge of understanding it was worth doing. To think. To ponder.  Barton Benes came to love the NDMoA because of the kind and empathetic reaction. In 2012 he left the contents of his West Village apartment in New York City to the museum. And his artist apartment is now an exhibit at the NDMoA in Grand Forks.

There is also a possibility to purchase art from the NDMoA.

The NDMoA also hosts two art auctions a year, and an educated art public has taken pride in buying original art. No designer art from a furniture store for this audience.  For nearly 30 years, those auctions have been well attended. And many thousands of works have been purchased and placed in homes in the region. Other art auctions and exhibits have been made popular by the Art of Giving (TAG) and the Public Art Commission (PAC) in Grand Forks, but both benefit from a long-term, well-educated art audience influenced by UND and NDMoA.

 For example, I have an art collection of 370 or works of art collected over a 40 year period.  NDMoA, student artists, PAC, and TAG would be the source of 70-80% of my collection. The remaining 20-30% would be directly from artists or Fargo art galleries.  96% of my collection is from regional artists to support the art community.
A bike rack as artNorth Dakota Tourism/Greater Grand Forks CVB

Are your works on public display?

Storing art makes little sense to me, as art is created to be seen and appreciated. Since 2019, 240-250  works from my collection are on loan for public display through the PAC at the Altru Health Professional Center (Art of Wellness), a health clinic with 500 appointments a day and the Alerus Center (Art & Artists Among Us), a convention and conference center with 420 events and attendance of 240,000 people  in a normal year. 

I am delighted to loan my art collection to PAC for a public exhibition. It is an eclectic art collection which includes a broad and diverse range of artworks, artists, mediums and subjects. Everyone can find one work they like. Every so often I  sit in the clinic to watch people go from artwork to artwork studying them as they wait for an appointment or for a family member.  They are ordinary people with keen observation. Their engagement is extraordinary. We have a culture of arts appreciation. It gives me great satisfaction to see the art appreciated and see the impact with my own eyes. The two exhibits are known as the largest private art collection on public display in North Dakota. 

The deal I made with PAC and the two public art sites, was they could show my art for 5 years along as the host site also provided gallery space to show and sell the work of regional artists on a rotating basis.  This created an opportunity for about 30-40 artists to have an art showing, in high traffic areas,  helping to create an art market. 

 So Grand Forks is really committed to art.

Because Grand Forks is a university town, it has a long history of embracing arts and culture. UND was founded in 1883 when we were Dakota Territory. When Grand Forks was a city of less than 5,000 people, investors built the spectacular Metropolitan Opera House in 1890, just after we became a state in 1889. The “Met” was a cultural center for 60 years.  It is fair to say that Bismarck became our government and capital city in North Dakota, Fargo became the trade center, and Grand Forks became the cultural center of North Dakota. That was due mainly to the UND influence and its citizens commitment to, and interest in, the arts and culture. 

Grand Forks is also “America’s Best Hockey Town.” It has had this title five years and running. There is no conflict between the two.  Although I must admit it would not be a good idea to have an art auction during hockey playoffs. Several years ago we did a study, and the arts audience/participation  in Grand Forks was slightly larger than the sports audience, but I no longer remember the numbers. Bottom line, there is equal passion for both art and sports in Grand Forks.
Japanese Gardens at Grand Forks North Dakota Tourism/Greater Grand Forks CVB


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New York based journalist who has written for Forbes, Parade, InStyle, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. Author of the book "My City, My New York, Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places" and podcaster, ("When Lightning Strikes"). I cover the arts, theater, entertainment, food, travel and people who are motivated by their joy and passion.

New York City, NY

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