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On the blog: Public art

January 17, 2013

By Deborah Mitchell, Associate Professor, Humanities, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

Public art reflects the power structure and beliefs of any given culture. Art has been harnessed as the currency driving a specific value be it spiritual, cultural, or political. The overarching intent of public art has a key driving force. By and large, that key has traditionally been either the church or the state.

Greek temple design has been adapted and utilized in architecture to speak to the stability of contemporary institutions. In the Black Hills, the Pennington County Courthouse is a good example. One could even say that Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse follow in the tradition of the Great Sphinx.

Aesthetic choices in public art of past eras usually followed the dictates of the dominant culture and were designed to ensure the longevity of the power structure. Ironically, these choices were a closed system not often open to the public! “Art for art’s sake” was not an option; traditions were followed, religious and political power was the domain of few, and common people had little say in the outcome of any public art.

However, in our community we have two very exciting examples of public art taking the medium in a new direction; Art Alley and Passage of Wind and Water at Main Street Square. As we look at each of these we can see a new model for public art that clearly mirrors the more inclusive direction of contemporary society.

Both Art Alley and Passage take as inspiration the many voices and experiences of living in the Black Hills but in very different ways. Art Alley, started out as a grass roots extravaganza of artistic energy. Nothing is precious; nothing is stable; that very aspect makes it dynamic, exciting, and always in flux. And we have seen how our community has struggled with the unbridled explosion of conflicting issues.

On the other hand, Passage of Wind and Water has the cohesive vision of one artist, Masayuki Nagase, and his many years of experience.  The overarching artistic cohesion and the genius of his vision is a statement that will speak of and to our community.


Yuki was chosen from an international pool of 88 artists who applied for the opportunity to carve the 21 pieces of granite at Main Street Square. The commission required the artist to depict the natural and cultural history of the Badlands and Black Hills and to complete the project within five years.

What struck the committee was the fact that Yuki would involve our community on a fundamental level.

After months of researching the landscape for visual references specific to the Badlands and Black Hills, consulting with numerous groups and all levels of our community, and gathering our stories, he has begun to do the hard physical work.  

The art that Nagase is creating will be a monument to our place in time as a community and encompass the many voices that make our region so unique. And who knows? Perhaps in some distant future people will debate the validity of all that remains; but we will know it is true.  





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