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MINNEAPOLIS — The history of arts patronage is a patriarchal affair, beginning with the word’s etymology. “Patron,” in Medieval Latin, means father. Accordingly, an arts patron is a person who begets or gives life to and protects the arts. He is also a “bestower of a benefice.” Recall the Medici family, the governments they ruled, the Popes they produced, and the exceptional works of art and architecture that the Catholic church, in turn, commissioned.
In the 21st century, such monetary largess on behalf of the arts is, to a great extent, associated with different groups: ministries of culture in Europe; the National Endowment for the Arts, foundations, and state and local government programs in the United States; art museums; and a small coterie of very rich art collectors. But in the US, a new player has been entering the arts patronage game: the owners of professional football teams. After commissioning architects to design the monumental edifices in which their teams play — stadiums, arguably, are the new cathedrals, with throngs of ardent worshippers in ceremonial garb rushing to pay penance and offer praise to their individual and collective heroes — sports franchise owners are choosing to adorn these arenas with further evidence of patronage: art collections.
Most famously, Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and his wife Gene, worked with Mary Zlot, a San Francisco-based art consultant, to commission 21 large-scale works for the public spaces of Cowboys AT&T Stadium, including massive pieces by art stars Mel Bochner, Daniel Buren, and Olafur Eliasson. In California, the San Francisco 49ers art collection at Levi’s Stadium was curated with more of a locavore sensibility. Assembled by Sports & the Arts, an organization run by Tracie Speca-Ventura (based in California) and Camille Speca (based in Rhode Island) specifically to assist sports team owners in procuring art for their arenas, the Levi’s Stadium collection includes more than 200 artworks and 500 photographs in public and private spaces, largely by California artists, with an eye toward celebrating San Francisco history and culture, football in general, and the 49ers’ legacy in particular. The art in the Seattle Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field has a similarly regional bent, with work by a dozen artists, most of them from the Northwest.
The latest entry in the burgeoning field of sports arts patronage, the recently opened US Bank Stadium — the 1.75 million-square-foot home of the Minnesota Vikings — houses more than 350 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and other artworks, several murals, and approximately 250 photos. Patronage here lies with Zygi Wilf, a billionaire real estate developer and the team’s principal owner, and his brother Mark, team co-owner and president. Curated by Tanya Dreesen, the Vikings’ Vice President of Partnerships Activation and Special Projects, and Emily Bohmbach, Manager of Marketing Partnerships, in partnership with Sports & the Arts, the work is mostly located in private corporate suites. Only a few pieces are situated in public entries and concourses.
Similar to the Levi’s Stadium art collection, the Vikings collection focuses on three themes: “celebrating Minnesota, honoring Minnesota sports moments, and saluting Vikings past and present,” as stated in book produced about the art collection. Out of 1,100 applications to submit work, 47 artists, 12 muralists, and 45 students were selected — 97 of the 104 artists live in Minnesota. Three of the artists are former Vikings players; former coach Bud Grant also has wildlife paintings in the collection.
Does the collection venture beyond team memorabilia, Vikings-themed kitsch, and Minnesota clichés? Sometimes. In the entry to the private Valhalla Suites for corporate sponsors (and visible through a glass door) is painter Shawn McNulty’s vivid abstraction of the stadium’s form, rendered in purple and white (as opposed to the building’s actual black and glass façade). As with all of McNulty’s work, the layers of acrylic and pumice — ladled on and then scraped off repeatedly — animate depths of texture and color. Also in the suites, Melissa Cooke deploys her much-heralded photorealistic acuity with graphite on paper to render a player, his hand, and his helmet with precise beauty. David Rathman’s watercolor, oil, and ink paintings of Vikings players illuminate the action and stasis that characterize football, while John Robertson (a California artist) infuses his images of players with kineticism, as paint drips off their joints and limbs, grounding them in the work.
In his bowls, Carl Eller (a former Viking and Pro Football Hall of Famer) pays homage to the state’s 10,000 lakes with rough-hewn shapes in which his large, sensitive fingers have left waves and rivulets. First Nations and medieval Viking symbolism merge brilliantly in Andrea Carlson’s mixed media works; graphic patterns and obscure shapes are harmoniously balanced with runic determination. In the Medtronic Club, a two-story space for Vikings owners and sponsors, Gary Welton’s brushwork captures players mid-motion with dancer-like grace.
What’s available to the general public to see? Ed Charbonneau and Jeremy Szopinski’s 123-foot-long mural (created with their students from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) of purple, blue, and white football-like ovals spiraling through space and past columns (abstracted from the stadium’s architecture) coalesces into a Fibonacci sequence-like interpretation of a quarterback’s throw. A large-scale version of Florida-based artist Derek Gores’s collage of the Vikings logo fabricated from old posters and playbooks is positioned on a high wall above one of the concourses. Another mural, Greg Gossel’s 17-foot-tall and 85-foot-long Pop art and comic book-inspired extravaganza in the stadium’s north concourse exclaims “Skol!”, as do Peyton Scott Russell’s large-scale, graffiti-like metal and light assemblage and Steve Thomas’s retro banners. And that’s just for starters; several massive sculptures — one of a Viking ship, another of an abstracted Gjallarhorn (a version of which is frequently sounded during games) — are currently being assembled on the plazas outside the stadium.
There’s no Anish Kapoor here, as at the Dallas Cowboys stadium — nothing so abstract as to detract from Vikings lore or legacy. Even Nicholas Schleif’s large-scale portrait of Prince — an image, captured from the musician’s legendary Super Bowl halftime performance in 2007, composed of his lyrics exquisitely rendered in pin dots of purple, lavender, and yellow — has been purged of naughty words. (It has also been given a plastic coating to protect it from the hands of passing fans, many of whom feel compelled to touch it.) The art collection, as a whole, plays Minnesota nice.
While the idea of arts consultants and Vikings representatives curating a largely private collection for a sports team’s stadium might strike some purists as offensive, it also means the art is reaching audiences that might not seek it out in museums and galleries. As football fans encounter the outdoor sculptures and concourse murals, and box owners marvel at the artwork installed in their private suites, who’s to say that the experience isn’t capable of nurturing some new art patrons?