Washburn-Fair Oaks Park, across 24th Street from the MIA, was once the estate of William Washburn, a flour magnate. He dubbed it Fair Oaks after the grove he cleared to build an incredible castle of a home on the 10 acres, transforming the remaining grounds into a lush park of ponds, fountains, and a lagoon. Washburn left it all to the city of Minneapolis in 1912, hoping it would become a public art museum, but when the MIA went up across the street, it was used instead as a youth recreation center—how fun would that have been?—before being razed in 1924. Apparently no other conceivable use outweighed the maintenance costs (the secular wedding business wasn’t yet a thing). During the Depression, the overachieving WPA dotted the park with 48 benches—far more than there are ever people in the park—and let it be.
In recent years, admittedly, it hasn’t been the best-used of parks, at least not for any uses we’d recommend. The benches, perhaps for lack of use, are still standing. But in 2012, artist Matthew Bakkom collaborated with the MIA and Teen Teamworks program of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to repaint the four dozen benches as deconstructed interpretations of artworks in the collection, each slat a prominent color in the particular work. This was part of the MIA’s Evolvelle initiative, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, to engage the collection in new and unexpected ways, such as juxtaposing artworks with famous films and composing music inspired by artworks. For Bakkom, it was personal: years ago, he was a museum guard at the MIA and would look out the picture windows facing the park and imagine what could be done with it.
The idea succeeded: Olga Viso, the director of the Walker Art Center, named the project one of her eight favorite art moments of 2012, right up there with visiting artist Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio.
Here, an in-depth look at four of the benches, side by side with the works that inspired them, and the unexpected ways they relate to the park itself. You can reference all of the artworks while sitting on them, as it were, via the MIA’s mobile page for the Fair Oaks project.
Listen to a brief description of this artwork and its auspicious connection to butterflies:
Listen to a brief description of this still-life painting and its connection to an unusual kind of hospital that once stood near the park:
Listen to a brief description of this wonderfully titled work and how the motifs of art and architecture relate to the park:
Listen to a brief description of this photograph and how its political overtones offer an interesting juxtaposition to the only actual artwork in the park: