Rochester hopes creative installations spark talk of downtown's future

Glen Tabor and Warren Wong play chimes
Glen Tabor and Warren Wong play "Mary Had A Little Lamb" on "Chime In," a large-scale set of chimes played by heavy, rubber mallets in downtown Rochester on Thursday.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

A rocking chair big enough for four and a huge set of chimes are among the temporary sculptures people will see in downtown Rochester this weekend as officials try to engage residents in the vision for the Destination Medical Center project.

The festival is sponsored by DMC, as well as the Rochester Arts Center and the Rochester Downtown Alliance, as part of a massive effort to remake Rochester's downtown core around the Mayo Clinic, and cultivate the creative class in a city better known for medicine than whimsy.

Cities that nourish creativity tend to flourish economically, and that's what the weekend "prototyping" festival is all about, said Patrick Seeb, the project's director of economic development and "placemaking."

"Rochester attracts a great deal of scientific talent and often times they bring with them partners or spouses who are artists and creatives," Seeb said. "This is a way of creating an environment where they feel welcome."

Amos and Barbara Kermisch on the “Rocker Talker.”
Amos and Barbara Kermisch (seated) rock on the "Rocker Talker," which can seat multiple people.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

If the Destination Medical Center vision pans out, Rochester will draw billions of dollars in public and private investment and undergo unprecedented economic and demographic growth. The primary goal is to make Mayo and Rochester more competitive in attracting patients and top talent. The festival takes place amid some complaints that the public has been left out of the development process.

Among the 16 installations is Inner Ear Echo, a tangle of metallic tubes that looks a lot like duct work. But it's actually a large scale model of the human inner ear. Inside is a microphone and software that will translate anything you say into six languages.

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The project was inspired by one of the main issues residents are dealing with, said Dee Sabol, part of the team that created Inner Ear Echo.

Inner Ear Echo was inspired by community.
"Inner Ear Echo" was inspired by themes of community and connectivity. The sculpture is modeled after the human inner ear, and repeats phrases in multiple languages.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

"You would be hard pressed to find a conversation going on in Rochester that doesn't touch on diversity and inclusion," Sabol said. "Everyone at every level of the community wants to be more connected."

Like the other installations on display for the Rochester prototyping festival, the ear sculpture is meant to get residents thinking about what their community could look like years from now.

But the city acknowledges high costs for housing and studio space are a headwind for the city's arts scene. And the DMC effort has sometimes had a perception problem as well. Since its launch last year, the project has faced complaints that development decisions are being made without public input.

'Creative Crosswalks' are four painted crosswalks.
"Creative Crosswalks" consists of four painted crosswalks. They will remain in Rochester's downtown after the prototyping festival is over.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Some festival goers remain skeptical that city and DMC leaders really want to hear what the public has to say and doesn't have a long-term vision for downtown art. At least one installation, a quad of colorful crosswalks, will be downtown for years to come. But that's all the city is committing to now.

Abe Sauer, an artist who built a hybrid bike rack and flower planter for the festival, hopes the city will use it to replace parking spaces for cars with bike parking to encourage more cycling.

"I hope that we don't have DMC celebrate the fact that it held the festival," he added, "and then never see any of these things actually happen in Rochester."