Let us see what we believe

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

When immigrants came to America, their first image of the new land was the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. This wasn’t just some green lady. She represented freedom and opportunity. She was all of America, welcoming those in need. The Statue of Liberty told a story that was happening in real time. She still does.

In Chisholm, Minnesota, the Iron Man statue is forever walking home from the mine, shoulders hunched from hard work. Frank Hibbing is always surveying new lands in the park and city that bear his name. You can even find a miniature version of Lady Liberty in the front yard of the Hibbing City Hall.

Public art is more than decoration.

For 75 years, perhaps longer, big thinkers have talked about diversifying the Iron Range economy to include more than just mining, timber and tourism. Mostly, these efforts have failed.

That’s for the simple reason that here on the Range we’ve been conditioned to believe only what we see, not what we can imagine. We see a way to make a living working in the mines. We are surrounded by people who have done just that. We often don’t see how our communities could be something more than mining towns (where health care and service industries do most of the hiring). Even those who want economic diversification have a hard time articulating how to do it.

As a result our towns have not attracted new people and repel those who seek different kinds of work. This shouldn’t be a particularly controversial statement. It’s gone on like this for decades.

For a long time, and at a cost of paper millions, the Iron Range has tried to diversify by creating jobs for new people before they get here. That would be ideal, but doesn’t really account for how sustainable economies actually grow. Diverse economies stem from people and activity.

So the question becomes, what would attract people? What would inspire activity?

We must create attractive communities with a story to tell attract people. There’s no better way for a community to tell a story while becoming more attractive than public art.

“Public art is a part of our public history, part of our evolving culture and our collective memory,” writes Penny Balkin Bach. “It reflects and reveals our society and adds meaning to our cities. As artists respond to our times, they reflect their inner vision to the outside world, and they create a chronicle of our public experience.”

Right now the world thinks the Iron Range is dying. Heck, many who live here quietly believe the same thing. But if we make the decision that we want to fight, that we love this place and our people, we need to make a statement.

So this is my modest proposal. For a relatively small investment from local governments, businesses, nonprofit foundations and arts groups, we set out to install new highly visible public art in every city of the Iron Range — from the western Mesabi to the northern reaches of the Vermilion.

Artists would be commissioned to create art not only reflective of the place, but also the spirit of the Iron Range. Themes of rebirth, hope, resilience and defiance could be employed. No two works of art would be the same, but each would tie together in a way that suggests this region stands united for a better future. Professional artists could be sought, or student artists from our towns might prepare their own ideas. Perhaps both.

Even less expensive would be the commissioning of an Iron Range flag — a bright banner that could be flown in every town, at every school, and on every bridge — especially that big honking new one on Highway 53.

I would further suggest we not leave the art selection to city councils or the IRRRB, God bless them all. No, art teachers should be in charge, or at least a volunteer commission of actual artists. Their selections might not please everyone, but the art should not be mucked up by politicians or bureaucrats. Project costs should be kept manageable. Localities would be able to give ideas to the artists beforehand at public meetings.

Every place would have a new piece of art that inspired pride, joy and hope. One could drive the length of the Range to see them all, and that’s one immediate reason why it’d be a good idea.

Let us show the world we are not only alive, but active, vibrant and ready to rise again. This public art project will not create jobs immediately, but it is a visible first step toward attracting the kind of people who would create jobs. But the project cannot “fail,” for at minimum it will inspire the people who actually live here, no matter what.

Expressing defiance, rebirth and hope for the future through art will provide us something we can see, so we can start to believe our imaginations again.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 20, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Well done, good idea Aaron..

  2. I like the flag idea.

  3. Fantastic idea. There’s lots of talent in the region. No need to import artists. It’s worth a call to the State Arts Board and the Cultural Heritage Fund for a snooping/recon chat.

  4. Aaron, it’s a great concept and a great place to s tart. The bigger issue is to get our various units of government to work together on regional solutions and not coepete for the same things.
    The IRRRB needs to bet on our local businesses that make products that go beyond the iron range. The big win with outside company seems elusive and expensive. Maybe create distribution channels for hard goods. Stable diverse goods with a local resource base or eventual local resource base. Good ideas start out with an idea that becomes a plan, which becomes a goal worthy of putting money behind.

  5. Aaron . . As a little kid I spent summers at Little Splithand lake outside of Grand Rapids and learned to appreciate farm life, fishing, big and small animals, etc. etc. Life in the area was an eye opener for a Minneapolis kid. Beautiful country, thick woods, quiet lakes, hot and humid sun, hay bales, and riding to town (Grand Rapids) in the back of old pick-ups. I missed most of the cold stuff as I returned tho school in Mpls. in September each year. . . but with the advent of winter sports, snow mobiles, and four wheel drive cars, the winters can be a little harsh and long. But . . . why don’t you write about all of the wonder, beauty and opportunity. Follow up your book “Overburden” with some of the many pleasures available in Northern Minnesota. Thank.

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