The Hmong Arts and Music Festival is a perfect excuse to visit Western Sculpture Park

Arts / Article

There’s a gem of a park, tucked into a neighborhood that stretches westward from downtown St. Paul and which is bounded by the city’s Cathedral Hill area, Interstate-94 and University Avenue. Western Park is a vestige of the old Rondo neighborhood, the tight-knit, largely African-American community demolished in the 1960s to make way for I-94.

The neighborhood declined for years after the highway came through, its core community fractured and displaced. City parks in the area weren’t immune to the increased poverty and crime, of course, and over time, the families who once used those facilities began to give way to shady types congregating there for more nefarious activities.

But thanks to dogged community-based efforts, in 1998 Western Park was reclaimed and redesigned as a sculpture park. Thirteen years on, the seedy elements have been successfully displaced by a serene, stately civic space, in which 20 monumental pieces made by notable mid-career American artists are exhibited. (You can take a virtual tour of the park here, courtesy of the terrific online guide to public art in the Twin Cities, “Start Seeing Art.”)

Western Sculpture Park is part of a larger, long-term strategy to turn the tide in this beleaguered neighborhood, to transform it into an attractive commercial and residential corridor. Thanks to enthusiastic support by a core group of residents, the generosity of various philanthropic foundations and the guidance of Knight Arts grantee Public Art Saint Paul, the ongoing cultural programming based around the sculpture park seems to be having tangible effects in improving the neighborhood.

Really, the only disappointing thing about Western Sculpture Park is that not nearly enough people know about it. I must admit, I lived here for nearly 10 years before I visited; when I did finally make my way there, I did so to attend the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) annual Hmong Arts and Music Festival. Center for Hmong Arts and Talent adopted Western Sculpture Park some years ago for its yearly shindig, and it has proven to be a natural, mutually beneficial pairing.

Each year the festival draws scads of Hmong artists and performers, working in every discipline — from the visual arts to traditional Hmong dance and Asian hip-hop, to intricate handwoven textiles and contemporary fashion design. Visitors can browse through the visual arts tent, watch some live performances and let the kids monkey around on the monumental pieces that punctuate the park space; walk just a few paces away from the action of the festival and you can turn the little ones loose in the park’s playground.

Even with the grandeur lent to the grounds by the sculptures, the park feels intimate and accessible. For its part, the Hmong Arts and Music festival is colorful and vibrant, but not overwhelming in its scale — if you need one, it’s the perfect excuse to seek out this urban oasis.

Center for Hmong Arts and Talent’s 10th Annual Hmong Arts and Music Festival is Saturday, Aug. 20 at Western Sculpture Park, on Marion Street between Fuller and Ravoux (across the street from Sears). The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and admission is free and open to the public.