The Woman Behind the Lake Creature

July 22, 2009
lake creature 1

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost. To see the original, go to

About 10 days ago, a surprising new visitor popped up in Lake Harriet in southwest Minneapolis: the Lake Creature. After a week of speculation, the creature was revealed to be the work of artist Cameron Gainer under the sponsorship of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation.

The introduction of the creature was an example of the marketing industry’s growing emphasis on viral, guerrilla and word-of-mouth campaigns. Through a website, a Twitter account and the reactions of city residents and park visitors, word of the creature spread before anyone knew what it was, why it was there or who was responsible. Fast Horse worked with the Parks Foundation on the introduction.

Since the creature appeared, more than 12,000 people have visited its website, and more than 100 suggestions have been offered in a nickname-the-creature contest.

I spoke to Cecily Hines, president of the Parks Foundation, about the creature, its marketing and its role in promoting public art. A condensed Q&A follows.

John Reinan: What was your thinking in introducing the creature with a teaser campaign?

Cecily Hines: Introducing it that way really produced evidence of how engaging public art can be. People didn’t know why it was there or who put it there. We didn’t want to introduce anything to bias them– we just wanted them to enjoy it.

I’ve been absolutely amazed by the emotional responses. I expected it to be popular. But from the first morning we put it in the water, joggers and walkers were starting to come by at 5:30 – They stopped and their jaws dropped. They’d say, “I’ve got to go get my children!”

JR: What is the role of public art in society?

CH: I believe the role of public art in society is to bring people together, to create a greater sense of community and a sense of place. That’s particularly important in hard times like we are experiencing right now: having great pieces of public art and beautiful parks in which to enjoy public art, all open to everyone with no admission fee. Connecting people to the outdoors, actually contributing to the health and well-being of everyone.

JR: Minnesota has a long history of supporting public art. Have you seen a lessening of that support?

CH: I guess I’d say there’s maybe not been as much of an emphasis on it, because we have such great art institutions. There hasn’t been as much of a focus on public art of late, but I don’t think the interest is gone; it’s been dormant.

JR: Why did the Parks Foundation decide to take a visible role in promoting public art?

CH: It fits directly within our mission, which is to advocate for and invest in the long-term future of the parks. One of our top three priorities is to engage more people of all ages and cultures in our parks, and we think that public art is one of the best ways to do that. You build a sense of community, a sense of place. And fun. One of the things we want to do is create fun for everyone who enters our parks.

JR: How did you choose the Lake Creature?

CH: One of the people I talked to in the community had seen this piece of art and suggested I meet the artist. Once I heard about it, it sounded very intriguing and very much in tune with the sort of projects we’d be interested in.

JR: What are the responses you hoped it would evoke?

CH: One is a sense of surprise. We wanted to launch it without fanfare. We liked the aspect of it being a temporary installation; the movement will be a continuing element of surprise. We also like the fact that because this is a piece of art designed to be in water, it fits with Minneapolis and our community.

It brings mystery. It sparks the imagination. Even with people knowing that it’s a sculpture, you hear people talking about it like it’s real. And because it moves, it can become a beloved piece of art with many, many people throughout the city, more than if it was just in one place.

JR: How will the Lake Creature help the foundation meet its larger goals?

CH: It’s an incredible opportunity to raise the visibility of the foundation. So we’re then able to talk to people about other projects we’re engaged in. We’re trying to create a vision for the next 50 to 100 years: What are the things we should be doing today for future generations? Just as the philanthropists of 100 years ago had the vision to buy this land when people thought they were crazy to be buying land south of Franklin Avenue.

JR: Was any public money involved?

CH: No. This is entirely funded by private donors, all of whom are committed to this city and committed to enhancing the life in our city.

JR: Have you gotten any criticism of the project?

CH: You always expect there’s going to be a naysayer about anything. But we have received no criticism of the project. I certainly don’t mean to presume that everybody thinks it’s a great project. But the outpouring of support has been so reinforcing about what we thought the value of public art is.