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The Minnesota State Fair has ended its commemorative art program, a surprise to past participants.

For the past 20 years, the fair had commissioned a Minnesota artist or duo to create a work of art about the fair, which included an original work, 100 limited edition signed prints, and 2,500 posters.

"With [the commemorative art program], we are proud to have met our original goals to expand our connection to local visual artists and the arts community and explore this program as a revenue stream for the Minnesota State Fair Foundation," the Minnesota State Fair said in a statement. "The decision also took into consideration logistical challenges — coordinating the processing and selling of posters as well as storing and displaying 19 works of art — as well as all our other art focused programs."

Artist Liz Schreiber, who made the 2023 commemorative art and has been a participating crop artist for more than 20 years, was shocked to hear that the program was ending. Schreiber's commemorative artwork was a seed art creation, featuring a cow, two tractors, a Ferris wheel, corn dogs and corn. She received $5,000 to make the piece.

"I'm sad about [the program ending], because it always seems like the connection between visual arts is the first thing to get the ax," Schreiber said.

Ta-Coumba T. Aiken's commemorative art for the 2017 Minnesota State Fair captured the energy of the "Great Minnesota Get-Together" through abstraction.
Ta-Coumba T. Aiken's commemorative art for the 2017 Minnesota State Fair captured the energy of the "Great Minnesota Get-Together" through abstraction.

Minnesota State Fair

Ta-Coumba T. Aiken, the first Black artist to make a Minnesota State Fair commemorative artwork back in 2017, also felt heartbroken.

"It's upsetting but not just on a personal basis," he said. "It is a great honor to be looked at from all these different people from all different walks of Minnesota communities all over the state."

To help him gather inspiration for his commemorative artwork, he visited the 2016 fair 12 times in nine days.

"I started noticing shadows and I do shadow spirits in bronze casting, and I thought 'All these shadows!' There were a lot more channels there at the time, in early fall and in the summer."

His commemorative art ended up being abstract, filled with shards of color, squiggly white lines and recognizable imagery like the red "Tickets" sign and the State Fair logo.

In 2019, R.J. Kern was the first photographer to be commissioned for the Minnesota State Fair's commemorative art program.
In 2019, R.J. Kern was the first photographer to be commissioned for the Minnesota State Fair's commemorative art program.

Minnesota State Fair

R.J. Kern, the first and only photographer to make commemorative art, took pictures of livestock gathered together for his 2019 piece. He photographed them all in the same place, just not at the same time. The horses and cattle arrived at different times.

It was a natural move for Kern, who often works with farm animals in his work; his series "The Unchosen Ones," focuses on Minnesota youth who competed in livestock competitions and lost.

"The opportunity opened doors to engage new audiences," Kern said. "I enjoyed the challenge to pay homage to roots of the fair, the agricultural contests, which coincided with the birth of photography."

In its statement, the fair reiterated that it was a "difficult decision" to let go of the commemorative art program, but that "the foundation and fair have both evolved over the past two decades."

This year's design will be created in-house, debuting in late July.

In 2022, artist Leslie Barlow became the first woman of color to make the commemorative art for the Minnesota State Fair.
In 2022, artist Leslie Barlow became the first woman of color to make the commemorative art for the Minnesota State Fair.

Minnesota State Fair

The commemorative art program started in 2004 with a poster by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, who made a whimsical image of people and farm animals dancing in a circle in front of a Ferris wheel and fireworks.

There have been 19 artists total, including nine women. Leslie Barlow, who made the commemorative artwork in 2022, was the only woman of color commissioned for this honor.

Barlow was surprised that the program ended, especially given how it created opportunities for local artists to give their interpretation of the fair.

"I've been following the commemorative art program for a long time, ever since I was a kid," she said. "I'm a huge fan of the State Fair. I go every year and so, for me, I was super excited to be able to have the opportunity to create an artwork for an event that I love so much."

The fair has never commissioned a Latino or Native artist to make commemorative art.

The fair was canceled in 2020 as COVID-19 swept the nation. That year, cartoonist Kevin Cannon was meant to make the commemorative artwork. Instead of abandoning his piece, the fair held onto it until 2021 and temporarily renamed the fair as "The Great Minnesota Get-Back-Together."