Playback sculpture found in city storage

NEW ULM – Playback, the former New Ulm Public Library sculpture by London artist Helene Fesenmaier has been rediscovered in City of New Ulm storage following her death last month.

Fesenmaier, daughter of the late Dr. O.B. Fesenmaier, grew up in town and graduated from New Ulm High School. She went on to live as an artist in New York, Venezuela and eventually London, where she spent her remaining 40 years. She received praise from numerous art critics and was called “one of the most gifted and authoritative artists working in Europe” by English museum director Bryan Robertson. She died on June 21 from complications from lymphoma.

In 1976, she won newly opening Public Library’s competition for a central art piece. She created the nearly two-story sculpture “Playback” in London and shipped it to New Ulm, where it was displayed on the main floor of the library. The sculpture consisted of three circular, rotating bases that each had large, angled metal bars with primary colored squares at the tops.

The sculpture remained in the library for nearly two decades. In April of 2002, the sculpture was removed within a day following an unanimous vote of the Library Board. The board’s decision was based on the sculpture as taking up too much space, repairs needed to the rotation motor and a desire for a different use of the area.

The move created controversy, leading to several tense Board meetings about the sculpture’s future.

Fesenmaier called the move “deeply hurtful” and compared its removal to vandalism in a letter to the newspaper. In a board meeting where Fesenmaier’s feelings about the removal were discussed, the Board’s then president Dave Gosdeck declared “the artist doesn’t own it. What we do with it is our business, but we want to do justice to the artist.” Some locals offered to pay for the repairs.

Ultimately, after briefly considering moving the sculpture outside, the Board never took any action to return the sculpture or put it in a new location.

Following Fesenmaier’s death, inquiries were made with City and Library officials to determine the fate of the sculpture. Initially, officials had difficulties locating it due to how long ago it was moved. Records eventually revealed it was in the City’s general purpose storage building that also houses the antique fire department equipment and the Police Department’s confiscated bicycles. The building is near the Dannheim Building at the intersection of Minnesota Street and 1st South Street.

The sculpture is in poor condition, disassembled and rusted, though a large portion of its disrepair is from its time in the library. City officials believe that it has been in the storage building for the last 11 years.

New Ulm Library Director Larry Hlavsa, who joined the library years after the sculpture’s removal, said the Library’s tight budget means it has no plans to move the sculpture. An expert would need to restore it, and restoration could cost thousands. However, the library would be open to doing something if outside sources will fund the cost.

Playback’s previous location is currently occupied by a large display case, tables and chairs. The 2002 cost estimated placed repairs at more than $6,000 and weatherizing it for outdoors at $2,000.

(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at

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