Incorporating the Arts into Architecture

“The science of government is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, so that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

― John Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife

I’ve been thinking about the above excerpt found in a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail a lot lately, especially as I prioritize my efforts during the uncertainty of 2020. I wonder about the modern day relevance of John Adam’s words, and question if we are in a significant historical moment of reinventing the infrastructures we participate in and where our focus should be. Obviously Adam’s approach of adhering to strict disciplines was a reflection of his personality and what he believed to be his duty. After all, Adams was a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom exemplified the definition of a renaissance man. But, above all, I revel in the fact that even the highly disciplined Adams believed the endgame of his focused efforts were to make way for future generations to have the right to participate in the arts.

Not only do we live in a time where we have the right to participate in the arts, but we also celebrate the arts in our public and private venues. It seems almost dangerous in our highly politicized environment to suggest art as a way of visually demonstrating our progress and values; whether those demonstrations of values be on behalf of a particular client, our personal beliefs, or that of our collective conscience. The incorporation of art into architecture is an opportunity to bring our belief systems and aspirations to life physically.

Sure, with historical perspective, we can point out examples of how incorporating the arts hasn’t turned out. The civil unrest of 2020 has been particularly poignant in acknowledging times when putting our efforts into tangible demonstrations of who and what we value doesn’t always fare well in hindsight.  

However, it is generally understood that incorporating art into architecture can be a powerful way to send a message about what you value. Otherwise, our South Dakota governor wouldn’t currently be in the process of proposing and seeking funds to incorporate statues of the US presidents found on Mt. Rushmore at the capitol in Pierre. I’m not sure how her plan will play out, but depending on your point of view, it is fascinating to see a conservative politician want to expand government involvement to fund the arts. (

“Connect, Interweave. Evolve” by Molly Wicks.

In 2018, I had the privilege of advising artist Molly Wicks on the fabrication of her first large-scale art piece titled Connect, Interweave. Evolve, installed at SDSU’s Harding Hall. The project was funded through a one percent budget set aside for the incorporation of art. I particularly enjoyed working on this project because the piece’s final form evolved from the input of the future building occupants, the SDSU Economics Department. It may be my training as an industrial designer to advocate for the end-user, but the collaborative process of creating something that all parties involved felt a sense of ownership in was invaluable. It was obviously Molly’s work, but the finished piece was stronger and better received because of early client input. (

Closeup of “Connect, Interweave. Evolve” by Molly Wicks.

In 2019, my business responded to a call for sculpture at the Avera on Louise Health Campus. The call for submissions was advertised before the building was finished, so we were able to create a unique piece tailored to the client’s brief. From our perspective, it was helpful to know their budget and let that dictate the scale of the sculpture. The brief stated,“Color is important and desirable, brighten up not muted,” which informed a color scheme that might not have evolved from our personal design aesthetic, but the end result was fun. As a designer, I can’t help but thrive under constraints.

Another great example in South Dakota of the early integration of art in the architectural process can be found in the Sanford Imagenetics building designed by Koch Hazard Architects in partnership with HDR’s Omaha office. When guests enter the building (obviously not now during COVID-19) their eyes are drawn to the overhead lighting display, cleverly arrayed in the shape of a double helix. Guests will discover that when they input information about themselves into the lobby kiosks that the lights above them become illuminated in a series of patterns unique to only them. It is a delightful experience as a user. I didn’t work on this project, but I am impressed by how clearly the lighting display above the atrium communicates the science behind what Imaginetics is doing and what Sanford wanted to accomplish.

It’s no secret that it’s been a tough year on South Dakota architects, not that it’s ever been particularly easy;

  1. Historically high prices of construction materials are obliterating budgets. (, 
  2. Workforce shortages are exacerbated by the ever hovering threat of COVID-19. (, 
  3. The pipeline of future architects are being strained. (
  4. The ever hovering economic uncertainty.
  5. Natural disasters constantly remind us the earth fights back when treated poorly. (
  6. And all the other added pressures and anxieties of COVID-19 and the political and civil unrest in the United States in 2020. (

So, in acknowledgement of the struggles that architects are currently contending with, I want to say thank you for your continual advocacy to incorporate art during the early stages of the architectural process. Now more than ever, your efforts to support our communal aspirations are appreciated. Such foresight makes for a more cohesive final product and a better experience for the end-user.

I truly believe South Dakota has a lot to be proud of and we will continue to nurture our growth no matter what the future holds; our artistic talent pool is expanding and diversifying, our economy has found a variety of ways to add layers of resilience not found in other parts of the country. Between the uptick in public murals, the well established sculpture walks across the state, fun private endeavors like the Porter Sculpture Park, and the expansion of large scale public works like the Dignity sculpture overlooking Chamberlain or the Arc of Dreams in Sioux Falls, we obviously value art. While the difficulties of 2020 have challenged me to reflect upon my priorities, I am more resolute than ever to use my talents and resources to contribute to the incorporation of the arts in South Dakota, thank you for keeping me company.

Nichole Cross, Sioux Falls, is co-owner and designer for Composite, LLC. She has a degree in industrial design and decided to use her skills, training, and her obsession with materials and manufacturing processes to design permanent installation art largely for institutions instead of making baubles that the world didn’t need. She can be contacted at

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