50 States of Public Art: Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota

Public art is everywhere, and this is the season for getting out and viewing it. I’ve spent the last few days reading a book set in South Dakota (Lee Child’s 61 Hours), so this week I decided to take a virtual trip to South Dakota to see what the local public art looks like. I mean, the public art other than Mount Rushmore. Obviously, I know what that looks like. 

With that, let’s trek out to Dinosaur Park in Rapid City. 

Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota

The T. Rex sculpture at Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota. (Photo Source: The Living New Deal website)

Artist: Emmet Sullivan, 1934

Location: Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota

Photo Source: The Living New Deal website

Associated Public Art Project: The Works Progress Administration, Project #960

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of many New Deal programs that FDR put into place in the 1930s to get Americans back to work during the Great Depression. The WPA was vast and far-reaching — employing millions of unskilled men to build public parks, buildings, and roads. Its goal was to provide one paid job for every family in which the primary breadwinner had suffered long-term unemployment. By the time the program shut down in 1943, nearly every town in the United States had a new school, park, or bridge that had been built through the WPA.

Rapid City, South Dakota was no exception. Its Dinosaur Park was the brainchild of R. L. Bronson, who was then serving as the secretary of the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce. He wanted something to entice the visitors coming to see Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills into Rapid City. Sculptor Emmet Sullivan worked with Dr. Barnum Brown, the curator of the American Museum of Natural History at the time, to design five life-size dinosaurs: Triceratops, Trachodon, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus Rex. Two more prehistoric beasts, a Protoceratops and a Dimetrodon, were added later.

If your child is like mine, you will have a fabulous time wandering through the park and pointing out all of the ways in which our knowledge of these beasts has improved since the 1930s. The Trachodon is now known as Edmontosaurus The T. Rex has lost all of its original fingers, but if you are lucky enough to spot a vintage postcard in the gift shop, you’ll see that it originally had three fingers, not two. The Stegosaurus is missing the spikes on its tail. The Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur at all, but more closely related to mammals. And of course, all of the dinosaurs’ stances are wrong. Some in subtle ways, some not so much.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Emmet Sullivan who designed the sculptures, or the 25 WPA workers who ultimately created them. After all, these prehistoric beasts are made of steel tubes, steel mesh, and concrete tubing. Some glossing over of details is to be expected.

Regardless, this is one public art installation that can spark a very lively conversation, if you happen to have kids interested in either the Great Depression or dinosaurs.

Want to see it for yourself?

Dinosaur Park is located at 940 Skyline Dr, Rapid City, SD 57702, and open all year. However, if the descriptions of winter in South Dakota in Lee Child’s 61 Hours are accurate, you may want to plan your visit for the warmer months.

Dinosaur Park is just one of many public art installations you’ll find in South Dakota. I picked Dinosaur Park, because it was the one The Eleven-Year-Old would most like to see and has a nice bit of history behind it. But it would be a shame if you assumed that all of the public art in South Dakota was of the folk art type, just because Dinosaur Park is that way.

To get a taste of the wide range of public art you will find in South Dakota, I suggest you check out the History in South Dakota blog. There you will find a nice summary of the major New Deal projects, as well as the wide variety of more recent public art installations state-wide. Many are located in the major cities like Pierre, Sioux Falls, and Rapid City, of course, but you will also find lots of public art in smaller towns like Mitchell (population ~15,000) and Yankton City (population ~14K).

So the next time you find yourself in South Dakota, take a few minutes and look around. I bet you’ll spot something surprising. When you do, we’d love to hear about it here on Caterpickles or Twitter (@shalahowell).

Happy public art hunting!

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