August 31, 2010
Here I am on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis with (l-r) Justin Huenemann, NACDI President and CEO; Sue Gens, Minnesota State Arts Board Executive Director; Heid Erdrich, Author; and Vickie Benson, McKnight Foundation Arts Programming Director (and President of the Board of Directors, Grantmakers in the Arts). Photo courtesy Native American Community Development Institute
I?m just back from a trip to St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, which are both among my favorite places. We spent the first day in St. Paul, where we were hosted by U.S. Representative Betty McCollum (MN-4th) who is a great champion of the arts and is incredibly dedicated to her constituents and to the role of arts in placemaking there. We started with a roundtable in Lowertown. Laura Zabel from Springboard for the Arts was our host, and we had a great discussion there. Lowertown is a section of St. Paul that had formerly been very distressed. Now there are a lot of galleries and cultural institutions and artist residences and artist workspaces. It?s basically an artist-cluster and a great example of the ?Our Town? story. It?s all about how art and artists can transform a neighborhood and how artists are placemakers who can be catalysts for revitalization in a place. It was a great place to begin the trip.
In the afternoon we had a town meeting at the Stepping Stone Theatre; Richard Hitchler who runs that theater has been an incredibly dynamic force in that community. The forum was very well-attended, and there were a lot of interesting questions, a lot of back-and-forth with the community. They wanted to know how they could help the NEA with its mission. They wanted to know what we?re going to be doing in the future. They asked questions about arts education, and what our view was on that and what we we?re doing to promote that. The audience was just very well informed and had a very up-to-date perspective on what?s going on at the NEA and the arts community generally. We ended the day at the Walker Art Center and had a reception there with a lot of the Minneapolis arts leaders. All in all, we had a great day.
We began our next day, in Minneapolis, with a breakfast at the McKnight Foundation, our host throughout the day. I met Mayor R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis, who?s been there a long time and really gets it. We talked about how you have to have a local political structure that?s dialed in, and Mayor Rybak totally understands the importance of the arts in the community. He was very generous with his time, very open and welcoming.
After breakfast, we took a tour of the impressive Guthrie Theater with my old friend Joe Dowling, and then we had a tour of the MacPhail Center for Music with David O?Fallon. At MacPhail, they?re doing a lot of interesting work with music and cognition and the role of music and art—both in very early child development and in geriatrics. We?re hoping that that may be a point of intersection with us and with the Department of Health and Human Services, and we want to know much more about the work the center is doing.
Next we put on our hard hats for a tour of an old Shubert Theater that?s being renovated into the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. It?s a project of Artspace, a Minneapolis-based developer headed by Kelley Lindquist that focuses on creating live/work space. They?re all about the things we?re talking about at the NEA—creating space for artists to live and work, transforming other spaces such as warehouses and industrial spaces into art spaces.
Our next stop was the All My Relations Gallery for Native American artists on Franklin Avenue. This is a whole American Indian arts district, and we had a chance to chat with Heid Erdrich and Justin Huenemann about what they?re doing there. They?re very dynamic and charismatic, and it?s great to see such a powerful example of arts and community development coming together to change a community.
In the afternoon, we went to the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center, where they?re doing all kinds of work with welding, blacksmithing, glassblowing, well, as they say on their website, with ?art forms produced by heat, spark, or flame.? It?s fascinating to see what Heather Doyle and her group are doing. They?re very connected with the community. People can come in and watch artists at work, or they can watch from the street. It?s a very open and welcoming space and, as that gets developed, we?re going to keep our eye on them. Our final stop was at Juxtaposition Arts. DeAnna Cummings and her husband Roger Cummings are incredibly passionate, dedicated people. They?ve been there a long time, and it?s easy to see how Juxtaposition Arts has transformed what had been a very problematic neighborhood in North Minneapolis. They work exclusively with youth and getting kids to become involved in all types of artistic expression—painting, printmaking, etc. Ultimately it?s all about the kids finding a mode of self-expression, and, hopefully, a place in society. Some of the young people end up working and teaching there. It?s a great place.
It was a busy but thoroughly amazing two days. Minneapolis and St. Paul are two great cities for us to shine a spotlight on and point to, but what happens in those two cities can happen anywhere else in the country. There?s a very arts-engaged community. (The per capita theater attendance in Minneapolis is second only to New York City.) Everybody there gets it—the political structure gets it, the private sector gets it, the corporations do. They are, in many ways, ahead of the rest of the country. What I?d like to do is put all of the lessons that Minneapolis and St. Paul can show the country in my briefcase and take that all around the rest of the country because they are really doing a great job there.