Public art program administrators and their colleagues who run public-art-oriented nonprofits need to be negotiators.
Not only do they have to talk a good game about their projects, they have to negotiate the conflicting demands of multiple stakeholders: artists, community groups, government entities, private-sector players like developers and building owners, and anybody else who has a say in how the work is planned, made, and displayed.
The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are a case in point. They’re rich in public-art initiatives and have strong traditions of public and corporate support for the arts, but a strong sense of neighborhood identity prevails and city government is careful with permitting and other requirements. And, as elsewhere, private-sector partners have their bottom lines to look after. Administrators need to take a lot of sometimes conflicting demands into account to make public art happen. They operate in a kind of hybrid space, a web made up of legal concerns, branding, mission, public perception, and the formidable public sector–private sector divide.
Take Robyne Robinson, the Arts and Culture Director for the Airport Foundation MSP. She runs the Twin Cities airport’s art program, a hybrid of the foundation and the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) that presents, maintains, and plans a very wide spectrum of public-art forms, of which tile art, paintings, sculptures, and performances are just the beginning. Minneapolis–St. Paul is the first airport in the United States to have a film screening room, and Robinson’s program is currently adding display cases to each of the airport’s 300 restrooms. On top of that, the program plans to create an art park in 2018 in collaboration with the city’s comprehensive art museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and in 2020 open a new outdoor amphitheater.
To make it all happen, Robinson needs to get approval not only from her steering committee, but also from a committee of business development people. “Those are my checks and balances,” she says. “Whatever the architects are working on, pretty much it’s a green light for arts and culture, but it has to be reviewed to make sure it’s legal and that we’re following our mission statement and not interfering with MAC business, whether it’s advertising or anything against what the airport is planning.” Robinson and her staff even have to get the okay from the airport police.
Doing all that legwork is hard work, but Robinson considers herself an optimistic person. When she gives her presentations, her excitement tends to rub off on people. “I’m filled with so much enthusiasm, they’re probably just like, ‘My god, keep her quiet, she is too excited,’” she says.
A Loitering Dilemma
Despite all the optimism and best intentions in the world, however, the public art administrator’s multiple concerns don’t necessarily align smoothly, says Joan Vorderbruggen, who runs the Made Here public art program, part of the Hennepin Theatre Trust (HTT), which operates several large performance venues in downtown Minneapolis. For example, last year a controversy arose around a storefront display about homelessness.
In the piece, created by zAmya Theater, statistics about affordable housing along with cardboard cut-outs of the city streetscape appeared in the window of a building at a major intersection.
“One day I saw that the property manager had put a ‘no trespassing’ sign on both sides of the window,” Vorderbruggen says. “He said that loitering had increased outside the window; people had spent long periods of time there and it had become a problem. He couldn’t ask people to leave if [he didn’t post] a sign.” The zAmya artists, whose work centers on the theme of homelessness, weren’t happy about the sign, of course, because the main thrust of their piece had to do with not having a space to call one’s own.
“That was really challenging, and in the end the property owner didn’t budge,” Vorderbruggen says. “It wasn’t an ideal experience.”
Still, Vorderbruggen has had some successes too, like a building owner who not only approved a photojournalism display about trans identity, but offered to support education on the issue for his tenants. “I know from experience that is not typically what people expect when they attempt to show more controversial or provocative work, but [it] blew my mind that he was that supportive,” she says.
To help make the case for artworks, Vorderbruggen calls on interpersonal communication skills that she acquired in previous careers as a waitress and a nurse. “There’s this moment, if you are able to get in front of business and property owners, where you are able to read what might be of most value to them,” she says, “and then try to work them toward a yes.”
Meanwhile, she also keeps the city of Minneapolis in the loop. “As a courtesy, I always send mock-ups of everything to the director of Public Works and [Public Arts Administrator] Mary Altman in case they have feedback or have problems,” Vorderbruggen says. “It’s a courtesy but it’s also so there are no surprises from them.”
While the majority of Made Here projects aren’t on public land, Vorderbruggen considers looping in city officials to be a good way of dotting her i’s and crossing her t’s, and of assuring her corporate partners that all the projects are observing the laws and guidelines for signage in public places. That’s a necessary assurance, given some incidents in the past.
In one 2014 project in which HTT wasn’t involved, a downtown property manager agreed to place a vinyl wrap mural of a sexy woman “dressed” in milk on one of his buildings. The problem was that the mural was part of an ad campaign that promoted Coca-Cola’s milk line, Fairlife, and since 2001 Minneapolis has banned the promotion of any product or service in the context of an art mural. The property owner was slapped with a fine.
The mural was “pretty artful but it was [a] very clear promotion for revenue-generating for the company that put it together,” Vorderbruggen says. Because of that experience, the property manager was reticent to work with Made Here. She finally got him on board a project, though, by getting a signed letter from the city saying that everything in it had been approved.
Shannon Forney, Executive Director of the Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ), which does placemaking and arts-community building in a section of St. Paul, calls her organization the “elastic” between artists, businesses, and the city, because its role is “to stretch and sometimes pull them together,” she says. CEZ is well positioned for that elasticity because they have a track record as partners in projects, they’re well known among their neighbors, and they understand how to deal with civic red tape. “We want to be the first phone call people make, because we are such good connections,” she says. Last summer, for example, CEZ hosted a grand opening event for Studio on Fire, a letterpress printing studio. The event involved closing off a street, and CEZ knew just how to navigate the permitting process to make that happen.
For another project that’s still in the works, CEZ is involved in an arts proposal for a water tower that sits on top of a new indoor mini-golf course building. (Forecast Public Art, the publisher of Public Art Review, is a partner in the project.) CEZ has been instrumental in working with the building developer, the artist, the city, and even the Minnesota Department of Transportation to make sure the project can be realized. “Those are the kinds of layers of civic navigation we work through, to make sure it is okay,” Forney says.
Staying True to a New Narrative
With so many partners having a stake in a given piece of art, staying true to its mission can become a challenge for an arts nonprofit. DeAnna Cummings is the chief executive officer of Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), an organization that strives to shape a positive message about North Minneapolis, a section of the city challenged by high rates of poverty and lagging economic development.
Most of the stories about North Minneapolis that the local mainstream media tell, and that many Twin Citians take for granted, tend to be negative, Cummings says, and that’s something JXTA is trying to change. Those narratives, often subconscious, “take away the power from people in this community and ascribe a story of deficiency,” she says. In contrast, JXTA strives to create beautiful, engaging, and creative art and design, hiring young people to develop their talents on projects in collaboration with professionals. In doing so, JXTA helps send the message that the young people in the community have something to contribute that’s valuable and important. JXTA works hard, she says, to keep that narrative at the forefront.
A recent project exemplifies this mission. A 20-foot sculpture called North Arrow was commissioned by a developer, the Ackerberg group, for a county Human Services building at a major North Minneapolis intersection. The sculpture was specifically designed to point toward the downtown skyline and, from certain angles, to frame it, Cummings says. The artist hoped to convey the idea that the North Side is an integral part of Minneapolis, not a separate community.
Another project, commissioned by the nonprofit CommonBond Communities, includes a bus stop with artistic enhancements and bike racks that say “North Minneapolis,” as well as a pocket park with benches that light up—all installed with the help of neighborhood young people. While the CommonBond project offered less creative leeway than the Ackerberg commission, Cummings says that it still reinforced JXTA’s narrative. “The narrative is also: a dozen teenage black youth at work on the site of this new development,” she says.
But the organization has had to defend itself too. This winter it turned down a client who had a project proposal but no budget. According to Cummings, the potential client wanted JXTA to either do the project out of its own budget (because it was a “high-visibility opportunity”) or share who its funders are. “There’s a narrative there that says we should be grateful that they would approach us and offer exposure,” Cummings says. JXTA declined the offer.
That desire to stay true to its mission has led JXTA to try to stay as autonomous as possible. For example, JXTA owns several buildings, on which it can allow the display of murals without asking the permission of a landlord. “Owning our own property gives us more flexibility and leverage,” Cummings says. “[But] you always still have to engage with the people that live with the piece.” That means building owners, but also people who live in the neighborhood and have to see the art every day. Neighborhood sensibilities are very important to JXTA, whose projects almost always have a community component.
That being said, Roger Cummings, JXTA’s chief cultural producer, speaks for both administrators and artists when he adds, “If you are afraid to offend anybody ever, your work is going to be quite bland, because somebody is always going to be offended.”