I spent 17 years as a nurse before transitioning to my career as a public art administrator. In 2012, I began volunteering in my neighborhood to develop and implement a project that paired artwork with vacant commercial storefronts. I quickly found that my desire to connect artists with opportunities to beautify blighted pockets of my neighborhood was all consuming. Interestingly, this work engaged the healer in me, as I identified ailing parts of the street and challenged talented people to make it better with the power of creativity.
I maintained my positions as nurse and public art administrator for about a year and a half, at which point the largest performing arts nonprofit in the state of Minnesota contacted me. I was contracted to bring my skills to a vacant property mired in controversy on one full city block in downtown Minneapolis. The result of that work was the pilot for Made Here, a project of Hennepin Theatre Trust. It temporary fills empty storefronts or commercial spaces with the work of Minnesota artists and locally based artisan companies.
In hindsight, it was the perfect storm for me professionally. The first run of Made Here was well received, and I was hired by the Trust as the cultural district arts coordinator. My role is part of the Trust’s work to create a walkable “Cultural District” of arts, culture and economic activity. Given that, I quit nursing and braced myself for this transition, which I’d so desperately wanted and for which I’d worked my head off.
Though similar, this project differed in many ways from the one I had created in my own, smaller neighborhood. For one thing, it had a budget ten times the size, so I now had the capacity to pay artists. This fact weighed on me as I assessed the demographic of downtown. One sentence kept circling my mind: This work must reflect the community it serves. But how could one person hope to accomplish that? It was clear that there was no way I could single-handedly implement this vision. I would have to call upon the ingenuity of others to help.
I convened a panel of 17 artists and arts professionals from diverse backgrounds to advise, curate, and assist with outreach. Among other notable leaders in the field, I enlisted well-known talent from communities of color, a transgender luminary, and an established disabled artist. These artists were both generous and polished. They brought a large built-in audience, which in turn helped make visible our more emerging or unknown artists. They required little assistance—their biographies were compelling, head shots flawless, and work of an outstanding quality. They extended an authentic invitation to their networks to participate, and their outreach paid dividends in the robust diversity of the artist applicants in our open calls. We set ambitious diversity standards for our first year to include 35 percent artists from communities of color, which we exceeded by 5 percent.
Additionally, the panel established a simple and streamlined online application process that didn’t call for a resume or exhibition history. All that was required to be eligible was that you lived in Minnesota. The proposal requested a brief written explanation from each hopeful, a few images of past or current work, and a simple sketch of what the artist envisioned for a window display. Our online platform allowed the panel to curate blind—a practice that led us to make decisions objectively while creating an opportunity as accessible as possible to the broader community.
This simplified process yielded some surprising results. One instance stood out in particular: During the first round of installations, I was assisting an artist with an incredibly imaginative paper display. It included large-scale backlit cutouts, as well as numerous shadow boxes with intricate 3D work using anatomical illustrations taken from historic books. It was one of the strongest showcases of the entire run, with an incredible use of space and light paired with a fascinating concept about the sixth sense that allows our bodies to understand their position in space. As we were holding the sheets up to tape them to the glass, the artist looked at me and said, “This is really fun—I’ve never exhibited visual art before.” My jaw hit the floor. Not only was this artist experiencing a first attempt at visual and public art, but the work was of a quality not often seen. This incident has not been an isolated one. Since then, stories much like this continue to surface, proving that accessibility in no way impedes quality.
With each project rotation, I find myself in constant examination of my process; I embrace that there is only more to learn. One such lesson was that my selection process for including prominent artists from communities of color within peer organizations was not true to my initial mission—and even bordered on tokenism. I realized that instead, I needed to spend time out of my office to focus on building relationships with artists in underrepresented communities.
One such relationship grew when a panelist introduced me to an artist/organizer from North Minneapolis, a predominantly black neighborhood where nearly 40 percent of the people live below the poverty line. Kirk Washington Jr. was working independently of any institution. For years, he had simply opened up his home, with his wife and children, on Saturday mornings in order to offer a com-
munity meal and a place to belong. After attending “Breakfast Club” several times and witnessing Kirk’s ability to creatively engage his neighbors, I offered him the opportunity to mentor teenagers in co-creating a visual display in a downtown window. I had recently received funding from a corporate sponsor to launch this leg of the project, and I gave him full creative freedom to do what he wished, only offering to help when needed.
Kirk worked with his teenage daughters to produce a provocative slideshow featuring poetry embedded over contrasting images of public protests and politicians, followed by images of kids playing and portraits of family. He allowed the kids to doodle with paint pens all over the unutilized glass, and taped paper outlines of their bodies to resemble a crime scene within the display. The final touch was two toy dolls suspended in air, framing the projections. The result was a raw and powerful display for thousands of people to see every day.
With Made Here, we hope to open the door to more artists who have a wide variety of perspectives and to give them the freedom and resources to experiment, in the hope that these vital public connections can continue to thrive.
Joan Vorderbruggen is an artist, organizer, and visionary source of creative urban revitalization that connects and celebrates diverse cultural landscapes. She currently serves as the cultural district arts coordinator for Hennepin Theatre Trust, activating the downtown Minneapolis Cultural District with the project Made Here.
Featured in Public Art Review #52.