Art Works Blog

Postcard from Iowa, Wisconsin, and South Dakota

So I thought I’d work up an appetite for Thanksgiving with a pre-holiday trip to Iowa, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. We started out in Dubuque, and met up there with Bill O’Brien, our senior advisor for program innovation, who’s a native Dubuquer. He immediately provided me with easy introductions and familiarity with what’s going on in his hometown. Dubuque has received an Our Town grant of $100,000 for the Historic Millwork District. This is an area of about 12 blocks or so, of old industrial buildings---manufacturing buildings, warehouses, and the like---that’s fallen into disuse over the years, yet has wonderful bones. I mean the buildings are beautiful brick buildings. And, of course, this is a fantastic creative placemaking project because, through the arts, they’re bringing this whole neighborhood back. Our host there was Teri Goodman, who’s the assistant city manager, and Roy Buol, who is the mayor of Dubuque and really gets the role of the arts in neighborhood revitalization. We also met Mike Van Milligen, the city manager; Jerelyn O’Conor, who’s the neighborhood development specialist who’s working in that particular area; Jan Stoffel, the city arts and cultural affairs coordinator; and Ellen Goodman Miller of Dubuque Main Street. Dubuque really has an arts infrastructure within the city government and within the local community. We toured the old Alamo Building, which is going to be a tremendous arts campus. We put on our hard hats and toured all the floors with Jeff Morton, the site architect, and John and Mary Gronen, who are the developers there. You know, I’m a Midwesterner---I grew up down the river in St. Louis---so I felt like I was at home. Everybody was incredibly gracious and welcoming. I wish I could take Dubuque and plant dozens of them across the country. They really get it about the arts.

That afternoon we had a roundtable, hosted by Ellen, and just had a great discussion with great questions from the audience. We also saw the various artistic organizations and groups that are going to be working in the Millworks District.  There’s quite a lot of arts activity will be going on in Dubuque. This is a model creative placemaking project. It was a great visit; I wish I could have stayed longer. My intention is to return to Dubuque and see this project about a year from now when hopefully, much of it’s completed.

Next we were off to Reedsburg, Wisconsin, where I was hosted by Donna Neuwirth and her partner Jay Salinas. They’re the co-founders of Wormfarm, which has received both an Art Place grant, and an NEA Our Town grant. And of course, we’re always very happy when ArtPlace is working alongside Our Town. We had a presentation there on the Farm/Art DTour, where arts are part of the tour of the different farms. One of the speakers was Larry Mundth, and it was interesting to hear him talk because he was very wary and skeptical about the project when it first happened, and now is one of its biggest advocates and believers. We also had Kathy Schauf there, Jenny Erickson, Kristine Koenecke, and also Stan Gruszynski, who represented the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Wisconsin. Stan’s the state director for rural development. I think everybody was very happy to see Stan, and it turns out that Stan Gruszynski is an arts guy. He grew up as a sculptor and as an artist, and really values the arts. He’s really looking for ways that the arts can intersect with development in rural communities. He’s charismatic, and he spoke quite passionately about the arts.

I was very flattered that Andrew Taylor, along with his wife Leslie who’s a costume designer, came up from the University of Wisconsin. Andrew’s an old friend, and he’s part of our resource base for the case we’re making about the arts and the economy. Andrew is one of the real authorities in this field, and it was just great for him to take time and come up to Reedsburg and participate. We got a good sense of what’s happening there. We saw some of the portable farm stands that are very aesthetic, very beautiful to look at. All in a different style, with different histories, and I’d like to come back to Reedsburg when I can actually take the Farm/Art DTour.

Back in Madison, I did a panel discussion about creative placemaking. I was welcomed by Debra Karp, who’s the president of the board of directors of Arts Wisconsin, which is their great advocate group there. This discussion was organized by Anne Katz, who’s the executive director of Arts Wisconsin. She set up a really interesting and compelling panel. The first remarks were by former Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton, and I admitted later that I still have a big crush on Barbara. She’s a great arts advocate. She’s beautiful, she’s charismatic and a very compelling speaker. It was great to see her again. The moderator was Jennifer Alexander, who’s the president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce. Next to me was Joe Parisi, the Dane County executive, who really gets it about the arts. Madison is such an arts city because of people like Joe Parisi. Also joining the  panel was Bob Sorge who’s the vice president of strategic partnerships at the Madison Community Foundation, representing a lot of the private sector efforts that are being done and using the arts. We had a UW-Madison student there, a social work senior named Lorena Barbosa Mireles who talked about her own work with the arts and the community. And Chris Walker who’s doing a very exciting dance program at UW-Madison that has a lot of community intersection and community outreach. You know, the panels and the Q&A from the audiences are my favorite part of what I do. They always are stimulating!

Next stop was the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near Rapid City, South Dakota. This is a huge reservation about the size of the state of Connecticut. And the terrain is, well, they don’t call it the Badlands for nothing. The terrain is very inhospitable, and the economy there is very, very difficult. You have 80-85 percent unemployment on the reservation. But we visited what is an oasis of hope in the center of the reservation--- the Heritage Center and the Red Cloud Indian School.

The very first person we met when we pulled up in our car was Tina Merdanian, who works at Red Cloud and was the perfect person for us to meet first because she’s such a warm and welcoming person. Everybody there, I think, was glad to see us. Pine Ridge is a small town and very poor. And you really have a sense, as you tour around the reservation, about the depth of the poverty. And our point is that the arts can be an important part of the regeneration of their economy. The arts, of course, are one thing that connects the community’s current life to that of their ancestors and to the past. It’s very much a part of their identity, of who they are. It’s expressed through the art and through the Heritage Center, the preserving of the art of previous generations. And we think that the use of the art and the marketing of the art and the work of artists is going to be one element in the economic revitalization of people on the reservation there. But it’s going to be a challenge; it’s not going to be easy to do. There may not be enough resources to do it in the way we want, but we have to start somewhere.

The Heritage Center’s run by Peter Strong, who’s a very dynamic, young director. (It’s so amazing to me to see how young some of these people are sometimes!) Peter’s very dedicated, and he’s creating the Heritage Center around Native American art and artists---not just the art, but the artists themselves---and finding ways for them to be able to sell their art, market it, and use some of it to support themselves. The arts are an important part of what is little more than subsistence level standard of living for artists on the reservation. But the center provides a very important support system there. We also met Father George Winzenburg, who is just wonderful. You can’t spend ten minutes with this guy without falling in love with him. He’s so warm and unpretentious and welcoming. And Father George is the president of the Red Cloud Indian School, which is, again, a beacon of hope for kids on the reservation. This school sends a lot of kids to college and out into the workplace, and it really is a chance for them to have some kind of aspiration.

We did a tour of the school, which has received funding from ArtPlace. Mary Bordeaux, the curator, has amassed an incredible collection of artifacts and Native American art. Some of it’s displayed, but much of it’s in storage, and they’re trying to figure out how best to exhibit it.  Mary’s working night and day to make this exhibit the best it can possibly be. The older stuff tends to be Native American art from everywhere, but a lot of the newer stuff is particular to the Lakota Indians at Pine Ridge.

I also met Carmen Fourd who’s the gift shop manager there. A lot of this grant is to support an internet site so they can market the art that’s exhibited in the gift shop and that is produced there nationwide. Not just on the reservation, or just to a few tourists who come by, but to have a more national presence for their art. I also spoke with Tashina Banks, whom my family had known from her work with the Native American Preparatory School years ago, and Colleen McCarthy, a very dedicated woman who’s also working in development at Red Cloud.
The Red Cloud Indian School has a national reputation for the work they’re doing with Native Americans, and I think the Heritage Center is going to be more and more important as a place where the history of the culture and the future can come together. So, we’re very hopeful about the Heritage Center, and we want to continue to support them.

At dusk Peter took us to the Wounded Knee Memorial. It’s the most unassuming place you can ever imagine. This is where Native tribes were massacred by the U.S. Cavalry around 1890. And there’s no big sign or anything that marks it; if you were driving along on the highway, you wouldn’t even know it was there. There’s a one-room church there, and a kind of makeshift cemetery that had some tombstones, very nondescript. And of course, I asked them, why aren’t you making a bigger deal of this to attract Americans? White people should see this and see what happened. But a lot of the Native Americans feel that this is a sacred site, and they don’t want to, essentially, market it. So, people who know where it is can find it, I guess, but you wouldn’t know about it. And what happened there, of course, over a century ago, is absolutely horrific and an embarrassment and a shame on the whole nation. From which, I think neither the tribes nor the nation as a whole has recovered. But it was very moving to meet there with Wilmer Mesteth, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, and to have him talk about what happened there. It was very, very moving for us to be there with him and get that kind of account.

The next day, we were in Rapid City at the Dahl Arts Center, and we had a panel discussion with Peter Strong from the Heritage Center and Linda Anderson from the Black Hills Playhouse. Again, it’s always great to connect with a theater person and talk about the work that they’re doing. She talked about when it looked like the Black Hills Playhouse was going to go under, was going to fold, and the community rallied to save it. Gerald Cournoyer, a Oglala Lakota College Art Department professor who’s an artist himself, talked about his work, and it was great to meet a Native American artist. I’ve seen some of his work, and it’s quite striking and impressive. Kristen Donnan Standard from the Hill City Arts Council talked about what they’re doing in Hill City, a small town in which arts are central to their economic development and to their plans. Pepper Massey from the Dahl Arts Center also joined us. Since I spoke last I really had a chance to listen to the other panelists, and the through line---and I said this at the time---the through line for each one of them was about the relationship of art and the community. It was about art as something that is part of the fabric of a community, and something that can revitalize a community. Of course, when I talked about creative placemaking and the work of the NEA, it fit right into what they’d already been saying. And it was great to have that, and then, of course, we had another great Q&A. These Q&As can go on for hours because they are always participatory, and people are quite people engaged, and we always run out of time to answer all the people who have questions.

After the panel, we toured the Dahl Center. I saw some very interesting art, particularly some basket weaving exhibits from one woman who was an incredible basket weaver. The Dahl is really a wonderful institution.

Overall, it was a very intense trip. The visits to the reservation was especially emotional, and to Wounded Knee, but it was a great trip all around, and I think we got to intersect with a lot of arts folks everywhere we went. It was good.

Want to learn more about Wormfarm, which I visited in Wisconsin? Check out this Art Works podcast with Jay Salinas!

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