Art Works Blog

Postcard from Minnesota and North Dakota

Here's an "action shot" of our press conference in Fargo on the city's Our Town grant. Photo by M. Sauvageau

My latest Art Works tour took me to Minnesota and North Dakota. I started at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. To some degree my whole NEA agenda started at MacPhail Center; I went there very early on in my tenure after I came to the NEA and they do the most fascinating work with music. And they do it literally across the lifespan: kids are there starting at six weeks going to people who are 102 years old. And it’s like the work that we’re doing with the Department of Health and Human Services now---the white paper on the arts and human development that Sunil put together to support the joint taskforce project that Kathleen Sebelius and I introduced at the end of November--- which is the intersection of the arts across different sections of the lifespan. The work at MacPhail is directly relevant to that.

I think MacPhail should do some research with us; they have a scale of research and a depth that can really be valuable in terms of learning about the role of cognition and aesthetics in human development. They’re really a national expert in this. Paul Babcock, their president, came to the convening here that we had with Seceretary Sebelius earlier this year. Kyle Carpenter has just arrived as their CEO, and he’s very eager to expand and develop and leverage their portfolio there. Their agenda is really connected to ours, so I’m hoping we’re going to do a lot more with MacPhail going forward.

Then I met with Kate Wolford and Vickie Benson of the McKnight Foundation, which is one of the partners for ArtPlace. And I also visited with with Lori Pourier of the First People’s Fund and Kelley Lindquist of ArtSpace. Lori runs the First People’s Fund, and she’s probably the authority on anything that has to do with American Indians and Native art, and is a walking encyclopedia of that field. ArtSpace, is, I believe, doing a project at Pine Ridge Reservation and is very interested in work with Native Americans and we had a very interesting back and forth about that, and I think we’re going to hopefully do some future projects with them involving both Our Town and ArtPlace both.

We then went out to meet with the folks that run the Cargill Foundation: Christy Morse, the CEO, Paul Busch the president, Terry Meersman, vice president of programs, and Robyn Hollingshead. There are a lot of points of overlap and intersection between us and the work Cargill is doing, especially in Native American arts and arts education, so that was a good, productive conversation.

Later that afternoon I went to the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota, which is an artist’s retreat. It’s a beautiful building on a beautiful vast campus in a beautiful setting. One of the interesting things about the Anderson Center is they engage them with the community. They bring them to a prison or to a hospital or to a school. You tend to think of artists going to an artist colony to get away from everything. Well they do, but they also engage the community. Its part of the ethos of that place, which I think is fantastic. It seems to be flourishing. They have a small budget, and they manage to do an enormous amount with it. I was very glad to drive the hour to get there and it was great. It’s the first artist residency that I’ve been to.

I spent some time with Robert Hedin who is the co-founder and director of the Anderson Center. Robert is one of the warmest, most engaging, and open and genuinely friendly people I’ve probably met in my travels. He hosted a reception, and it was great to meet Dennis Egan, the mayor of Red Wing there. I was introduced for some brief remarks by Sean Dowse, who’s on the Anderson Center board, the Minnesota Arts Board, and also has a big role at the Sheldon Theatre. My talk focused on the NEA’s relation to the state arts councils, what the NEA is trying to do, and how our mission relates to places like Red Wing.

The second leg of the trip took me to Fargo, North Dakota. We started off by attending a meeting of the Steering Committee for GO2030, which is a comprehensive plan for all of Fargo. We did a Q&A with the committee about creative placemaking. We were there with Nicole Crutchfield, who is one of the city planners, and we were also joined for the morning by the Executive Director of the North Dakota Arts Council, Jan Webb.

I  did a press conference with Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker about Fargo’s Our Town grant, which has to do with the retention pools that they have there because of the flooding. You can view these retention pools as either incisions on the landscape, you know, scars, or an opportunity for some real aesthetic development. Fargo has decided to bring an arts aspect to this, and they’ve hired ecological artist Jackie Brookner to create an aesthetic element around these retention pools so that they’ll be a welcome part of a park or a recreation area where people will want to be around them and feel that it’s enhancing the beauty of a place. It’s one of the more unique of the Our Town grants. I actually went out and saw one of the retention pools in an urban park, and it was neat to see what they’re doing there. It was, in general, great to engage the arts denizens of Fargo; they’re very committed to the arts there.

Before we left Fargo, we made a quick visit to the Plains Art Museum. Colleen Sheehy, the executive director, showed us around, and I also met Doug Burgum, who is an entrepreneur and philanthropist in Fargo. We did a tour of the museum, which is focused mostly on art of that region, and a very winning museum. It was fun to see the You Like It exhibit (which we profiled on Art Works a few days ago.)

Then we drove to the Circle of Nations School in Wahpeton. The students did a performance honoring us, which was fun. We saw the school and gained a sense of what goes on there. One of our tour guides was writer and artist Lise Erdrich (whose sister Louise is one of our Big Read authors). The school is a very important, educational research spot for Native Americans. From there we went on to the Red Door Art Gallery which is in downtown Wahpeton and really an example of creative placemaking. They took an old bank and renovated it into an art gallery, exactly the kind of creative re-use and repurposing of a building we’re talking about all the time. Roger Jensen, a member of the Three Rivers Arts Council, gave us a tour of the facility, and I saw some great art that was done by local artists there. Laura Youngbird, who teaches art at Circle of Nations has some work hanging in the gallery. It was great to be able to walk around with her and view the art, and also visit her art studio where she teaches the kids.

You know, they did this renovation largely with volunteer labor . A lot of these towns have challenged downtowns, and this was creative placemaking at its best.

So it was an intense two days and I think we covered a lot, saw a lot, and learned a lot. I think this trip really affirmed that the arts are alive and well in towns like Wahpeton and Red Wing, and I’m always amazed by how much aesthetic consciousness and commitment to the arts there are in places outside of the major cities where so many arts organizations are clustered. It’s always bracing and, I think, reassuring to find out that art is not just a big city phenomenon. It’s in Wahpeton. It’s in Red Wing. It’s in Fargo. It’s in these places where people are really committed to the arts as part of the fundamental ethos of a place. They view the identity of their communities in terms of the arts to a great degree and that’s very encouraging to me.

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