Art for the People: Local groups are changing the way art is consumed by putting it in the hands of the community

The north side of the JXTA building at 2007 Emerson Avenue North in Minneapolis // Photo by Daniel Murphy

The north side of the JXTA building at 2007 Emerson Avenue North in Minneapolis // Photo by Daniel Murphy

In the quest to make art more available and accessible to the public, artists are continually thinking outside the box—the box being, in many cases, the limitations of a literal, physical building.

“There are 50,000 people who travel just on Hennepin Avenue alone on any given day,” says Joan Vorderbruggen, who oversees the largest public art department in the region as director of placemaking and public art at Hennepin Theatre Trust. “Think about that from the perspective of an artist and an audience.”

Both artists and communities are taking note of opportunities to connect with a larger audience and public street art in the Twin Cities is thriving, while other promising initiatives are working to increase art accessibility in the region’s continually evolving arts ecosystem.

A community-based approach

Photo by Daniel Murphy

Photo by Daniel Murphy

North Minneapolis’ African-American led Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), a self-described “nonprofit youth art education program” meets “teen-staffed art and design enterprise” meets “locally rooted cultural development center” founded in 1995, has worked, in part, in the public art arena for decades.

Participants in JXTA’s education classes and programs number around 500 a year, with 70–80 young adults (ages 14–22) employed as paid apprentices through the JXTALab apprenticeship program. Among the organization’s many classes is FreeWall, specifically focused on street art, which covers the genre’s history, culture, and current innovators. Connecting theory to practice, JXTA is bringing TATS CRU, a group of Bronx-based aerosol artists, into town in May to co-create a mural with their youth participants.

Currently, JXTA is gathering information from its North Minneapolis community and crafting initial designs for a mural on the corner of West Broadway and Emerson Avenue North. JXTA chief cultural producer Roger Cummings explains that they’ve been going around the area and asking people, “What are the things that make Northside ‘Northside,’ and what do they look like to you?” He goes on to say that when people see their ideas incorporated into a finished product, “that becomes more of a success then we can do with the most splashy, colorful graffiti mural.”

The public murals JXTA creates reflect the local community. “You see black and brown people reflected in our work and that in and of itself is revolutionary and innovative,” says JXTA chief executive officer DeAnna Cummings. The art provides “hold space for residents who aren’t always valued as citizens and as contributing members of our city,” she continues. “Seeing faces reflected back at them reminds people that folks live here who have hopes, dreams, aspirations, style, and flavor.”

 A JXTA mural on the side of Breaking Bread Cafe in North Minneapolis // Photo by Daniel Murphy

A JXTA mural on the side of Breaking Bread Cafe in North Minneapolis // Photo by Daniel Murphy

To further support the creation of public art that lifts up minority voices, in May 2018 JXTA launched a $14 million capital campaign for a new, state-of-the-art building that will replace an older structure that has already been torn down.  In the meantime, the space is serving as a public art plaza and skatepark. “Every generation [in communities of color] has to build the cultural institutions from scratch because there hasn’t typically been the investment in ensuring that our institutions are continued beyond one generation,” says DeAnna. “The way street artists do, we make the best out of what we have and we turn it into something amazing that people notice.”

Borrowing from a familiar model

In their ongoing arts accessibility efforts, Springboard for the Arts took the model of community supported agriculture (buying a share of locally grown produce and getting a box delivered weekly) and transposed that to the art world. With “Community Supported Art,” nine artists’ work is curated into 50 boxes through a panel process. Then, the boxes are sold for $300 a piece and collected by participants at a “pickup experience” where they can meet the artists.

The annual program ran successfully for five years but ended in 2016 when Springboard decided to focus on ongoing rather than once-a-year programming. The program lives on throughout the country, however, thanks in part to a tool-kit Springboard created; currently, more than 70 cities have implemented replications and adaptations.

Another way Springboard is working to connect artists to the public is through “Creative People Power,” an infrastructure that uses creativity- and people-centered development to build stronger communities. One program included within this framework is SpringBOX: farmers market–style events that facilitate the sale of artists’ work, provide professional development resources to artists, and connect artists and community members with the goal of sparking future projects.

 Minneapolis Art Lending Library borrowers at the summer 2018 lending event hosted at Minneapolis Central Library // Photo courtesy Minneapolis Art Lending Library

Minneapolis Art Lending Library borrowers at the summer 2018 lending event hosted at Minneapolis Central Library // Photo courtesy Minneapolis Art Lending Library

Another local organization redefining people’s relationship with art is the Minneapolis Art Lending Library. By lending out artwork for free, the organization is directly challenging the assumption that art can only be accessed by the privileged few who visit museums or galleries and/or can afford to purchase works of their own.

Conceived in June 2013, the Lending Library has registered more than 600 borrowers primarily from the Twin Cities metro area, plus a handful of patrons from Greater Minnesota and beyond. They’ve lent more than 1,160 pieces of art to date through quarterly lending sessions, each event further removing the hurdles that traditionally keep people from obtaining art and providing an avenue for art to play a role in borrowers’ everyday lives by “celebrating different perspectives, sparking dialogue, amplifying underrepresented voices, building communities, and inspiring creativity,” says Lindsay Kaplan, the organization’s director as of February 2019. Participating artists currently receive a $50 annual stipend per piece in the library (which the organization hopes to increase), as well as direct access to borrowers who could someday become patrons.

Creating a neighborhood to be proud of

For Jonathan Oppenheimer, the founder and organizer of Midway Murals project, using art to strengthen his local community is a personal endeavor. “Midway is home to me and I view it differently than other places I’ve lived because my wife and I are settled here for the long term and are raising a family in the neighborhood,” Oppenheimer says of the neighborhood, located between Minneapolis and St. Paul. His project has so far been the catalyst for seven murals aimed to “bridge cultural divides, promote small businesses and local schools, and engage people in the community in meaningful ways,” he says. 

Oppenheimer also works as a clinical social worker and is open about the challenges that remain in the public art space. To fund the murals, he applied for and received a grant through the Knights Arts Challenge, then fundraised about double the amount of the grant for a grand total of $85,000. He has never personally earned anything for his work with Midway Murals. “Most people don’t get that kind of opportunity or have the luxury to volunteer as much time to such a project,” Oppenheimer says. “I also felt comfortable writing grants and had a good grasp of how to do it effectively, and the grant-making process naturally excludes people who don’t know how to play that game.”

One of the murals created by the Midway Murals organization at 608 Snelling Avenue // Photo by Daniel Murphy

One of the murals created by the Midway Murals organization at 689 Snelling Avenue // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Alternatively, business owners are privately funding and contributing more and more to public art projects. The 15 Building hired the Hennepin Theatre Trust to manage the kaleidoscopic, 60-foot-tall, 150-foot-wide Bob Dylan portrait on its building in downtown Minneapolis. Joan Vorderbruggen, who oversaw the project, welcomes private funders to “activate” spaces. “That’s the way you want things to function,” she says. “That owner now sees the value of creativity in his storefront and is carrying that torch himself. That’s transformational.”

A focus on spatial equity is evident in Vorderbruggen’s ongoing work. A vibrant public mural of waves, flowers, diverse faces, and inspirational words on The Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in downtown Minneapolis was ranked as one of the best works of social practice public art in the country by Americans for the Arts. Local artists Bianca Pettis and Erin Sayer worked together on the mural, which was completed in August 2017 and overseen by Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Also participating in the creation of the mural were residents of Harbor Light, who offered their feedback and opinions during several visioning sessions. People living in an encampment adjacent to the building pitched in, too, helping clean and beautify the area; one man even asked for a weed whacker to do landscaping. Vorderbruggen recalls a touching story at the event that was held to celebrate the completion of the mural: “There was a youth group that was dancing to a song and the gentleman who was in the encampment asking for the weed whacker next to me was crying. And I said, ‘Hey, you’re crying! Are you okay?’ And he said, ‘I never ever thought I would see something so beautiful in a place that had been so sad.’”

For Midway Murals’ Oppenheimer, it’s moments like this that drive him forward. “We keep thinking of how we can be more thoughtful in the work and artists we fund,” he says. “We just keep going with a little money, a lot of love, and some really dedicated, good people.”