Boosting the arts in St. Paul: Can it be done?


In spite of everyone’s best intentions, the arts in St. Paul often seem to limp along. The recent resignation of Executive Director Bruce Lilly from the Minnesota Museum of American Art, which apparently needs a lifeline, throws the issue of the arts in St. Paul into high relief.

Yes, the Capital City does have the Ordway, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the MMAA, Public Art Saint Paul, the Schubert Society and a number of other performing arts groups, the various artist loft buildings, the St. Paul Arts Crawl, a handful of art galleries and the Black Dog Cafe. But for many local culture vultures, it’s hard to resist the gravitational pull of Minneapolis and its world-class collection of arts institutions.

For the past 11 years, the Arts and Culture Partnership of St. Paul (ACP) has been working to raise the profile of St. Paul’s arts scene. Not familiar with ACP? You are not alone. The organization’s several dozen member institutions pay annual fees, on a sliding scale pegged to each organization’s annual budget, to support ACP’s work on behalf of the arts in St. Paul.

ACP’s 2008 annual meeting, held July 10 at the Travelers Insurance building, was a festive affair, with food, beverages and entertainment for the 42 who attended. The group was welcomed by outgoing 2006-2008 board president, Lisa Tabor, president of the consulting firm CultureBrokers, and the incoming 2008-2009 board president Sarah Fossen, Senior Director of Marketing and Special projects at Capital City Partnership.

Not familiar with ACP? You are not alone.

A 15-minute slideshow outlined ACP’s mission: “The Arts and Culture Partnership strengthens arts and cultural organizations in Saint Paul through social capital building, marketing, and advocacy for securing public and private funding.” The group learned that organization’s budget was $78,837—with 73% spent on marketing, 14% on members, 9% on administration, and 4% on public affairs.

Last year’s accomplishments were summarized under categories of membership, marketing, and public affairs. Under “membership,” ACP provided affordable access to opportunities for small organizations and offered free events for members to connect directly with other arts leaders. ACP’s marketing efforts included creating a new brand for the organization, building a new Web site, and distributing 6,500 rack cards citywide. “Public Affairs” accomplishments included producing Ward profiles, meeting with City Council members, and supporting the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment—state legislation boosting funding for the arts. ACP also commissioned a comprehensive impact study, The Arts: A Driving Force in Saint Paul’s Economy.

Periscope Creative designed the Web site, called “St. Planet.” In another partnership, The Rake powers the site’s event calendar. A 2006 Saint Paul Cultural Star grant in the amount of $15,000 helped to fund the site’s development.

According to Fossen, “This project forged partnerships with Periscope Design and The Rake that will help maintain the Web site content and stream the event information into the Web site on a weekly basis. The supporting advertising will drive traffic to the Web site, which will be a portal into all of the arts and cultural institutions in St. Paul.” (Fossen declined to comment on the site’s traffic or continuing cost of operation.)

“We must have a greater sense of what we need and how to take that need to the next step,” says outgoing president Lisa Tabor.

Future ACP priorities were listed as increasing the visibility of its member organizations, connecting members to public officials and community leaders, providing more networking and learning opportunities, being a resource to public officials on issues affecting arts and culture, and strengthening the recognition of St. Paul as an arts and culture destination.

For specifics, Fossen turned the podium over to first Joe Spencer, point person for the arts in Mayor Chris Coleman’s office. Spencer gave a presentation on arts activities coinciding with the upcoming Republican National Convention, making it clear that the RNC presents a rare opportunity to put Saint Paul’s arts community on the national, even international map. He discussed a number of events and initiatives including the Poster Offensive in Lowertown, performances by local musicians, Forecast Public Artwork’s art-in-storefronts project and a Black Dog Café Block Party preceding the RNC.

Spencer then turned the microphone over to Scott Mayer, founder of a new convention-oriented organization called “spark24.” The organization will host a 24-hour arts and entertainment marathon to be held at various venues in downtown Minneapolis on August 30-31, immediately preceding the RNC. Comprising a mix of about 100 local businesses and arts organizations, spark24 will showcase the Twin Cities’ performing and visual arts scene to a global audience. According to Mayer, spark24 is being held in Minneapolis, not St. Paul, because “this is where the media welcome party is and we are coordinating with that event.”

Tabor says that ACP is at a critical point in their lifecycle with regard to how the organization will move forward into the future. “We need to connect our members with each other and cross sectors to develop other opportunities,” she says. “Perhaps we could have a place with the development of public art along the Central Corridor LRT”—a task force already in motion, not currently coordinating with ACP.

Tabor also believes ACP must continue to define its mission and goals and take a leadership role in the community. “We must have a greater sense of what we need and how to take that need to the next step,” she says.

“So many people just don’t know what is going on in St. Paul.”

For Fossen, ACP must make its efforts sustainable for the next three years. “We have a Web site with cutting edge design and our partnership with The Rake is important to the community,” she says. “Now it is important for ACP to think about our role as an advocate for the arts in St. Paul and how to raise money for our efforts given the tight budget climate. We need to take a long hard look at what we do and how we can make our member organizations flourish. I’d like to see the members become more active in realizing ACP’s goals.”

Fossen also noted that the RNC is upon Saint Paul in just a few weeks. “We will be in the international spotlight, and it is important to make the world understand that we are an arts and culture capital.”

The current ACP board of directors is a mix of seasoned and new leadership. Jeff Nelson, who founded the organization along with other arts leaders in 1997 under the name St. Paul Arts Partnership, has rejoined the board. “It is a pivotal time for the organization. ACP has a list of achievements but needs to grow in order to meet the needs of its members and support the burgeoning arts and culture scene in St. Paul,” states Nelson. “We believe this is going to take more services to members, more resources, and full time staff.”

The greatest challenge? Nelson points to the glass door problem. “There are amazing things going on behind the glass doors of cultural organizations everyday, yet people are hesitant to walk in. One of the biggest barriers is that so many people just don’t know what is going on in St. Paul.”

Adam Johnson, marketing projects director at the St. Paul Convention & Visitors Authority, is also an incoming ACP board member. “ACP’s strength,” he says, “is the desire to work together, to partner, to make the arts community in St. Paul even stronger. Now we just need to find the best and most economical ways of doing that.”

St. Paul resident Mason Riddle writes on the visual arts, architecture and design. She has contributed to publications including Artforum, Metropolis, the Star Tribune, and the Pioneer Press. She is guest editor for the upcoming Public Art Review #39: Between Rural and Urban, which explores public art in the suburbs.