Putting the Arts Action Plan into real action

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What could the 9-year-old, more than inch-thick Arts Action Plan mean for the average resident or artist? With Northeast Community Development Corporation (NE CDC) chairing the next phase, it depends on who comes forward and what they agree to work on.

It could mean funding sources or exhibit and sales spaces for arts activities, an artist-owned financial institution, buildings perpetually available for arts uses, easier arts event logistics and better publicity for Northeast as an arts destination.

Loosely connected to Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, where the plan was born circa 2002 with the help of foundation-funded consultants, the Arts Action Plan committee accomplished getting city designation for an arts district, and the logo and signage that border the district. There is also a well-trafficked website, www.northeastminneapolisartsdistrict.com. As those committee members go on to other pursuits, Jamie Schumacher, part-time executive director for NE CDC, is offering meetings to discuss the plan and recruit a new set of volunteers to carry it out.

At the first such meeting Saturday, May 7, Schumacher guided three attendees through a one-page summary of the plan, talking about what she has been working on, open to other committee interests. She said she would be available to other groups that want to hold such discussions.

Nick Legeros, who serves on both the NEMAA and NE CDC boards, said he is interested in working on tax breaks for artists.

The Northeaster also later interviewed two of the earlier Arts Action Committee members who stepped away from the process after many years of volunteer service. Their responses are later in this article.

Highlights, by broad category:

  1. Establish the Northeast Arts District: (Done) Remaining ideas include some kind of support mechanism such as a Business Improvement District to fund Arts District programming and activities, temporary exhibition programs, businesses displaying and selling artists’ work, percent-for-art requirements for private development, and creating a concentration of public art (Franconia will be bringing a sculpture garden to the Casket Arts complex). It was generally agreed that much of this is and will be driven by market demands. For example, for Central Avenue to be more arts-oriented, it would take one or more galleries or art-serving businesses to open on the avenue.
  2. Secure sustainable, affordable spaces for artists studios, live-work and arts-related businesses: Schumacher said this is what’s behind the JAC Flats project at 18-1/2 and Jackson, which is inching along with ArtSpace as the partner. She said she’s also working on creating an arts credit union, possibly through an “incubation” program of Affinity Credit Union. There were suggestions of working with existing building owners and foundations with directed giving, to suggest that physical assets be donated by estates.
  3. “The City should use the Arts Action Plan as the template for a Cultural Plan for the entire City of Minneapolis.” The city is hiring an arts coordinator for the first time in about a decade, and that person will be approached.
  4. Develop a program of technical support for artists living and working in Northeast: Schumacher said she will “survey and re-look at partnerships” such as Springboard for the Arts, that do this kind of work, rather than reinventing locally.
  5. Expand the level of arts programs—both visual and performing—in the Arts District. (The example given: Expand Art-A-Whirl beyond a once a year event.) It was generally agreed this is happening with the influx and health of new theaters such as Nimbus and Morris Park Players, and “First Thursday” “Second Saturday,” smaller-scale but predictably-scheduled open studio events.
  6. Coordinate with the City to institute changes in planning and zoning regulations. Schumacher said she would like to concentrate on working with the City to make it easier to have performances and exhibitions serving wine and beer. She gave an example of an event, not at an existing bar, having to come up with $600 in fees and licenses to have live music and a cash bar. There is also a possibility of getting an “arts overlay district” in Northeast.
  7. Develop Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association’s capacity: Done, to some extent, with an expanded board (vs. what it was in 2002) and executive director, though part-time. Dues have been raised over time, and the board evaluates progress annually.
  8. Marketing programs: Done, with the website and district signage. Schumacher said she will be working on “branding guidelines” to keep the work already done from becoming diluted. Social media has opened up all sorts of opportunities that could only have been dreamed of in 2002.

Debbie Woodward, who manages the Northrup King Building, and Josh Blanc of Clay Squared to Infinity, both served on the Arts Action Plan Committee of a handful of people “who really worked well together,” Blanc said.

Woodward said, “I warned people that when I turn 50 that’ll be it,” her self-imposed deadline for letting go the reins and seeing who will come forward. Both say they are disappointed that new leaders haven’t emerged. Blanc is hopeful, though, saying “the more we can prepare for who we’re going to be, the more we’re going to be able to take advantage” when it comes.

He said he sees hope in the large turnout for a recent arts meeting called by Minneapolis 1st Ward Council Member Kevin Reich at Corporate Art Force. “They showed up because of Kevin. The mountain’s the City, and while he’s not the City, he represents the City. Artists will show up because they feel listened to. They won’t do it for a non-listening audience. The City has the bully pulpit.”

On planning, zoning and permitting issues, Blanc said that because of staff cuts, the City’s lost much of its institutional memory and that it used to be more of a partner. He said the City could easily do more to play up the arts district as a regional and national resource through Meet Minneapolis.

Woodward said she often gets requests for spouse tours and classes for visiting conventioneers, and other marketable services that someone could make a business doing. “We have a lot of artists that need some kind of representation,” above what she can do as a building manager.

She recommended looking at “what does the art consumer want and what are you going to do about it,” since “it’s all about increasing people’s (artists) income,” the simple business principles of maximizing income while minimizing expenses. The identification as an arts district, and the arts district website that the Northrup King Building has largely subsidized, have provided the arts consumer with relatively easy access to large numbers of artists during events and individually.

Woodward said she thinks a next step should be to work on a model that will outlast the individual building owners (in Category 2 in the plan). “The bulk of the buildings are owned by people who are getting older. It’s not their job to maintain them for artists forever.” She said there has not been strong market demand for a large building live/work space model, and that maybe arts-friendly single family homes would be better. “Even the Arts Action Plan said that the (Arts Conservancy model) is an entirely different group of people” than the ones working on marketing strategies.

Blanc said he’d like to see the basics emphasized, category 4 in the plan, technical assistance, teaching artists the business end. And “we don’t talk to each other, we don’t have an arts district newsletter.” Woodward also mentioned that even a quarterly or twice yearly opportunity to meet and greet would help. Blanc said he’s been trying to engage fellow artists informally.

Blanc’s third point, re-looking at the plan, would be to “get the NEMAA website interactive,” to build good content on par with the Arts District website, perhaps with advertising sold by the click.

Woodward’s second admonition to those who pick up the torch is “I would like to see more cross cultural participation in the district. We’re very white.”

NE CDC will facilitate the Arts Action Plan process, and involve Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association representatives and community members. To contact the NE CDC, phone 612-627-9366 or visit the website at www.northeastcdc.org.

Other websites: www.NEMAA.org, www.NortheastMinneapolisArtsDistrict.com.