St. Paul gets close to $1 million to employ artists

Editor’s Note: This story by MPR’s Chris Roberts will air on All Things Considered tonight, but I didn’t think you’d want to have to wait that long.

A project in St. Paul has won a sizable grant to employ artists to promote economic development along the Central Corridor. The project, called “Irrigate,” was awarded 750-thousand dollars by a national consortium of funders, partly because of its potential to be replicated across the U.S.

“Irrigate” is perhaps the largest, most deliberate effort yet in the Twin Cities to harness the creative energy of artists in community development. It’s the result of a partnership between the city of St. Paul, the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Coalition, and St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts. It came about because of the biggest, costliest, messiest infrastuctural improvement project ever to hit St. Paul, the Central Corridor Light Rail line. Or as, St. Paul Director of Arts and Culture Joe Spencer affectionately refers to it, “the trench.”

“And that trench is the recipient of a billion dollar infrastructure project,” he said. “And this is a way to sort of irrigate that investment out into the neighborhoods that surround Central Corridor.”

“Irrigate” stands out, Springboard for the Arts Executive Director Laura Zabel said, because of the faith it places in the ability of artists to help businesses and neighborhood groups solve problems.

“We believe that artists are creative thinkers and they’re entrepeneurs, and they makes them particularly well suited to do this work,” she said. “They’re able to look at something that other people might view as a problem or a crisis and turn in it into an opportunity.”

“Irrigate” will extend for three years, about as long as it will take the Central Corridor line to be built. First, it will train artists in one day workshops on community organizing and economic development skills. They’ll learn how to work with people who speak a different language, with businesses that have been dealt a blow by light rail construction, or neighborhood groups contending with livability issues. Then a peer review panel will award grants of up to a thousand dollars to artists who come up with the most innovative projects.

“Some of those are going to look like creative marketing ideas,” Zabel said. “They’re going to look like creative events. Some of them are going to look like permanent public art, or ways of engaging a neighborhood or community around a particularly difficult issue.”

Up to 100 artists will be awarded grants in the first year. The city of St. Paul’s Joe Spencer thinks it’s unrealistic to expect that all their ideas will take hold.

“But if one really strikes a chord and we can find a way then to take that to scale, it’s going to be transformative, not only for Central Corridor, but I think for the whole city of St. Paul,” he said.

The 750-thousand dollar grant for the project comes from ArtPlace, a coalition of national funders and federal agencies led by the National Endowment for the Arts. It chose “Irrigate” because of its potential to be a national model for how to engage artists in infrastructure and economic development. ArtPlace President Carol Coletta says in the short term, artists can help St. Paul communities survive the massive upheavel that accompanies installing a light rail line.

“In the long term I think what they’ll do is leave an art legacy in these neighborhoods along the transit corridor which will create new brand and new value for those neighborhoods and the people who live in them,” she said.

Officials with “Irrigate” have already raised about 200-thousand dollars for the project. Combined with the ArtPlace grant, that’s nearly a million dollars. Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts says that level of commitment reflects the need for creative ideas along the Central Corridor.

“And that also creates an opening to really demonstrate the power that artists have when they have the skills and the training to do this work,” she said.

Zabel has come up with a way to frame the Irrigate project that has almost bumper sticker appeal. This isn’t about artists asking for more, she says. It’s about communities knowing they can ask for more from their artists.