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John Foley's 4Front festival: turning our towns into world centers of creativity

Can Minneapolis and St. Paul compete with the likes of Tokyo, and Amsterdam in attracting talented artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs to live and work here? We're already competing at that level, says John Foley, founder of a new nonprofit organization called 4Front--we just have to start acting like it.

Foley has gathered what he calls "a remarkable board, a really good board" of local heavy hitters to dream up and pull off a new annual event dedicated to drawing creative people to the Twin Cities, and nurturing them once they're here. The 4Front event will be part symposium, part celebration, and part awards competition, Foley says, with "awards that are prestigious enough that they're game-changers."

4Front is taking its mission of fostering an extraordinary culture of creativity and innovation to four areas of enterprise: food, health, design and the arts. Foley wants locals to pull together on our communal bootstraps with the same energy that built the Twin Cities in the 19th century and led to the rise of innovative companies such as Medtronic, General Mills, and Best Buy.   

The Line visited Foley last month at the offices of Level, his brand and marketing firm in Minneapolis' Warehouse District, shortly after the official launch of 4Front.

The Line: We're really going to compete with Amsterdam, Tokyo, and Paris?

Foley: We have to. We are right now. I mean, it's not an option. It isn't opt-in, opt-out. We're competing today--it's just that we're losing.

I don't know how you can sort of say, well, we've decided not to compete with certain cities around the world when as a creative, I can live anywhere. As an inventor, I get to decide. People live different places for different reasons. Maybe somebody doesn't want to live in Amsterdam or Tokyo. And that's where we have to tell our story.

It's About Talent, Not Taxes

Foley: If we look at the economic engines of 1990 to 2010, what these companies have in common is that they are homegrown. Twenty of the 22 Fortune 500 companies in Minnesota are homegrown. The mythology that we need to lower taxes to attract business just isn't true. It doesn't work that way.  What we need to do is attract and retain talent. It's all about individuals. These companies look like monoliths, but every one of those has a story behind it of one or two people or a group of people who had a shared vision and values, and started a company.

And so the question is: How do we get the next [Medtronic founder] Earl Bakken? How do we identify them? How do we get them to move and live here when they can live anywhere in the world? We're in this race that we're falling behind in. Which brings us to 4Front.

Our mission is to foster an extraordinary culture of creativity and innovation in our area. And when we say a culture--we need to give the whole community permission to be creative. If you live in Amsterdam and you ask people, "Do you live in a creative community? Are you creative?" they'll say yes.  Well, that's not true here. We just don't think of ourselves as being a creative community. We need to build that sense of creativity. It's here, but it's not shared.

The Line: Food and health. Design and arts. They seem to sort of cluster together.

Foley: Yeah. The board got together, and there seemed to be eight or nine potential categories. But we focused on things not only where we can prove that we're already in a leadership position but also in areas where we could make an immediate impact.

We have these incredible companies here that are already excelling. And we want to leverage that. It's the marriage of art and commerce. It's not unlike what was going on in Florence during the Renaissance. If we can coordinate that and attract the right people to come and live here because we have these prizes and these opportunities, it's going to help grow the region.

Sundance Meets SXSW

The Line: How does 4Front move its focus between big Fortune 500 companies and individual inventors and artists who haven't moved here yet?

Foley: There will be a call for entries, so part of it's through the awards system. We need to start [with the big companies] because the funding starts there.

We're going to have a food advisory board, a health advisory board, a design advisory board. And we'll have a committee that's responsible for reaching out to the other, smaller arts organizations. We want to be really inclusive. It's not just about bigs. The bigs are going to help us go out to the world. But the smaller ones, they could be living here right now. We need to be culturally diverse and we need to be age-diverse.

We sort of want to be the Sundance Festival for the emerging artists and entrepreneurs in these areas. It's Sundance meets SXSW, if you will. But it isn't the Aspen [Institute Festival] because it isn't just big thought-leaders coming together and spewing stuff and going home. This is much more proactive and collaborative. The symposiums will be interactive, where you have professionals talking about issues and trying to do things. And the celebration will be just that, a real celebration at a community level.

No More "Mindianapolis"

The Line: What is the story that's been getting out about Minneapolis-St. Paul?

Foley: I bet most people know us around sports. They get these little snapshots of us when we have national sports events or a national political convention. But I've had people in New York say to me, "You live in Mindianapolis." People are surprised by what we have--so we've done a poor job telling that part of the story. I do a lot of speaking on the east and west coasts. Most people there haven't heard of Medtronic. So there's a lot of work to be done. We want to have this celebration, showcase what we've got, get national sponsors, do a good job of working on international public relations.

The Line: You own Level, a brand and marketing communications firm. How much of the problem that 4Front is trying to address is, in a sense, a branding problem?

Foley: Initially it's a significant issue. Because we had to come up with a name for the nonprofit. And we had to understand our positioning--how are we different from the competition? We had to develop the website and the materials to get this thing up and running. There's still brand work to do because we're just getting launched. As we're showcasing Minneapolis St. Paul, that's a dimension of brand. But ultimately I don't know that it's about brand. I mean, SXSW is a brand, but it's really about activities, just like Sundance. The question is, what will people learn about Minneapolis St. Paul? If we're successful, they'll learn that we're the epicenter of health, design, food, and the arts.

And that's where the celebration comes in. Another analogy is that 4Front is a kind of a mini-world's fair. It's this place where you get to see what's next in food, what's next in health, design, and the arts. And to take some pride in the fact that it's happening here.

Innovators, Aggregators, and Everybody Else

The Line: Is 4Front your brainchild?

Foley: Yeah, but with a huge asterisk. I put a board together of really, really, really smart people. And I said to them: I have a half-baked idea and it's half-baked on purpose. There's some things we need to do but you need to help me figure out how to make it really great. And people like [General Mills CMO] Mark Addicks and [University of Minnesota architecture dean] Tom Fisher are just world-class brains. They took that idea and we kept expanding it and polishing it and shaping it. So it's not any one person's idea anymore. This is really a collaborative effort.

The Line: You mentioned age diversity. We want both ends and the middle?

Foley: This is my opinion. Great creativity happens at a pretty young age. If you look at any creative industry, everybody gets about 10 years of what I'd call really great creativity where, if you've got it, you're doing the really great work. And then as we get older, we're good aggregators. I'm a good aggregator. I can see patterns. I can see relationships. I can see how this relates to that. It's a different skill set. It's important to have both. So this age diversity's critical.

When's the last time that Elton John wrote a hit? But I think in 1972 he wrote about 50. That's the nature of creativity. It's a young person's business.

The Line: In a sense, that's the audience for 4Front--a young audience,  

Foley: Well, there are different stakeholder groups. That's one audience. That's the audience of emerging talent that we need to identify and bring here. But you also need the support of the community, community involvement. And you need the aggregators who are connecting the dots and understanding how that will further our community. What infrastructures do we need to build?  

There's a role for everyone. It's not like there's only one thing to do. This is a work in progress. You gotta be audacious. Mark Addicks said that if this whole thing isn't world-class it's kind of not worth doing. And he's right.

Chris Steller is Development editor of The Line.

Photos by Bill Kelley

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