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Practitioners and Partners: Artspace Evolves Breaking Ground Into "Idea Lab" That Celebrates Artists

Nerissa Street

JR Russ

Osh Ghanimah

Tabatha Mudra

The 1310 Bandits Film Group

Do you know why women and girl storytellers are the most powerful innovators in creative industries today—not just as artists, but also as community gatherers, media makers and producers? Or why arts organizations have a responsibility to encourage artists to advocate for themselves? How artists in rural communities are accessing and utilizing their transformative power? Or how nonprofit developers are putting equity and inclusion into practice in today’s complex, politically charged environment?

All will be revealed during Artspace’s annual Breaking Ground event, which evolves this year from one dynamic evening of speakers and performances to an immersive, two-day “idea lab” on Friday, October 14 and Saturday, October 15 in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The idea lab is an event format designed for idea generation and interaction. The idea lab expands Artspace’s annual evening celebration, which recognizes artists as leaders.

“The change is consistent with how Artspace has been evolving,” explains Colin Hamilton, Artspace’s senior vice president of National Advancement. “For a long time we’ve been expert practitioners in the creation of affordable live/work housing and community creative space for artists across the country. Now we see ourselves as partners in a growing field.”

“Expanding Breaking Ground is a way to share knowledge with our growing national community of artists, civic leaders, organizers, bankers, developers, funders and government officials, all of whom share interest in the questions of how artists contribute to healthy community development,” Hamilton continues. “The two-day gathering will allow us to share different perspectives and learn from each other, so that our work continues to evolve with the times.”

On Friday, programming includes TED Talk-style vignettes by national Artspace artist residents, followed by panel discussions between Artspace staff and community partners on opportunities for arts-led community development. On Saturday, participants are invited to visit some of the most iconic and vibrant arts spots in the Twin Cities, from the Guthrie Theater to the St. Paul Art Crawl.

Breaking Ground, Friday Morning: Artspace Artists in Action

The idea lab opens on Friday with a welcome by Artspace president Kelley Lindquist. “This year’s vision for Breaking Ground is broader and deeper,” he says. “It builds on the excitement we’ve historically experienced through recognizing artists around the country who are doing impactful things in their communities.”

One of those artists is Carlton Turner, who will deliver the keynote address. Turner is executive director of Alternate ROOTS, a regional nonprofit arts, community and activist organization based in Atlanta. For almost 40 years, the member-driven Alternate ROOTS has connected and supported artists working on behalf of their communities and whose cultural work intersects with social justice concerns. Turner is also co-founder and co-artistic director of M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction), a Mississippi-based performing arts group that blends jazz, hip-hop, spoken word poetry and soul music with non-traditional storytelling.

After Turner’s keynote ignites Breaking Ground participants, four Artspace resident artists will offer TEDTalks on how they are making a significant impact on their communities. “These presentations highlight what residents in our properties are doing that walk the line between artist creation and community engagement work,” Hamilton says.   
Nerissa Street, a resident of the Sailboat Bend Artist Lofts in Fort Lauderdale, firmly believes that women artists of color such as Anna Deavere Smith, Ananya Chatterjea and Ava Duvernay are leading the way in community transformation through their work. “It’s really up to business, government and community leaders to see the trend before it leaves them behind,” she says.
In her presentation, “Girls Call the Shots: How Women Performers Are Leading Social Impact,” Street will share five uncommon tools that any socially conscious professional can use to be a change agent (even if they don’t work in the arts), gleaned from her work with her organization Girls Call The Shots.

In addition to talking about her own organization, “I'll be speaking about other producers in Minnesota and a few other places in the U.S.,” she says.

Street hopes “to establish a ‘What's Next?’ network after Breaking Ground,” she says, as “the creative industry is so much bigger than one event. But what a powerful place we'll be standing in, at the intersection of creative industry, community and commerce during Breaking Ground. Isn't connection what the arts are all about?”

Another artist resident of Sailboat Bend, Tabatha Mudra, will discuss how she’s brought community into Sailboat Bend’s three-story 1310 Gallery as well as into her own live/work space. She’ll illuminate the processes of generating “interdependence and authentic stimulation” when working with anti-bullying, LGBTQ, HIV awareness and human trafficking issues. During her presentation, “Live in Your Passion: Thrive in a Unit,” she’ll also talk about one of her projects, 1310 Bandits, a filmmaking collective named for Sailboat Bend’s gallery, that creates stories that advocate for consciousness and social responsibility.

In addition, JR Russ, who lives and works in Washington D.C.’s Brookland Artspace Lofts, will explore the connection he’s discovered between an artist’s sense of community and their commitment to civic life. Osh Ghanimah, who lives in New York City’s El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, will present “America is About to Have Its Tevye Moment,” in which he encourages Breaking Ground participants to flip the model of performing arts education in order to better reflect America’s diversity.

“During this first day of the idea lab, we’re hoping to accomplish three things,” Hamilton says. “One, inspire. We want people to come out of their sessions feeling energized about the realm of possibilities available to them and about what they could accomplish in their own communities. Second, we want to instill in participants the confidence that there are paths and partners that others have figured out and identified to help them.”

Breaking Ground, Friday Afternoon: In Conversation with Artspace Partners

During Friday afternoon, a variety of Artspace partners working with diverse communities across the U.S. will discuss rural arts development, creative placemaking, transforming art investments at the state level, alleviating artist displacement, and creating affordable live/work projects for artists from distinct cultural communities.

One breakout session focuses on how the Rolling Rez, a first-of-its-kind mobile arts classroom and extension of Lakota Funds services, connects Native Artists on the Pine Ridge Reservation; a deep dive into creativity and thriving with Twin Cities artists on color; and a lively conversation on how Colorado and Minnesota have transformed art investments at state levels.

A second breakout session delves into space planning and creative placemaking for distinct cultural communities, and how city leaders can better recognize and embrace artists and arts organizations as leaders and partners. “The breakout sessions on Friday afternoon are less about individual artists and more about what organizations, networks and institutions can make happen,” Hamilton says.

Among the partners speaking Friday afternoon are Jalal Greene, head of the housing division in Montgomery County, Washington, D.C., and Margaret Hunt, director of Colorado Creative Industries and Space to Create Co. Both have been interviewed for articles written by The Line as part of an ongoing series on artists’ impact on communities.

Which brings Hamilton to Breaking Ground’s third intended accomplishment this year: “Knit the Artspace community closer and tighter together,” he says. “Some of our partners are in banking, some are working artists; they inhabit different worlds. For us, it’s a continual challenge and a thrill to figure out how we can make all of our different partners feel they are part of a single endeavor. We want people to come away feeling they are a part of something together, with Artspace being a key piece.”

Breaking Ground, Saturday: Experience and Celebrate

On Saturday, Artspace has scheduled tours of diverse arts organizations and a variety of arts experiences. In Minneapolis, participants can visit Juxtaposition Arts, hear about riverfront redevelopment at the Guthrie Theater, or enjoy a walking tour of the city’s cultural corridor with the Hennepin Theater Trust. Participants can also visit the Artspace projects Chicago Avenue Fire Arts for a tour and demonstration; engage in a collage-making workshop with artist Jon Neuse at Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art; or partner with artists from across the country in a demonstration of Art Bridge, a distance collaboration program at The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts.

In the afternoon, participants are encouraged to visit the St. Paul Art Crawl, which includes artist studios in Artspace’s Northern Warehouse Artists’ Cooperative and Tilsner Artists’ Cooperative. “One thing we hear a lot is awe and admiration for the diversity and density of arts, art makers and arts organizations in the Twin Cities,” Hamilton says. “So many Twin Cities artists and organizations are in the national spotlight, so the tours and the art crawl are a way of acknowledging we have something special here.”  

Moreover, he adds, “There is always so much discussion about art crawls, which are one of the most tried-and-true strategies for exposing artists and their art to new audiences. Art crawls also successfully bring new people into a neighborhood, which is turn supports restaurants, retail and other arts venues. Art crawls are a genuinely effective development strategy.”

The Breaking Ground idea lab culminates on Saturday night with the Artspace Artist Awards at Bedlam Theater in the Lowertown neighborhood of downtown St. Paul. But residing in an Artspace live/work project has its own rewards, says Nerissa Street.

“Securing affordable space wasn't my primary motivation when I applied for residency in the Sailboat Bend project. Living in a creative, engaged community of artists was my main motivation,” she says. “My theory was that artists are the number-one small business owners in the country, and our only downfall was that we lacked exposure to good business practices. Living as an artist among others who were dedicated to creativity as a profession allowed me to live out my theory in real life.”

Living and working in Sailboat Bend for the past 16 years has supported Street in her evolution as an artist and community leader. “It’s a safe space to test my skills and capacity as a writer and performing artist, and to deepen my practice as a creative entrepreneur,” she explains. “I’ve been surrounded daily by all kinds of creators, at vastly differing levels of skill, who pushed me outside of the normal boundaries of my work. It's been like a startup incubator.”

During the Breaking Ground idea lab, Street and many others will share the ways in which they learned to create, collaborate and change their lives and their communities. For more on Breaking Ground’s two-day immersive idea lab, see the schedule, speaker bios and information on art experiences here. Reserve your tickets for Breaking Ground here.

Camille LeFevre is the editor of The Line
This story is part of a national series—supported by Artspace—about the arts, housing and community transformation. You can read previous articles in the series here.

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