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The Big Picture: Laura Zabel on Art's New Roles in the Community

In the eight years that Laura Zabel has been Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts in Saint Paul, the organization has grown and changed almost beyond recognition. Begun as a place where artists could get information on grants and other funding sources and also learn basic business skills for developing the bottom-line aspect of their careers, it has turned into an innovative center of thought and action about the relationships between artists and the communities in which they live—essentially, as Zabel says in the interview below, a community-development organization with an arts focus.

Springboard still counsels artists as it always has, but it also runs a pioneering program of vouchers and information that helps uninsured or underinsured artists get health care. It launched a Community-Supported Art program (modeled on the Community Supported Agriculture movement) in which patrons receive regular "deliveries" or artworks from an artist they've signed on to support. And the Irrigate project was a bold move into the world of public art; Springboard joined with the City of Saint Paul and Twin Cities LISC in an artist-led initiative to create temporary art works and art events along the Central Corridor light rail route, currently under construction and slated to be complete next year.

Long an important part of the distinctive arts-support "ecosystem" here in the Twin Cities, Springboard is now seeing its initiatives attracting national attention and emulation.

The Line spoke with Laura Zabel in Springboard's offices in Lowertown, Saint Paul.

The Line: Laura, I believe you started out in the theater.

Laura Zabel: Yes--my background is as an actor and a writer; I have a degree in theater from the University of Kansas. I moved here many years ago, because of the arts community, because of the theater scene. I was an actor here for a number of years, still am a little bit.  But there’s always been this thread for me of being interested in work that spans the whole of the art community--the whole of the wider community too, and the roles that artists play in that. I never could have predicted ending up here, but it’s one of those things that makes sense in retrospect.  [Laughter]

As early as high school I remember organizing this thing called the Theater Extravaganza in my town--I’m from Manhattan, Kansas. The high-school theater and the community theater and the university all came together and did little vignettes and scenes, as a benefit for AIDS research. Even then I was always really interested in how the arts fit in with the rest of the community and what the role of artists might be in making change, in affecting the community.

Here I worked for several organizations, including COMPAS, which is a community arts and arts education organization.  It was really while I was at COMPAS that something sort of flipped for me; I went from thinking about that as my day job and acting as my real work to thinking well, maybe this community work is really where I want to spend my energy and my attention.

I’ve been at Springboard almost exactly eight years now, since 2005.  Springboard was going through kind of a textbook nonprofit life cycle and they were looking for a new executive director.

Eight years in I feel like I have found my life’s work; it’s just been so satisfying and exciting that I can’t really imagine any other path that my life could’ve taken that would result in this good a fit.

A Total Re-creation   

Right around the time that I started they also started a catalytic sort of strategic planning process, but that phrase doesn’t really communicate the depth to which it went. It was, if we totally re-created this organization, what would it look like? Everything was on the table.

In retrospect it’s been just about the luckiest situation I could have come into. I was in this organization that has a great board and some really great staff members. There was all the room in the world to grow and change and to do new things, and so that’s what we’ve done in the last eight years. The staff’s grown from three to 15, and the budget’s grown from $200,000 to $1.6 million, and the reach has grown from local to statewide and now to national. To be a part of that work has been super exciting, and it feels like I have a new job about every six months or so.  [Laughter]

The Line: How did the shift of emphasis come about?

Laura Zabel: Well first of all, on the artist side, I think we really realized that artists need other things besides just career counseling. That is part of what an artist needs to make a living and a life, but they also need a lot of other things, including health care and other resources, access to fundraising, all of that kind of stuff.

Not Just Art, Community Development

The really big change, I think, was in looking at what our mission was, which has always been about the relationship between artist and community, and realizing that we’d only been working on one side of that equation. We now look through a lens of reciprocity between artists and communities.  Instead of just thinking about artists as sort of victims in need of service, we see them as this creative force to be mobilized for helping the community.

A lot of people used to refer to Springboard as an "artist-service organization," and that’s a term that we pretty intentionally walked away from. Now we talk about our work as economic and community development, and that’s who our peers are, the community development organizations. In a lot of ways these peers that are much more aligned with us than a lot of artist organizations are.

The Line: Like your partner LISC?

Laura Zabel: Right, like LISC, like the community healthcare organizations we work with, like the local food groups we work with. Our work looks like their work. It’s about capacity building, community engagement, business skills, entrepreneurship training, health care, much more than art making.

Health Care, Not Health Insurance

The first new program that we worked on in that time span was the health care work, and I feel like that program really also informed how we thought about partnership and about working in the communities outside of the arts and how we thought about the role that artists play—it became a thread that ran through all of our other work.  

We did this big statewide economic impact study, and it showed that artists are twice as likely to lack health insurance as the general population in Minnesota. We took that information around to all these funders and other partners and people in the community and said this is what we want to do, this is the issue. We said we want to be relevant, and here is the most relevant issue for the community we want to serve. And they all, more or less to a person, said that this health care issue is really important--and you are never gonna be able to do anything about it.  [Laughter]

 So the fact that we figured out a way to do it gave us a tremendous amount of confidence and some credibility within our own community of artists, and outside of the arts too. In 2010 we won the Social Entrepreneur’s Cup. Those things all of a sudden opened up a whole new world of potential partners and people who were interested in working with us.

The Line: The main element of your health care program is vouchers you give to artists for clinic visits, right?

Laura Zabel: That’s really the core of it.  We do a lot of other things too; health fairs and screening days and a resource guide. We do a lot of referrals and system navigation, but the vouchers really are the core piece of it.  

The thing that was our biggest ah-ha! moment was that all those people who doubted our ability were right--we weren’t really going to be able to do anything about health insurance, but we could do something about health care. Health insurance is just a tool for getting health care; fundamentally, what people need is to be able to go to the doctor.  And that part we could actually address.

System Navigation

There’s an amazing community clinic system in the Twin Cities, really high quality, affordable resources, but artists weren’t using those resources. They weren’t aware.  For a self-employed person, the system-navigation challenge of health care is probably even bigger than the financial challenge. To figure out where the resources exist and what you’re eligible for and how you get in the door--and whether or not you’re going to be welcome there and what kind of care you’re going to get.  

We started with one partner, with a neighborhood involvement program in Uptown, and we did a little tiny pilot--I think we did 20 vouchers to start off with. We realized that there was a demand, and that it worked, and it got people in the door.  Over these last four years or so we’ve helped about 5,000 artists in the Twin Cities go to the doctor, and 98 percent of them say that they find a home for their ongoing health care.

Now we’re focused on trying to help artists navigate the changes that are coming with the Affordable Care Act--talk about a system that’s gonna need navigation! [Laughter] We have five community clinics here and two community clinics in Fergus Falls that are using that program, and we just published a toolkit for other people to use the program. They had a health fair in Fargo yesterday for artists using our toolkit.

Community Supported Art

The fact that we could actually look at a big, wicked problem like health care and find a way into it, a way that we could do something meaningful about it, definitely propelled us forward to thinking that maybe we don’t need to limit ourselves in terms of the issues on which we might be able to do this work.

The Community Supported Art program was the next big dot on the map. It was a way of reaching into another sector and seeing where we might be able to find unlikely partners and build bridges. CSA isn’t about a transactional relationship like traditional art buying; it’s really about relationship. It’s about how you build a mechanism that allows communities to connect to artists, and how you build a mechanism that then allows that relationship to continue without us.  In the same way, the health care program is designed so that it can continue without us. How do we introduce these people and help them fall in love with each other and then go on to have a successful relationship without our intervention?  

The Line: Springboard is taking that model national, isn't it?

Laura Zabel: Yes. The other piece of CSA that I feel really changed the course of the organization was the toolkit and the rapid spread of that CSA model across the country. It really has informed how we think about having a national impact. We want to figure out ways that, through the toolkits and the sharing of models, the work can travel and be authentic to the community it lands in--so it isn’t about us building a big infrastructure.

We let anybody who wants the toolkit have it.  They can adapt the program however they want. That way the programs are really locally rooted and authentic and are serving real needs in those communities.

That's the way we see the work traveling: through the sharing of ideas and models and toolkits and then being able to knit those partners back together into a network of people who are interested how to better engage with artists, how to help communities see more benefit from working with artists. To help them contact and work with the creative resources that exist in every community.

Building a Movement to Fix the System

The real question is, how do we build a movement? A movement of communities that value their artists and artists who are going to be able to make a living and a life and contribute more to the health of their communities? We're at a moment right now where it feels totally possible.

The ways that we have been working, whether it’s our economy or the way that we build buildings--I think what we’ve learned from the last few years is that that system is not working very well--it’s not doing enough to make communities healthy, to give people the quality of life that they want and deserve. There is a new openness around that idea that we need to think about things differently. It’s time to figure out how to be a little more creative about our communities’ issues and opportunities.

Placemaking and "Creative Economic Development"

The ideas around placemaking and creative economic development and all of that fit really nicely in there and are relevant to communities of all sizes.  Another thing we did right around the same time that CSA started was to open an office in Fergus Falls, because we felt it was really important for us to have both an urban context and a rural context for the work, that if we wanted these ideas and models to travel, we should be developing programs that are appropriate for all different kinds of communities.  

There’s something really core for us in this idea that every community has artists.  It’s like a natural resource; they’re everywhere.  It’s just a matter of building those mechanisms.  It’s actually not very hard to get access to creative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit in your community. It’s certainly not something you have to go find someplace else and import. They live right next door to you and it’s just a matter of the mechanism for finding and working with them.

The Line: Do you think of artists as people who can contribute to community development and change by virtue of the way they think as artists, as creative problem solvers?

Laura Zabel: Yes, the idea of artists as critical thinkers and energetic questioners and reframers. In the work we’ve done in the Central Corridor we have seen that artists can see the opportunity in a challenge; they can see the beauty in the chaos, the opportunities in the construction mess. And they have very practical skills too—nuts-and-bolts skills that can draw people, attention, and dollars to a place.

I feel really passionate about this idea that artists are a very necessary and vital part of what a community needs, but they’re not any more important than a whole lot of other things.  I get in trouble a lot for saying that I don’t think artists are "special."  [Laughter]  But I would rather see artists as a sort of core, bedrock piece of what a community needs like any other.

I was at the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative annual meeting this morning, and they made this beautiful map of the Central Corridor--of all the work they’ve done, and there are the 150 Irrigate projects on this same map with affordable housing and all of the other community development work that comes along with infrastructure development, and that’s what I want. I want art as a part of the whole, not some separate special thing that we put up on a pedestal.

Jon Spayde is Managing Editor of The Line.

Photos by Bill Kelley

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