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In the TractorWorks building, art comes off the walls and into the lives of office workers

You enter the new TractorWorks building, on north Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, on your way to visit one of its tenants--the local office of Warner Elektra Atlantic records, say, or Hot Dish Advertising. As you make your way along the first-floor corridor of the huge onetime John Deere tractor factory, heading toward the elevators, you can't help being struck by the art on the walls--arresting collages made of torn billboard pieces, big-letter shapes juxtaposed in wild, inventive patterns. And toward the rear there's an unconventional sculptural piece--a big tractor-tire print in clay, beneath a slightly bent, bright-yellow "go left" road sign. The scene of an accident?
To the left of the security desk, there's what art writers would call an interactive installation. On one wall, three softly, subtly tinted photographs of graffiti from the past--workers' names inscribed on the walls of the building in the first half of the twentieth century. The opposite wall is sprinkled with sayings and signatures from 2010--visitors are invited to write on the wall with pens provided at the desk.
If you think this corridor looks and feels more like an art space than a traditional office building lobby, you're on to something. Turn around and go past the elevators, and you'll come upon the glass front wall of a room called Art Lab 111. Inside, a tall, bearded man, surrounded by paintings and papers, is working. The tire-print sculpture is his work, as are some of the paintings on the walls. He spends much of his time figuring out ways to reinvent the relationship between work and creativity.

There's an embryonic art center, a mini-Walker, evolving inside this office building. Its creator and chief curator is Ron Ridgeway, a graphic designer, branding professional, and artist who lived for a quarter century in Manhattan, ten of those years in SoHo, the original homeland of the artist-revised industrial building.

From SoHo to the North Loop
Ridgeway was brought on to help TractorWorks' owners, City Center Retail, buy art--and he has been busily creating a gallery with both a fifty-piece permanent collection and changing shows of carefully curated, very edgy contemporary work by some of the Twin Cities' most ambitious artists.
But he didn't stop there. He's in the process of setting up art workshops too, where the building's denizens can explore their creative impulses under the guidance of Ridgeway and other artists. It's a "tenant amenity" that goes deeper into the soul than, say, a workout room. He has more plans--many more--for events, shows, and classes, and he's hoping that the art-lab-for-tenants idea will prove to be a model for other buildings.
Ridgeway and his Minneapolis-born wife, Karen, moved to the Twin Cities in 2005 as empty nesters, to be closer to Karen's aging parents and other family members. He maintained his branding and design business and also taught art classes around town. Then a mutual friend introduced him to Victoria Hovde, whose firm, DH Art Design, advised hospitals and other health-care facilities on art selection for their walls.
At first, Ridgeway worked helping Hovde with her branding. But when HGA Architects, who were in charge of rehabbing TractorWorks, recommended Hovde to be one of the candidates presenting art-buying plans for the building, she asked Ridgeway, with his downtown-Manhattan sensibility and experience with mainstream corporate clients, to come along. "When the City Center partners told me what they wanted, I realized that I understood their artistic and business DNA," he says. DH won the bid, and Ridgeway took over the curatorial tasks, with Hovde handling administration.

An Art Lab Is Born
He asked for an office where he could meet with the artists he was considering for TractorWorks' walls and look at their work--artists like John Alspach, creator of the collages in the lobby, whose gritty, quintessentially urban work Ridgeway had been following for a number of years, and Ed Charbonneau, whose massive, vivid, digital-feeling abstractions are on display on the building's second floor. "The building managers saw what we were doing and said, 'We'd like to put in windows so we can watch you work,'" says Ridgeway. An entire wall was replaced with glass, and Ridgeway's dark and rather funky office space was transformed into Art Lab 111.
A portion of the office was designated as a work area for the building's first artist-in-residence, Alspach. (In addition to the collages and other works that are part of the building's permanent collection, Alspach will mount a show on September 9, in the area called Gallery One, near the Art Lab.)
Ridgeway, always a process-oriented thinker, decided that he wanted to take the next step, from letting people watch art to encouraging them to do it. On July 29, there was an all-tenant party on the building's ninth-floor terrace, and Ridgeway used the occasion to launch his workshop plans by distributing a flyer with an ambitious list of offerings: introductory drawing, painting, and photography; collage, assemblage, sculpture, and much more. And he invited the building's workers to meet with him to discuss what they wanted to learn and do in Art Lab 111.
There have been two takers so far. The first was Kristina Parris, who is a communications specialist at ProVation Medical, on TractorWorks' fourth floor. The 2004 graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design says that she first saw Ridgeway putting up art in the hallway and "wanted to know more about what was going on. I don't have my own art space any more, and the Art Lab offers a place where you can put your art stuff´┐Żor use theirs."
The classes all looked good to Parris, and she found it hard to choose. "Ron investigated me a little further, talked with me about where I am in my life," she says, "and I decided that I wanted begin by painting abstractions, in oils or acrylics. I'd been thinking about taking an extension class at MCAD, but with these classes I can come down at lunch, draw for an hour, and go back really refreshed. It's perfect for me."
Ashley Madison, an operations representative with the transport firm C. H. Robinson in suite 308, was excited by the photography classes, and though she's too busy right now to plunge into them, she's determined to do so as soon as she can. "I plan to travel abroad, and I want to be able to take the kind of pictures that really tell people what I saw and why I was there," she says. "Pictures that have my personality in them, that really come from me."

More Art for More People

With the fledgling art-workshop process underway, Ridgeway is already planning for the future. His next artist-in-residence will be Ed Charbonneau, who has already been brought on as the head of the workshop program. There'll be a new resident artist every four months, with a show in Gallery One; all the artists will help with the individual and small-group workshops and the larger classes, including lectures and field trips, that Ridgeway hopes will develop from them.
He's hoping, too, to create art events to commemorate the TractorWorks building's 100th birthday in October. He'd like to establish a gallery on the building's top floor. (He's submitted nineteen other proposals to the City Center partners.) "And if some brokers or building owners or managers would like to talk to me about how this kind of thing could work in their building, I'd be delighted," he says.
It's pretty clear how much energy and excitement Ridgeway puts into, and gets out of, his TractorWorks labors. But what will the tenants get out  of their relationship with the Art Lab and the art on the wall? When he's asked, he swerves away from business-focused creativity-speak--for him, it's not about helping them think outside boxes or blockbust workplace problems. It's a spiritual thing.
"Down deep," he says, "we're all creative people. The problem is that we have to make a living. I would hope that this space could relieve people's stress and be very open to what their spirit wants. The workshops aren't going to offer computer art; they're hands-on, a break from the digital world most of the people in the building inhabit. And they're intuitive and experimental.
"I hope that, as people gain confidence in the art medium they're working with, they connect with a life-force inside themselves, a force that may have been blocked for years."

Jon Spayde is managing editor of The Line.

Photos, top to bottom:

Ron Ridgeway, TractorWorks' art maven, in front of the library wall in Art Lab 111

The building, built in 1910, once produced John Deere tractors.

TractorWorks' first-floor hallway is the main showcase for the building's permanent art collection.

Contemplating Space, by Ed Charbonneau, on the second floor.

An untitled kinetic sculpture by Bruce Stillman, in a second-floor lounge area.

Ridgeway hanging one of his own paintings in Gallery One.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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