Minnesota's artistic culture, unlike many other American states in the last two decades, has risen alongside its economic fortunes. Thanks to a combination of state-funded and philanthropic arts support, the state now finds itself in the midst of a vibrant cross-pollination of the arts. And the art isn't just living galleries, but moving into experimental spaces, with artists seeking out civic or social engagement. One of the groups that has been at the nexus of Minnesota's artistic explosion for many years is Mn Artists.
First launched back in 2001, a few years before the rise of Facebook and MySpace, Mn Artists was a social media platform of sorts for artists. A collaboration between Minneapolis's Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation, Mn Artists' creators envisioned the site as a way of tangibly improving the lives of Minnesota artists. Apart from visual and media arts, Mn Artists also highlights the work of those working in crafts, design, architecture, literature, and the performing arts.
"From its inception, Mn Artists was geared with an artist-first mission and mandate," Mn Artists' Editor-in-Chief Susannah Schouweiler tells The Creators Project. "The site has always been home to a vast database of artist-generated content—a huge array of personalized portfolio pages showcasing individual artists' range of practice and a statewide user-populated arts events calendar."
Mn Artists has an extensive curated section for regional, national, and occasionally international calls for art, job postings, grants, and other opportunities. It also features an editorial component filled with commissioned arts journalism and criticism. Both established freelance journalists as well as artists and writers new to publishing engage in the scene's art coverage.
Currently, there are just two people running the site's day-to-day operations and its live programs, and both are creatives. Outside of Mn Artists, Schouweiler is a writer and editor, while the site's interim program manager, Emily Gastineau, is a choreographer, performer, and writer.
"Mn Artists has always been managed by a small, scrappy team," Schouweiler notes. "Our ranks have included sculptors, installation artists, and painters… hoping to entice arts-interested patrons to come out to shows by making more visible the dizzying range of good work going on here [and] issues surrounding artists' everyday practice in and beyond their studios."
Mn Artists does this in a number of ways. For one, their features offer a look into the lived experience of Midwestern artists, not just the end results that make it into spaces like galleries or stages. The team works to make sure Mn Artists is a place where conversations about art and culture can take place, and where artists can find like-minded folks in other disciplines for collaboration. Mn Artists also gives artists the tools to promote their work on the website.
Schouweiler notes that Mn Artists, like the arts community in Minnesota, isn't a static entity: it has evolved a number of times over the years through various redesigns, always aimed at addressing the changing needs and interests of the artists using it.
"People use the internet so differently now than they did when the website was founded," she says. "We've begun to present more topical live programming, at the Walker and in partnership with other area arts organizations, in response to artists' demonstrated interest in talking through issues around their practice offline as well."
When regional arts journalism waned in more mainstream media outlets, Mn Artists' redesigned website (launched in 2014 with grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services) showcased new editorial content. It also allowed them to enhance a program to mentor new arts writers and commission work.
"Mn Artists has presented a range of live programming in its history," adds Gastineau. "In fact, several well-known Walker programs, like Artist-Designed Mini Golf and the infamous CatVidFest, got their start through Mn Artists."
"More recently, we've been hosting discussions that explore different aspects of artists' digital practice, and how our notions of entrepreneurship, criticism, discipline, engagement, and curation have changed along with the internet," she adds. "In 2017, we'll be elevating the voices of local artists through our platform, by working with guest curators to activate the museum with temporary installations, performances, discussions, skill-shares, and more."
Since Minnesota isn't an island, Mn Artists has also began connecting artists to work, opportunities, and cultural events across the nation. They do this through editorial coverage, arts and event programming, and partnerships with like-minded art organizations throughout the country.
These efforts, according to Schouweiler, have led to partnerships with outfits like like the Luminary and Temporary Art Review in St. Louis; the new consortium of independent arts organizations, Common Field; the Brooklyn-based visual art blog, Hyperallergic, and others. Mn Artists has also consistently tapped the Walker Center's abundant resources and connections to present joint public programs, as they did with 2015's international Superscript conference on the present and future of digital arts media (of which VICE was a part).
What Schouweiler and Gastineau are seeing are Minnesota artists increasingly interested in making and presenting work that goes beyond traditional galleries and performance venues, embracing community above all. Schouweiler credits the generous philanthropic environment and a strong tradition of state-funded arts support for making this possible.
"Lots of Minnesota artists partner with civic organizations and foundations to do the work of creative placemaking," she says. "St. Paul, for example, has City Artists in Residence, who partner with various city departments to embed work by local artists, from sidewalks to stop signs and vacant storefronts, 'upstream' in public works efforts."
Apart from seeing more generosity in the Minnesota art scene, Schouweiler is noticing more activism and momentum outside the formal presentations of work in galleries and museums. Artists are partnering with community groups and organizations for the sake of social justice and political change. And these multi-hued identities extend into the artists' practices.
"I've been noticing an uptick in cross-discipline collaboration and creative cross-pollination; artists here tend not to fit into tidy boxes," says Schouweiler. "Visual artists and jazz musicians are writers, too; artists step up to curate shows and set up pop-up galleries and turn their studios into occasional performance spaces. I see poets taking their work beyond the page and online in new ways."
"There is surprising work that pops up on the site all the time," adds Gastineau. "It really runs the gamut, from large institutions to grassroots, artist-organized projects, all kinds of disciplines and artistic concerns. I am constantly learning about new and emerging artists, and pockets of our arts community that I wasn't aware of before."
Click here to visit Mn Artists and see what is happening in the Minnesota arts scene.