Bringing People to Play in Urban Green Spaces

In 2013, Springboard for the Arts launched the Artist Organizers (AOs) pilot program as part of Irrigate’s artist-led community development. Supported by the Surdna Foundation, the pilot planted artists in community-invested organizations to contribute their creative skills to make change and strengthen vibrant places. This is a series of case studies of those AO partnerships. Get the Irrigate toolkit here.

The Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit that, along with other conservation-related activities, purchases land to turn it into parks and similar public spaces. In the Twin Cities, the organization is leading the Green Line Parks and Commons project, an effort to develop public green space along the Green Line, the east-west light rail line that links downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul. The line’s construction had been planned from the beginning as a catalyst for real estate development along University Avenue, a main thoroughfare through Saint Paul, MN.

TPL’s goal, working with a host of collaborators from community organizations, government, and the finance, design, and real estate sectors, is to make sure that development includes public parks and privately owned public spaces.

To that end, Artist Organizer Soozin Hirschmugl was brought on board to work on animating some of the sites that TPL had its eyes on.

Hirschmugl is a puppeteer, a theatrical director, a visual artist, and a producer of public spectacles who has long been associated with Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, a Minneapolis troupe that, along with producing its own shows, takes the leading role in spectacular May Day pageants every year in Minneapolis.

She has also been a company member of the Bread and Puppet Theater, and has toured internationally with that pioneering East Coast troupe. In the Twin Cities, she has worked with the company she founded, Barebones Productions, with noted puppet artist Michael Sommers’ Open Eye Figure Theater, and with many other collaborators on local stages. She’s also been active in the Art Shanty phenomenon, in which artists create wild variations on the ice-fishing shanties that pop up on Minnesota lakes every winter.

Hirschmugl has a degree in social work too, and experience working on social-justice issues, a mix that she sees as a natural preparation for her AO projects.

Find and Hire Community Collaborators

The first task she tackled for TPL was bringing some life to Little Mekong Plaza, a big lot partially occupied by an out-of-business meat market slated to come down. The Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA), a nonprofit aimed at helping Southeast Asian immigrants in Saint Paul start and run businesses, had plans to turn the space into a public plaza, the physical center of its Little Mekong Asian Business Cultural District, a planned tourist attraction.

Hirschmugl hired Kao Lee Thao, an artist of Hmong heritage, to design a colorful mural for one of the walls of the meat market. Then, during the September 15, 2013 Open Streets day – an arts-oriented street festival in Saint Paul – Thao and members of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) helped the public fill in the colors to complete the mural.

The public artwork, Hirschmugl says, was intended to be a focal point for information and discussions about AEDA’s plans to market Little Mekong as a destination, and to use the Plaza as a centerpiece. AEDA hosted its first five Night Markets on the site in 2014, and the Asian-style open air bazaars/farmers’ markets were a hit.

Hirschmugl went on to animate Dickerman Park, probably the Twin Cities’ most unusual public area. It’s a long strip of open space on University Avenue, deeded to the city in 1909 by a local family but never developed into a real park. To call attention to a space that most Twin Citians have no idea is actually public, Hirschmugl brought in some of her Art Shanty friends for three “demonstration events.” There was a meditation shanty set up as a greenhouse, a “dance shanty,” food-tasting events that drew on the nearby YMCA’s urban garden, Y-sponsored zumba classes in the open air, garden-related harvest and planting festivals, and more.

“My hope was that after these events, the space would get a little more love and attention,” Hirschmugl says.

The love was forthcoming. The city of Saint Paul took down a fence around one section of Dickerman Park, and a portion that had been paved over was seeded with grass. “And the YMCA, which had been looking for a new location to move to, decided to buy the land next to their building, stay in that place, and think about Dickerman Park as something connected to what they do,” Hirschmugl says.

Build Ongoing Projects

She thinks of her role in these changes as basically that of a conversation-starter: “My hope is always that what I begin will lead to something more, probably something I won’t be a part of. Good placemaking starts as connecting the right people, who then continue to move something forward after you’re gone.”

Her individual project was the sPARKit. She created this “pop-up park in a trailer” to be able to improvise some public space anywhere. The little teardrop-shaped trailer is equipped with bright red chairs, tables, and camp stools, a battery-operated sound and PA system, bright pennants to advertise its presence, and games and art supplies.

Hirschmugl debuted the sPARKit at a number of sites of interest to TPL, offering it for open air conversations about how people wanted the green spaces used, and how they imagined the parks might look when fully developed.

As the AO project period neared its end, Hirschmugl’s connections in the creative community came to the fore again. TPL needed to create a guidebook for the Green Line Parks and Commons initiative – a document that would advance all the plans the organization had and the solid, development-oriented reasons that green space was a good thing.

Documents like these can be deadly dull, and turn into doorstops, but Jenna Fletcher wanted something that “people wouldn’t put on the shelf and never look at again,” Hirschmugl says. So she contacted Mike Tincher, with whom she’s worked on the Art Shanties, to be creative director of the project. Tincher is a broadly experienced designer who shares TPL’s passion for green development, “and he can talk in policy terms, too,” says Hirschmugl. The result was a white paper full of color, visual excitement, and fun.

Negotiate Shared Goals

“One of the things I was able to do best for TPL, I think, was to broaden their network of resources and references – to include some of my funky Art Shanty friends, for example, as well as colleagues like Mike.

“Artists can encourage organizations to take a few more risks, try things – and perhaps apologize afterwards! After all, sometimes you have to see a project, experience it, before you know exactly what it is and what effect it can have.”

At the same time, she counsels artists who work with institutions, especially large institutions like TPL, to understand institutional objectives.

“I think it’s very helpful for artists who want to work with institutions to have at least some institutional experience, because otherwise it could be a culture clash. In any case, artists need to understand that there will be some structures that the organization will set and must abide by.

“For the institution, it’s important that they help the artist understand those structures and where the organization is coming from – but also to allow the artist to work outside those structures.”

Working outside the structures and routines of an organization isn’t about artistic self-indulgence, Hirschmugl says. It’s about taking advantage of opportunities.

“I had a cubicle at TPL, and TPL might have felt that I should spend most of my time in it; but for me, if I’m in a coffee shop on one of the corner where there’s a green space that TPL is interested in, that’s going to be a lot more beneficial. I’m still working with my computer, still doing the things I would be doing in the office, but I can also make great contacts in the process, and learn a lot about the neighborhood.

“And institutions often work in time frames that are very different from artists’ time frames, she notes. “Creative solutions don’t necessarily come in a nine-to-five routine; they might come as an ‘aha’ moment in a coffee shop that’s quiet at 11 a.m.”

In order to simultaneously maximize the artist’s freedom and the insure that institution’s goals are met, she says, it’s important to set the goals early on – in writing – and then decide how institution and artist will measure success in achieving them.

“You might agree to introduce the institution to twenty artists, then follow up at the end of the project by a memo that indicates who those artists were and how the institution could contact them for further work,” she says.

She feels that the ultimate value of an artist to a public project like the ones she worked on may be that the artist can “go deeper” on questions of interest to the organizations they are working with by careful observation, intuition, and informal, leisurely conversations with people involved – producing forms and styles of knowledge different from those gathered via staff meetings, charrettes, and written surveys. “This is a concrete way of approaching problems that most policymakers just don’t have time for,” she says.