Artists as community leaders

What a journey! Three years ago, Springboard for the Arts launched Irrigate, a creative placemaking project in partnership with the City of Saint Paul and the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation. In the face of disruption from a city-wide construction project, we launched it on a hunch, after a little pilot run that gave us the confidence that we could pull it off. We believed if we invested in artists in their own communities, we could bring joy and surprise to a period of construction chaos in the streets, and increase the recognition and value of artist-as-change-agent in their own communities.

But we didn’t fully realize the implications, the ripple effects, it would have. What happens when you stumble upon an intricate stained glass installation in a chain link fence during your dull commute? What happens when you see a projection of a dance on a decades-vacant theater? What happens when you sit in a parking lot to watch a Greek comedy? What happens when part of your story and your struggle is shared in a song? What happens when you see your neighbor, an artist, featured on the 5 o’clock news?

What happens is you experience moments of inspiration, recognition, belonging, community, and pride. You see artists – who are your neighbors and your friends – taking on challenges with creativity and gumption, taking on leadership roles with passion. And then you see the potential in yourself to do the same – to engage in your community with your energy and your interests, to be part of creating the place you want to live and thrive.

By recognizing a wide variety of creative individuals as artists, by inviting them to make a mark, by charging them with the responsibility to shape the places they loved, we did indeed provide moments of respite from construction. This work weaves artists into the fabric of how communities function and thrive over the long term. We also created a new narrative of everyday residents collaborating and acting together to address community challenges.

These local artists – from and of the neighborhoods – created new relationships with small businesses and organizations, unearthed histories and stories to share, showed their neighbors and communities new ways to address old challenges, and animated places with color, surprise and joy.  Each of the over 150 projects represents a whole host of people – audience members, participants, collaborators, passers-by, unsuspecting observers, news-readers – who were given new ways to see love, history, joy and life in everyday places. These artists created millions of positive impressions – 30 million alone from media, to say nothing of the uncountable thousands who had a lived experience.

And though we mark the end of this three year journey with a milestone – the Irrigate Toolkit – we know that what we have seeded will continue to build and spread beyond our imagination, both here in the Twin Cities, and also with other communities. Take this toolkit, customize it to fit your own unique circumstances and challenges. We encourage you to join the movement.

For a closer look at the artists and projects involved in the Irrigate Creative Placemaking project, check out this video produced by Springboard for the Arts with Twin Cities Public Television – Minnesota Productions & Partnerships: