Joan Vorderbruggen is the one-woman powerhouse behind Minneapolis’s Made Here

There’s really no better word that can be used to accurately describe Joan Vorderbruggen than “dynamic.” Vorderbruggen has a dynamic personality that she is able to use to lead dynamic public art projects that she creates from the ground up, working with a multitude of different artists and arts organizations (not to mention different personalities), all of whom adore her. She is an organizer, a leader, and a true inspiration – a word that maybe gets tossed around a bit too liberally but in Vorderbruggen’s case is absolutely appropriate.

Vorderbruggen has been working since she was 11 years old, when she got a job waitressing in St. Paul, and has been working tirelessly ever since then. “I was a terribly neglected kid,” she says, and she doesn’t mince any words when it comes to her own past. “I was a high school dropout on top of that.”

She did earn her GED and went on to get a nursing certificate. She spent 11 years waitressing and another 17 years nursing, and it was while she was working full-time as a nurse that she got deeply embedded in the Minneapolis arts community.

She and her then-future-husband, musician Tom Siler, moved to Brooklyn in 2001 where she was bit by the event and artist organization bug. She developed an itch for writing and creative storytelling and attended a Moth event with the theme of “brakes.” She wrote a story about “putting the brakes” on a sexual experience in a bathroom stall – something she quickly realized after hearing a few of the other stories was not really in keeping with the tone of other storytellers. So she created her own storytelling event called Storyhole and encouraged people to tell the kinds of stories they couldn’t tell anywhere else. “We would sell out the room, and I kind of got a buzz for organizing.”

When Vorderbruggen and Siler moved back to Minneapolis she orchestrated “a total carnival wedding” involving 40 artists and musicians. “All these people came together without much guidance. It was super incredible. It felt like a gypsy party! And I felt like, ‘Oh my god, I love organizing these people,’ which led up to, ‘I want to do something more.’ I realized the street could be showcase for their work.”

The quality of life back in Minneapolis proved fruitful for the creative juggernaut. “I was inspired by having more time and space and money and I caught on fire with creativity,” she says. “I was working with textile art and cool dye processes, making upcycled flip dresses.” Her dresses appeared in the Smitten Kitten Sexy Craft Fair in 2009, and afterwards the erotic boutique carried her dresses in-store.

“I would go restock the racks with new dresses all the time. It’s a feminist sex shop so they couldn’t put their products in the window, so I asked them, ‘Can I please make a window display for your seventh anniversary?’ Sales increased by 40 percent that month, and for a year and a half after that I would do their storefront every six weeks and won some awards. Then I started doing other independent retailers in Uptown.”

It could be said Vorderbruggen has a bit of a Midas touch, because it certainly does seem like everything she touches turns to gold. Or, at least, a valuable earth-friendly, eco-conscious material. She decided she wanted to do a whole city block of storefront displays on University Avenue to try to revitalize a dying area. “It sort of lit a fire under my ass,” she says, though her idea wasn’t met with an equal level of enthusiasm. “I get really frustrated when someone tells me I can’t do something; it’s almost the best thing that can happen.”

She dedicated six months to studying storefront art and started shopping her idea around to other areas in Minneapolis. The Nicollet Avenue “Eat Street” commercial district in Minneapolis’s Whittier neighborhood welcomed her enthusiasm and willingness to single-handedly spearhead the project, and so the first iteration of Artists in Storefronts launched in April 2012 featuring 26 different shops. She worked with the shop owners and the artists to coordinate the entire project, wrote the press releases, managed the social media campaigns, and led weekly walking tours. Then, towards the end of its run, she received a large anonymous donation that enabled her to commission some murals and set the precedent that every time she did an “Artists in Storefronts” series it would leave something permanent behind.

She then orchestrated a second Artists in Storefronts run and was about to take some time off “to be a person and not a workaholic” when the Whittier Alliance told her they didn’t want it to stop and would find a way to pay her. “I couldn’t say no to it,” she says, so that became Artists in Storefront 3 and it was “bigger and larger and better than ever.” For the fourth installment of the series she did a pop-up, then she took a couple of months off. Because, it should also be noted, she was still working as a nurse full-time while leading all of these projects. (A fifth installment was held later.)

“It had been a solid year of working 80-100 hours a week,” Vorderbruggen says. “I knew I wanted to do something more with my life than being a nurse but I wasn’t comfortable with going to a fine art college; it just seemed so exorbitant and inaccessible. I figured I would just do it,” and by that she means just do the art she wanted to do, “and worked full time as a nurse during all of this. It was really challenging, but I have a really supportive partner and a really supportive family and friends.”

She never would have considered quitting her job in nursing until she was admitted into a competitive residency program, Elsewhere in Greensboro, North Carolina, and had to quit her job in order to have the time off to attend. “[I figured] if I don’t take the time to ask myself the question of how do I want to contribute to the community in a creative way, [I’ll never be able to].”

At the same time, the most notorious boondoggle of Minneapolis development – the 13-year-old failed “Block E” urban mall project in downtown Minneapolis – was going through a sputtering stop-start series of revitalization attempts. Mired in local controversy, Vorderbruggen wanted nothing to do with it – until a friend asked her, “But how do you feel about the artists you work with?” She answered with, “Are you kidding me? I f-ing kill myself for them.”

In a meeting that included a representative from the Hennepin Theatre Trust, the group spearheading the project, Vorderbruggen made her thoughts clear – something that comes pretty easily to her – and that night got an email from the representative saying that Hennepin was extremely interested in having her lead the Block E project and wanted to present her idea to the board the next day. So she stayed up all night working on the proposal, outlining everything she would need and how much it would cost, and at 10:30 a.m. presented it to the board. She did the entire Block E project, called Made Here and featuring 30 visual displays, for $8,000.

Made Here was not without its complications, and Vorderbruggen was not immune to the stress. During this time, she continued working full-time as a nurse. When Hennepin asked her what she wanted, she said, “I want one hard job.” When told that they needed a couple of months to monetize the project, she went home and cried. “I was bereft. I thought I had no future in this, after I had spent two years killing myself over it.”

Andersen Corporation came in with a substantial sponsorship, allowing Hennepin to continue the project on a large scale and hire Vorderbruggen part-time. She still kept her nursing job and went to her first day of working for Hennepin, when she spent a solid eight hours in meetings and doing nothing else. “I went home and said there’s no way; I can’t do full time nursing and this, so I emailed my supervisor and said thank you so much for this, but I’m not okay with not being successful. I’m okay with being a workaholic but not with not being successful. Then on Monday they hired me full time and I quit my job.”

Vorderbruggen is the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Cultural District Arts Coordinator. Made Here has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship and has paid almost $50,000 in artist stipends since it started. “I told them, no more cashing in favors. Every single artist is going to get paid. I’m done operating that way; it’s not okay. Now even the buskers that play on receptions get paid.”

A second iteration of Made Here launched in June featuring the works of 50 individual artists and 11 artist collaborations covering 15 city blocks. Made Here is the largest storefront window initiative in the country. The Hennepin Theatre Trust’s long-term vision is to activate the cultural district of downtown Minneapolis and create a center for arts and culture for people from all over the world to visit. There are 57 cultural partners in the district and the Trust is working on creating an overarching brand that will broaden the initiative to include all of these different institutions, commission public art and activate public spaces, and promote everything happening at cultural and educational galleries.

Leading the charge is Vorderbruggen – welcoming, candid, ferocious, and kind, with an uncanny ability to command attention and communicate with people on a number of different planes.

“My professional career has really been a short stint. Artists in Storefronts started in April 2012. There are a lot of things I don’t know and sometimes I feel like I’m at a disadvantage,” she says. “The statistics show I shouldn’t be successful. Part of me has this burning fire in my backbone – I’m smart, and it wasn’t fair I didn’t get an education, but I deserve more and I’ll fight for it. Maybe it doesn’t come in this formal package, but maybe just showing people that I know how to do shit and think and imagine amazing things, even if it requires me to roll up my sleeves and do hard work, I’ll do it. I can feel my agricultural background – ‘Yeah I’m a peasant! Yeah I can do this!’ Sometimes hard work is the most transformative work you can do.”

As for her future, she says, “It would be nice to teach other people how to do this, especially other people who might be jaded from their past.”

Just hearing her speak might be enough, and for those attending the UIX conference in Detroit September 24-26, they can experience the influence of this powerhouse of a woman first-hand at the UIX Forum: Art of Place at the Museum of Contemporary Art.