Lessons from RARE: Engaging Artists in Real Estate Development

As real estate developers increasingly look for responsive models, many are seeing the value of incorporating art into buildings and spaces. In one current case study, the Richfield Artist Resident Engagement (RARE) created a partnership between artists and real estate developers in the early stages of a project, in order to support creative work, involve the local community and shape the planning process.

The city of Richfield — an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis — approached The Cornerstone Group to turn a historically significant but neglected property into a town center. Cornerstone is a real estate company with a focus on sustainable development. In 2011, they began preparing for what would become Lyndale Garden Center, a mixed use development with retail, housing and an arts center. In 2012 Cornerstone hired Molly van Avery as an Artist Organizer, as a response to community listening sessions where local residents said they wanted increased access to art.

In 2014, Cornerstone reached out to St. Paul-based nonprofit Forecast Public Art to expand their work in Richfield. Forecast’s work includes advising on public art projects and making those projects happen by connecting artists with communities. Together, Cornerstone and Forecast started formulating a residency program that would allow artists to live and work in the new housing development at Lyndale Garden Center.

But the physical development wouldn’t be completed for years, so rather than waiting to have people make permanent art pieces for the site, they decided to invite artists to work with the unfinished space.

Artist Witt Siasoco and artists Emily Johnson and Julia Bither of the performance company Emily Johnson/Catalyst were selected for the first phase of RARE in 2015. Currently, artists Sha Cage, E.G. Bailey, and Greta McLain are creating a community poem and community-designed mosaic for Lyndale Garden Center’s public amphitheater in RARE Phase 2. The residencies are funded by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Forecast and Cornerstone created a report after RARE’s first year that is intended not just to document the residency, but also to be a useful model for developers and public institutions who want to incorporate the arts in the future.

The report includes notes on what worked and what didn’t in each of the artists’ projects, along with a list of core beliefs that will continue to evolve in the next two years of RARE. Read the full RARE report here, and here are a few of the major themes from those reflections:

Give artists the freedom to create open-ended work

A central value of RARE is allowing artists to create without being narrowed in by a predetermined goal.

“Being able to sit inside an ambiguous space and continue to reflect and question and let it unfold instead of having this extremely specific, designed outcome” is powerful, says Kirstin Wiegmann, Forecast’s Director of Education and Community Services Partner.

Artists thrive when they’re able to explore their creative process in a chosen location with no required end product, the RARE report affirms. When the artist is working with a developer, though, that open-endedness also serves another purpose: it gives the artist greater agency to influence what the developer is doing and how the community is being engaged. Artists can also shape their work to listen to what the community is saying, which in turn can shape the development itself.

Provide practical support for creative engagement

The open-endedness of these projects works because of the support of Cornerstone and Forecast, as well as the willingness of the artists to be comfortable with ambiguity. The RARE report explains that Cornerstone’s connection to the community and Forecast’s artistic guidance anchored the project, giving artists room to explore.

RARE also worked with an evaluator and writer, Becca Barniskis, who documented the process and facilitated meetings with Cornerstone, Forecast, and the artists. As an independent observer, she was able to give constructive feedback to all of the partners. The RARE report recommends having an evaluator as a permanent part of the team because it further frees the artists to focus on their projects.

Allow for chance encounters and unexpected shifts

One of the benefits of artists’ freedom is their ability to have casual interactions with community members that inform their work. Both Witt Siasoco and the artists of Catalyst said that the residency brought them in contact with people they wouldn’t have met otherwise, who contributed directly to the RARE projects.

Working out of a studio in the same building as Cornerstone’s temporary offices, Siasoco met many local people on the street and at surrounding businesses. These interactions with residents helped drive his project Roots in Richfield. Siasoco conducted interviews with people in the community and created large-scale paintings of three local residents, installing the paintings as billboards at a nearby bus stop. One of the paintings’ subjects was James Smith, who was looking for work when Siasoco met him in front of his studio. Siasoco not only painted Smith, but also employed him to help create and install the billboards.

The artists of Emily Johnson/Catalyst, Emily Johnson and Julia Bither, used their RARE residency to launch a longer project called Then a Cunning Voice and a Night We Spend Gazing at Stars. Community members are invited to write their thoughts on quilt squares, which are added to a 4,000-square-foot quilt that will be used for all-night stargazing sessions with storytelling, moments of silence, and First Nations star knowledge.

Johnson and Bither initially thought that they would be able to host community sewing bees to create and stitch together quilt squares. Because the development is unfinished, though, they didn’t have a physical space to invite people into. They ultimately hosted several sessions at a library, a senior community center, and a farmers market — a shift that was unplanned, but that brought them in contact with more local residents in places where those residents were comfortable. They were able to see how community members responded to each other’s answers to questions like, “What do you want for your well-being? For your family and friends? Your neighborhood?”

Adopt an “already/not yet” mindset

RARE is set apart by the fact that it has asked artists to create work around a development that doesn’t exist yet. Even Cornerstone’s offices on site are in a building that will be demolished later this year. “The space is continually evolving under the feet of the artists,” says Andrew Gaylord, Cornerstone’s Community Arts Coordinator.

RARE’s artists have had to adopt what Gaylord calls an “already and not yet mindset” — recognizing and using the assets that are already at Lyndale Garden Center, while also anticipating what hasn’t yet been created.

“Even though the construction of the project hasn’t started, we take seriously that the process has begun already,” Gaylord says. “The process of development has begun, and it’s begun in people.”

RARE 2 is now underway, and Cornerstone hopes to complete construction in 2017. Next year, Phase 3 of RARE will include the development of a community vision for the future of Lyndale Garden Center as a hub of arts activity.