Making Home Where the Community Is

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.

It became official in March of 2013: a long-vacant, run down auto dealership on Saint Paul’s University Avenue was finally going to come down. Midway Chevrolet, the sole remaining car lot on what had once been a thriving auto row, was slated to be redeveloped by Project for Pride in Living (PPL), the big Minneapolis-based affordable housing and job training nonprofit, into a brand new affordable housing and retail complex called Hamline Station.

PPL considers its main goal to be helping lower income people become self-sufficient; to that end, building affordable housing is just one component of a mission that includes training for employment, support services for people with special needs, youth programs, and schooling.

Once a building is rehabbed or built, PPL usually adds programming in one or more of its key areas of concern—workshops, classes, and more. So reaching out to neighborhood residents, establishing a helpful presence, and expressing concern for the local community are a priority for the organization.

The teardown of the old buildings wasn’t slated to begin until 2014 and PPL wasn’t content to let the site stay desolate, decaying, and vandalized until then. Instead, they partnered with Springboard for the Arts to hire an Artist Organizer (AO) to help throw some life into 1389 University and to turn the shell of Midway Chevy into a place people wanted to visit, a lively site connected to its neighborhood, and a sort of celebration of what was to come.

The AO they chose was a young Hmong artist, fashion designer, singer-songwriter, and LGBTQ activist, Oskar Ly.

TC LISC Oskar Ly’s artist profile from Tu Multimedia on Vimeo

“I was very excited by the prospect of activating a vacant site,” she says. “It was like a blank canvas.”

Find a Theme and Build On It

Ly, who has had a leadership role in the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) and helped organize Fresh Traditions, an annual Hmong fashion showcase, while also singing and recording with the R&B/hip-hop-oriented band PosNoSys, is a very networked woman, connected to a wide range of Twin Cities artists and committed to social justice and community building. She organized by marshaling the aid of some 50 local art makers to turn the Midway site into a locus for all kinds of creative activities involving community members, under the umbrella title Artify and the theme “Home Is…”

One hundred eight wooden structures shaped like houses were assembled by neighborhood young people; each stood for one of the units that PPL planned for Hamline Station. Artists Mischa Keagan and Witt Siasoco held workshops at libraries during which community members traced personal images of “home”—literal and abstract—onto green canvas; these were then displayed at the site. A major mural onsite, Home Is Hamline Midway, was painted during St. Paul’s first Open Streets event in September 2013, and Artify organized art workshops, performances, and games on that day as well.

One of the buildings on the Midway Chevy grounds morphed into The Showroom, a space offered to the community for offices, events, and gatherings; Urban Boat Builders displayed homemade canoes in the space, the Design Center showed off its planning model of the Green Line light-rail corridor there, and Ly brought artists in for workshops.

“And there were lots of other installations and events up and down the avenue,” she says, “some big and very visible, others small-scale. ”

Despite the social justice and community building congruence between Ly’s mode of work and PPL’s mission, there was still plenty of work to be done on both sides of the relationship to define just what an artist organizer would do—and not do. While PPL had artists on its staff and had brought artists in to do workshops as part of its youth-oriented programming, turning a large-scale, year-long project over to Ly to manage meant that some serious groundwork had to be laid.

“I was brought into PPL via the same onboarding process they use for anyone on their staff,” she says. “I did site visits. I was introduced to the various departments that make PPL what it is. I had a lot to learn about the organization, so I did a lot of listening in order to get the lay of the land. We also had monthly meetings with the other artist organizers during which we could compare notes, share different topics and troubleshoot.”

Take Advantage of the Temporary to Test Lots of Things

In addition to planning for Artify under PPL’s housing division, Ly helped other parts of the organization in a variety of ways. Chris Dettling, PPL’s Associate Director of Real Estate Development, who was Ly’s immediate supervisor, introduced her to the staffers in the organization’s Youth Development division, and she became a resource person for them, offering suggestions for improving PPL’s youth programming, especially at their Fort Road Flats development on West Seventh at Snelling in Saint Paul, a facility that opened at about the time Ly came to work with PPL.

“Initially, we weren’t sure how to employ Oskar in this new role called artist organizer,” says Shannon Siegfried Floe, PPL Youth Program Manager. “But soon she was giving us all kinds of creative ideas—from the best use of our community space to how to help the kids use Polaroid photography to record their experiences—things we probably wouldn’t have thought of ourselves.” Efforts to get the kids involved with Artify events were only partially successful, says Floe, but “I think she felt that she made a real contribution to our work.”

As Ly’s contributions became better known within PPL, she got more requests for help. “People weren’t necessarily certain what an artist organizer’s role was,” she says, “so I would get asked to do certain kinds of ‘workshoppy’ things, which wasn’t my role. But I did my best to connect people with artists I knew.”

Despite these occasional misunderstandings, Ly says that her relationship with PPL was harmonious. She underlines two values that made it work for her: artistic freedom and open communication. “Although nobody knew exactly what Artify would end up being,” she says, “everybody was very willing to be in conversation with me about it. I also appreciated the autonomy I had—the ability to guide the project where I wanted it to go, and to choose who was going to be a part of it. I had an umbrella approval and was allowed to experiment.

The fact that Artify was a temporary thing helped too. “This was a site that was going to be demolished,” she says. “What we were doing had a short shelf life. I think that helped everyone feel free to try things.”

Chris Dettling points out that Ly brought fresh approaches that he appreciated. “The things that she came up with, we would never, ever have thought of—and if we had thought of them, we wouldn’t necessarily have done them in the ways she suggested,” he says. “For example, we probably would have done something to take part in the Open Streets events, but having Oskar there to bring artists in to participate really added a dimension.”

See The Community As Partners

Dettling says that he initially thought of Ly’s role in limited terms. “Despite the fact that I had talked with Springboard and Irrigate about this ‘artist organizer’ role, I just didn’t realize what it could be,” he says. “But then, as Oskar brought in more artists, and they in turn attracted more people, I really started to understand what an artist organizer was meant to do.”

And as for what Dettling thinks an AO is meant to do, he describes it this way: “Oskar was really good at reaching out to people who live in the Green Line neighborhoods and who identify as artists. She solicited ideas and input from them, and then turned those ideas into energy that expressed itself in a lot of different forms.”

For all the variety in Artify, however, Dettling sees a common thread running through all the projects, a thread he sees as of the essence of the artist organizer role. “She brought in community-based artists to do things that were, for the most part, community-led,” he says. “These things made us engage the community in ways that we had never done in the past.

“Affordable housing issues can be kind of contentious sometimes. The thing that I’m going to keep in my mind is that doing this artist organizing connects with the community in an entirely different way. Now, for this particular project we had all kinds of solid community support, so I don’t think there would have been much opposition to it. But I am definitely keeping the artist organizer role in mind for future projects where we do face opposition. An artist-led initiative like the one Oskar headed up is not about whether you like or don’t like affordable housing—it’s about sharing art, being with people, being truly in community.”