Of art and baseball: Rachel Wacker brings art to the community by working with some unlikely partners

Rachel Wacker hasn’t had what might be called a “traditional” experience working in the art world.

Based in Saint Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood, Wacker has eschewed more “traditional” arts partnerships – such as working with arts institutions or applying for grant funding to support her projects – in favor of a more on-the-ground-and-among-the-people approach that has seen her working with small businesses and developers representing the interests of the Lowertown community, which she describes as an entrenched arts district right on the cusp of redevelopment and possible gentrification.

Wacker says her social practice has always been anchored in trying to bridge the gap between the art audience and the community, and also help the artist and audience bridge their communication gap.

Rachel Wacker.

“A lot of my work creates scenarios where people will encounter art and my hope is that if you can do enough of that it would lead to a more engaged audience wanting to support art, and also create feedback for artists on how best to engage the community,” she says. “Art can produce objects, but it also provides many different kinds of social services.”

Her work is focused on making the artist visible and keeping a place at the civic table in regards to bigger questions about redevelopment in the city.

Through her work, she has built relationships with small businesses that support her efforts with in-kind goods and services. As new businesses began moving into the neighborhood, Wacker became a kind of de facto consultant, with business owners asking her what they could do to foster positive relationships with artists in this entrenched arts neighborhood where there are such concerns over gentrification.

This ultimately led to her working with the Twin Cities’ independent baseball team, the St. Paul Saints.

The St. Paul Saints Drawalong Scoreboard at CHS Field.

Two years before they even moved into Lowertown, they sent staff out into the neighborhood asking residents about their hopes, needs, and concerns.

“They spent a lot of time going out, meeting people, getting to know them, and trying to address as many as possible,” Wacker says. “In this bigger national conversation of development, they understood that they were moving into a neighborhood that already had people in it and they needed to be a neighbor. They also knew many of our artists were appropriately making a stink about them moving into the area, asking what it was going to mean for the community as well as the artists. Representatives for the Saints went out and met as many leaders in the art community as they could and asked what they could do.”

Feedback included having a space inside the ballpark where artists could sell their work, have local artwork exhibited in the park, and also support an ongoing outreach program with art-related events and activities. The team agreed to do those things by starting small and building it over a few years. This is now the fourth year of the Saints’ art program, and Wacker says it keeps growing every year.

“Plein Fun” at the St. Paul Saints’ CHS Field.

She curates a rotating local art exhibit inside the team’s front office lobby and the field’s upscale private event space, and artists are paid to exhibit their work as part of this program. In addition, there are two kiosks in the ballpark reserved for artists and crafters to sell their work, and they keep all of the proceeds from these sales. This area is also a venue for temporary public art installations. And during weekend home games, there is an art pop-up series with art activities for all ages and demonstrations by local artists.

The Saints also support a number of community outreach programs out in the neighborhood and city throughout the year, including large-scale public art projects in conjunction with major city events like Northern Spark and the Saint Paul Winter Carnival.

Wacker, who also sits on visioning committees for the city alongside members of the business community, says, “The jury is still out on whether or not we’ve been effective at all. It’s clear that the business community sees that what we’re doing is fun and visible and brings life to the area, and they want to see more of it. We’ve effectively made ourselves visible and shown that we’re valuable. But there is still this gap in understanding the kind of support we need to survive here.”

The bottom line, she says, is that developers can’t inflate the prices in one neighborhood and expect low-income folks, which often includes artists, to still be able to live there. In Lowertown, apartments now cost 30-50 percent more than they did a few years ago. Storefronts have similarly gone up in price, and so now the only kinds of businesses that can afford the rent tend to be high-end restaurants and bars with high ticket items that only attract the kind of people who can afford to spend a lot of money on dinner. This creates a homogenous street and a lack of “third spaces,” such as coffeehouses where people can spend $3-5 and hang out for a few hours.

“Owners want to do this but it’s not sustainable because their costs are so high,” Wacker says. “On an emotional level everyone is on the same page with what they want to see, but no one can act it out because of our economic model.”

“St. Paul Cozy,” a project led by the Rage to Order Artists Initiative of Lowertown in partnership with the St. Paul Saints Art Program.

Another factor is developers coming into underdeveloped areas and developing them in accordance with national models – i.e., to build them as quickly and easily as possible in each city to then move on and replicate that same model in the next city, and the next, and the next. Because developers don’t make money on affordable housing, they focus on building “market rate” buildings – code for “luxury apartments,” itself code for “only a certain clientele can afford this.” And in an effort to attract this clientele to these objectively overpriced apartments, developers stuff them full of “amenities” – on-property coffee shops, yoga studios, dog parks, and dog groomers and sitters. And the folks who spend the money for these places want to get the most value out of them, so they use the on-property dog sitter and work out in the on-property fitness center. Which means they do not go out into the neighborhood and support the local dog sitters or fitness centers. It’s not quite Gentrification 101, but it’s another side effect of bloated urban housing prices.

While Wacker doesn’t purport to have all of the answers to stop this gentrifying cycle, she does have some suggestions for business owners that want to be good neighbors. First, find a way to make space for art in their business – just ask artists to exhibit there. Second, don’t ask artists to do things for free. “Understand we are business people who also have to make a living and there needs to be legitimate trade for our goods and services.” Most of the small businesses in Lowerton have responded to that with understanding, she says.

Another thing she has found is that there seems to be a significant communication gap between developers and the artists themselves. While artists complain about new development altering the fabric of the neighborhood, impacting the existing community, and not inviting artists to the table before doing so, some new businesses say that they’ve been trying to reach out and have never received a reply.

“There are some absolutely neutral communication gaps here,” Wacker says. “Some of what I’ve been doing is standing in that gap and spreading the information between the two parties.”

Rachel Wacker.

Wacker is quite comfortable playing mediator between the artists and the developers because she has spent a significant portion of her career as an artist working directly with businesses.

“When I started doing my work I wanted to respond immediately to what was going on in my neighborhood, but how do you make that happen because? It’s timely, and grants can take upwards of a year [to apply, get awarded, and get funded],” she explains. “So I thought, let’s look at small businesses. I ended up accidentally outside of normal art venues and institutions, so the resources for what I’ve been doing totally different.”

She has been working with individuals and small business owners that “give a little here and there.” She says while they know nothing about the world of artists or about their needs or experiences, they’re very open to learning and providing their support.

“We need those people” – including those people – “when it comes down to policy issues, to push local government on policy issues [because they have political connections and clout that we don’t]. And if those people have relationships with us as real humans, it actually affects how they use that influence on the city level.”

She uses her time with the Saints as an example of how she has been able to bridge the gap between artist and capitalist: while they are very creative and want to be able to offer various kinds of entertainment that will appeal to the whole family and not just those who are into baseball, at it’s heart it is also a corporation that needs to ensure it is getting some return on its investments.

“Dancing Statues” at the St. Paul Saints’ CHS Field.

“I use the same process as any artist in bringing a brainstorm into the real world, whittling down ideas to the point of feasibility, but they are also a business and have to make money,” says Wacker. “I always have to think about that dual responsibility when sitting in the room with them. I am there to advocate for the art community to make sure they get something out of this relationship, but also make sure the Saints get something in return. It’s relational.”

She is constantly aware and mindful of the fact that, as the Saints proceed and continue to grow their arts programming, they have to continue to justify the money they spend on it. She would like to invite other businesses to do something similar and be caretakers of the cultural environment they’re in, and possibly even have that be a stepping stone to introduce a future policy similar to the EPA but for cultural stewardship.

“It would basically say if you’re going to have a business or develop somewhere, you acknowledge there is a cultural cost and you have to participate in the healthful maintenance of the cultural environment of your neighborhood,” she says, recognizing that there would be businesses that willingly agree to it and those that would push back.

“As I try to think through what is the bigger conversation around that and how I could affect it in the future, a lot of it is in the propaganda of changing minds and hearts: what keeps your business healthy is what will keep the community healthy and strong enough to keep sending money your way. It’s like keeping nutrients in the soil.”

Cover photo credit: Dave Bellmont

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I like to work on projects that have three rings of participants: a small core team of two to four people with diverse organization skills who handle logistics, a team of “creatives” who contribute the artistic content, and a group of art-community-loving-volunteers who help produce the actual event. The key for me is that every collaboration has to be anchored by an agreed upon intention. A lot can happen over the course of a collaboration to alter it from the original vision. You can use the intention as a touchstone to navigate those changes and end up somewhere unexpected yet beautiful and satisfying.

(2) How do you a start a project?
It always starts with a “What If?” (my “What If” or someone else’s), followed by anything-goes brainstorming sessions, followed by “But seriously, can it be done?”, followed by a more reasonable discussion of the practicalities involved, and then ending (or beginning, depending on how you look at) with the setting of an intention and a commitment to pursue the project.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
My value comes from the role I play in the human family. I am just one of many in a long line of humans serving in the role of “artist.” Like me, the general role of the artist exists on spectrum from introverted to extroverted or passive to active. So, I play this role both in my solitude (when I hide away and work out my own experience through painting and drawing), and when I purposefully engage the public through my social practice. On the passive end of the art-role spectrum, I am a living reminder that to be human is to create. On the active end of the art-role spectrum, I am a connector who creates outlets for other humans to embrace and hone their own creativity.

(4) How do you define success?
Success is taking an idea and birthing it into physical or social reality. Success is agency with intentionality: to embody and flow between the states of dreaming and making.

(5) How do you fund your work?
A number of different ways, but largely through businesses sponsorships and crowdfunding.

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