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Small Towns/Big Stories

Arts-based Community Development Makes its Mark in Southwest Minnesota Late in the afternoon of October 7, 2017, a fifteen-foot sea monster was discovered prancing across the well-worn hardwood floors of the old high school gymnasium near downtown Milan Minnesota.

ArtPlace Southwest MN: The South West Minnesota Housing Partnership was formed in 1992 to work with communities to address housing and other critical community needs in an 18-county region in the southwest corner of Minnesota. Now, some 26 years later, they cover an area of approximately 30 counties in southwest and west central MN. The Housing Partnership describes its mission as “creating thriving places to live, grow, and work through partnerships with communities.” This means that, in addition to their core work developing safe and affordable housing, they are often involved with a broad range of issues relevant to community development such as planning, social services, transportation and economic development.

In 2015 SWMHP, received a significant 3-year award from ArtPlace America’s, Community Development Initiative (CDI). The Housing Partnership was one of six U.S. community development organizations receiving support for exploring the integration of arts and cultural strategies as tools into their ongoing work with constituent communities and customers. ArtPlace is a national consortium of 15 national and regional funders, (including Minnesota’s Bush and McKnight Foundations) and seven Federal agencies. Since its establishment in 2010, ArtPlace has invested over $100M in “supporting artists as full partners in equitable community development.”

In their application to ArtPlace, the Housing Partnership pointed to the challenge of making meaningful contact with refugee and immigrant communities who are increasingly “making their homes in rural Minnesota.” They shared that in some communities these rapid changes were leading to an “identity crisis”. As such, many communities were left to wonder, “Who are we now?” and, “Where are we going?” SWMHP was drawn to apply to the ArtPlace CDI because they recognized that integrating arts into their community planning and housing development processes could help rural communities address their contemporary identity questions and aid the Housing Partnership in creating more inclusive, equitable and effective programs.

Milan Music: In Milan they got that and much more. Named after Italy’s second-largest city, Milan was Founded by Norwegian immigrant farmers in 1879. In 2010 the town's population had shrunk from its 1940 high of 624 to around 300. Since that time the town has had a bit of a resurgence, growing in both population and diversity, due solely to the growth of its Micronesian community which now comprise nearly 50% of its population. Needless to say, when Hanson and Gaylord came to town in the spring of 2017, Milan was a much different place than it was just a decade earlier. Over the next several months, they would spend countless hours getting to know that changed landscape, interviewing people, learning the history, collecting stories, and essentially mapping the dynamic social and cultural ecosystem of this tiny but complex community. One of their goals was to learn and understand enough about the place to create a musical play that community members would support, as actors and musicians, and as audience members. Early on they were delighted to discover that monstrous sea creatures featured prominently in the epic sagas of both Norwegian and Micronesian cultures. By the close of curtain on October 7, 2017, Milan’s community musical was no longer a Partnership Art production. The show, which was presented as a six-stop, walking musical, was an unqualified hit. Most importantly, the town had embraced the story as its own. In the weeks that followed, though, it was clear that the play’s making, and success had really provided something much more profound. This Land is Milan had helped to establish a new sense of common ground and trust among community members who had been neighbors for years but didn’t really know each other. People involved in community development will tell you that this kind of affinity is essential --- without it a community can’t begin answering threshold questions like “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?” When SWMHP decided to apply for the ArtPlace grant this was the kind of impact they had hoped for. The icing on the cake was that the community’s year-long exploration of history, story-making, and each other also served to humanize the relationship between SWMHP, as an organizational partner, and the community itself. The Housing Partnership knew these new connections would be critical when they came to town to do Healthy Housing home repair assessments or engage in community-wide planning. The Partnership Art Initiative: The idea for Partnership Art emerged in the spring of 2015 when SWMHP caught wind of an ArtPlace America’s CDI program which was aimed specifically at organizations in the community development field. ArtPlace’s stated goal was to “investigate and support place-based community development organizations to sustainability incorporate arts and culture into their core work.” In its 26-year history, SWMHP had never applied for arts funding. Needless to say, when they received the good news, they were not only surprised but thrilled to be joining the growing number of their community development peers that were integrating cultural strategies and resources into their work. As it evolved, Partnership Art would eventually develop two distinct parts, one outside in the community, and the other inside the organization, that, over the Initiative’s three years, became increasingly intertwined. The external aspect would manifest through SWMHP’s work with artists and community members in the towns of Milan (pop. 359) St James (pop. 4,500), and Worthington (pop. 13,000). Focusing on these diverse locations gave the Housing Partnership an opportunity to explore how arts-based strategies could advance their work in a wide range of communities and conditions. Nearly a year after artists began showing up in the three pilot communities, the internal aspect would bring a living, breathing artist in residence as a partner and colleague into the Housing Partnership offices, in Slayton and Mankato. The artist who took that role, Placebase’s Ashley Hanson, approached her work within the SWMHP community with the same verve and enthusiasm she showed to great effect in Milan-- listening, learning, and artfully engaging --- all with the goal of building community and stimulating new, creative thinking among staff.

Before any of this could occur, though, in the fall of 2016 SWMHP laid the groundwork for Partnership Art by cultivating the people and relationships that would ultimately drive the program. They began by soliciting artists to apply “to collaborate on …projects at the intersection of community engagement, affordable housing, and the arts” This “Call for Artists” made it clear that SWMHP was looking for creative leaders with a unique combination of skills and experience. These included an established artistic practice in the visual, literary, performing or media arts, experience with arts-based organizing and/or community development, and preferred connections to rural communities; particularly in Southwest Minnesota. During interviews it became obvious that less tangible characteristics like facilitation skills, patience, diplomacy and a passion for the messy process of building community were equally important. All told, 33 artists were selected for the Partnership Art Artist Roster

Recognizing how essential good partnerships are to community development, in the spring of 2017, SWMHP also decided to bring some roster artists and members of the three project communities together for some cross-sector training. Developed with Intermedia Arts and the Center for the Study of Art and Community, the Creative Community Leadership Institute (CCLI) immersed participants in the history and best practices of the emerging field of creative placemaking. Over three months, the Institute’s arts-infused curriculum explored arts-based development strategies, effective collaboration, asset-based community research, and equitable culturally-based community building. It also gave artists and community members an opportunity to work together to create proposals for a variety of arts-based projects, many of which would come to fruition in the coming months.

During the next year and a half, 24 Partnership Art artists joined with community members in Milan, St. James, Worthington, and the SWMHP organization, to produce 16 projects addressing a wide range of community issues. In some cases, like Milan and with Worthington’s Art Mobile, the art making itself provided the impetus for change. In others, such as the Healthy Housing effort and the staff-led projects a SWMHP, the creative process provided a behind the scenes catalyst for problem solving and new thinking. This creative catalyst aspect represents an important shift in how the Housing Partnership has come to see their arts-based work. Early on, the focus was on artists making art in service to SWMHP’s work in the region. Now, after three years of collaboration with artists, staff and community members, they see Partnership Art as contributing both materially, through artistic projects and strategically, as a stimulus for innovative thinking and design. Here are some examples of both

· Worthington Art Mobile: Partnering with the local Opportunity Council that coordinates transit service, visual artists Bobbi Alsgaard-Lien and Gail Holinka created a mobile art lab designed to increase awareness and use of the city’s expanded public transportation services in hard to reach, low-income immigrant communities, and improve access to arts learning among the town’s youth.

· Healthy Housing St. James: Many older houses in small rural communities have conditions that can be unhealthy for residents. The SWMHP’s Healthy Housing Program helps residents both identify and fix these issues. In St. James, where 37% of the town’s 4600 residents are Latinx, language barriers and a general distrust of officialdom have made it hard for SWMHP to provide this free service to many of the people who need it most. With the help of the Homeboat Artist Collective, SWMHP has joined with town leaders, the local Housing Committee and residents to establish a Community Advocates program. Since these grassroots Advocates started engaging their fellow community members, 34 Healthy Housing Assessments were completed in one month in St. James, which is significant for a Program that SWMHP reports conducts 55-60 assessments annually throughout the region.

· Garden of Good People – Plaza de St. James: Artists Sara Udvig and Arnold Carlson joined with over 20 St. James community members in a design process that resulted in the creation of a welcoming main street mural on the side of the historic Princess Theater building, and a new city plaza on an underutilized piece of downtown property. – donated to the City by local businessman Dick Downs specifically for the project.

· Building Community Through Stories: At one of SWMHP’s newest multi-family housing properties, Grand Terrace in Worthington, artist Nik Nerburn collected anecdotes and stories through ethnographic photography, as a way to better understand the challenges residents face in their daily lives, reduce isolation, and build community.

· Creative Community Design + Build: Vacant storefronts can be seen as a problem or an opportunity. Community members and local officials from St. James and Granite Falls are working with the Homeboat Artist Collective to advance the opportunity side of this equation in their respective downtowns. Homeboat believes that the best ideas for positive change come from the people who live and work in a place. In St. James and Granite Falls, Homeboat and the SWMHP will be using design thinking and arts-based strategies to engage community members to devise ways to transform vacant and underutilized downtown spaces into community assets.

· SWMHP Staff-led Projects: Artist, Ashley Hansen worked with SWMHP staff using a story sharing design process to both build teamwork and come up with creative approaches to a number of issues facing the organization. Staff-led design teams shared their ideas at an all-hands retreat. These included: addressing staff morale, storytelling as marketing, organizational capacity building, public communication about complex programs, connecting more staff with projects in construction, and the development an artist residency to enhance supportive housing outcomes.

Partnership Art 2.0: ArtPlace support for Partnership Art ended in the fall of 2018. ArtPlace established the CDI with the goal of seeding the sustained integration of the arts into the ongoing work of the six grant recipients. But they also recognized that for organizations struggling to meet the growing demands of their constituent communities, adopting a cultural approach to community development would be a dramatic and challenging shift. That said, SWMHP has responded affirmatively to the challenge.

In early 2019, with their ArtPlace partnership coming to a close, the Housing Partnership made a commitment to place creative practice and thinking at the center of SWMHP's programs and organizational culture. Referring to this next chapter as Partnership Art 2.0, they see arts-based strategies as a powerfully effective aspect of SWMHP's continuing efforts to support Southwest Minnesota’s continuously changing towns and neighborhoods, particularly with the region’s growing immigrant communities.

Solace: One striking example of this commitment is the integration of the arts into the development of Solace Apartments in St. Peter Minnesota. This 30-unit complex opened its doors in November of 2018, to provide stable family housing and support services to individuals exiting the criminal justice system. This innovative project is the product of a multi-year partnership among local human service and criminal justice agencies, and SWMHP aimed at reducing the high rates of recidivism among local returnees. Solace services will include substance abuse treatment and prevention, family counseling and workforce development.

Starting in the winter of 2018, three teams of artists have been working with the Solace residents and service providers. The creative teams have been joining with residents and staff to help build community at the facility and establish new connections between Solace and its St. Peter home. This commitment comes from the Housing Partnership’s belief that arts can help Solace become center for healing and culture for both the residents and services providers. The overall goal is to help the Solace community develop into a safe, beautiful, and supportive place for families to live. (See Solace Resident Artist: Potential Roles and Functions, pg. 7)


Near the conclusion of This Land is Milan, the townsfolk listen in fear as a respected community elder delivers a dire warning about the terrible threat posed by the sea monster lurking in the nearby lake. As a nervous rumbling spreads across the frightened crowd, a 9-year old girl comes forward and begins to sing. Her bright, beautiful voice and simple message brings a calm and much-needed perspective to the gathering.

“What on earth is a sea monster anyway It seems kind of crazy to me Seems instead like a fictional reverie to hide our insecurities We may be inclined to run from our fears But we're better off if we face them Let’s put this sea monster where it belongs, and talk about what's really on our minds.”

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