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Central Corridor arts coalition gets $750K grant

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Central Corridor construction
Construction crews work on the Central Corridor project on University Avenue in St. Paul, Minn., in a May 2011 file photo.
MPR File Photo/Nikki Tundel

A program that employs artists to bring new life and vibrancy to Central Corridor neighborhoods disrupted by light rail construction has been given a $750,000 grant by a national coalition.

 The project, called "Irrigate," trains local artists in economic development and community organizing skills. It's the result of a partnership between the city of St. Paul,  St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts, and a group called Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Coalition. 

That partnership came about because of the biggest, costliest, messiest infrastructure improvement project ever to hit St. Paul, the Central Corridor Light Rail line. Or as, St. Paul Director of Arts and Culture Joe Spencer affectionately refers to it, "the trench."

"That trench is the recipient of a $1 billion infrastructure project," he said. "This is a way to sort of irrigate that investment out into the neighborhoods that surround Central Corridor."

Irrigate stands out, Springboard for the Arts Executive Director Laura Zabel said, because of the faith it places in the ability of artists to help businesses and neighborhood groups solve problems.

"We believe that artists are creative thinkers and they're entrepreneurs, and they makes them particularly well suited to do this work," she said. "They're able to look at something that other people might view as a problem or a crisis and turn in it into an opportunity."

Irrigate will extend for three years, about as long as it will take the Central Corridor line to be built. First, it will train artists in one-day workshops on community organizing and economic development skills. They'll learn how to work with people who speak a different language, with businesses that have been dealt a blow by light rail construction, or neighborhood groups contending with livability issues. Then a peer-review panel will award grants of up to $1,000 to artists who come up with the most innovative projects.

Laura Zabel
Laura Zabel is director of Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, an economic development organization that focuses on helping artists and arts groups.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"Some of those are going to look like creative marketing ideas," Zabel said. "They're going to look like creative events. Some of them are going to look like permanent public art, or ways of engaging a neighborhood or community around a particularly difficult issue." 

Up to 100 artists will be awarded grants in the first year. The city of St. Paul's Joe Spencer thinks it's unrealistic to expect that all their ideas will take hold. 

"But if one really strikes a chord and we can find a way then to take that to scale, it's going to be transformative, not only for Central Corridor, but I think for the whole city of St. Paul," he said.

The $750,000 grant for the project comes from ArtPlace, a coalition of national funders and federal agencies led by the National Endowment for the Arts. It chose Irrigate because of its potential to be a national model for how to engage artists in infrastructure and economic development. ArtPlace President Carol Coletta said in the short term, artists can help St. Paul communities survive the massive upheaval that accompanies installing a light rail line.

"In the long term I think what they'll do is leave an art legacy in these neighborhoods along the transit corridor which will create new brand and new value for those neighborhoods and the people who live in them," she said.

Officials with Irrigate have already raised about $200,000 for the project. Combined with the ArtPlace grant, that's nearly a $1 million. Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts says that level of commitment reflects the need for creative ideas along the Central Corridor.

"That also creates an opening to really demonstrate the power that artists have when they have the skills and the training to do this work," she said.

Zabel has come up with a way to frame the Irrigate project that has almost bumper sticker appeal. This isn't about artists asking for more, she said. It's about communities knowing they can ask for more from their artists.