Ground Level Blog

Minneapolis art students share ideas with a small city

MONTEVIDEO -- Last Saturday at the community center here, a handful of students from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) presented ideas aimed at revitalizing the local economy and culture through arts, broadly defined.

An arts-based economy is emerging in western Minnesota, in the Upper Minnesota River Valley. I wrote a story about it that will run next Tuesday as part of Ground Level's One Job at a Time project.

Meeting with some four dozen residents, including potters and organic farmers, the MCAD students tossed out ideas that included enlisting young documentarians to make a short film establishing a narrative for the region, opening a restaurant with local foods and furnishings and formalizing an internship program where MCAD students would earn credits for working with local artisans.


The students were part of the school's new Rural Arts Initiative, funded by the Bush Foundation, which seeks to lay fresh, problem-solving eyes on the Montevideo area and also the Iron Range. The students spend a little time in each location and return to present creative suggestions, along the way gaining a feel for real-world problems. (Full disclosure: Ground Level receives support from the Bush Foundation.)

"We are not coming in to save people through art or design," said class professor Bernard Canniffe, who chairs MCAD's design department. "I think artists and designers do more damage than good in these things. 'Oh look, we're going to create a mural.' It's like God almighty, really? That's all we can do? Or create a papier-mache donkey standing on its head that symbolizes hope in Montevideo? Many times that's what these things become, padded resume builders for designers or artists. It doesn't accomplish anything. This is something different."

Canniffe, who is from South Wales, said the goal is to "create innovation" and hopefully establish a long-term relationship with the community. "Art can assess and create," he said. "That's what art and design can do, look at things quickly and assess them really quickly."

"The next ground-breaking initiatives or ideas are going to come out of the Midwest and not the coasts," he said. "Pick any subject that's affecting the world now. It could be globalization, population densities, entrepreneurism, agriculture, cultural ethnicity, Christian versus Muslim identification. All these things are happening in one shape or form in Minnesota or Iowa."

Aside from one audience member who thought it paternalistic to have student documentarians from elsewhere tell the region's story, the response to the presentation was largely positive. Attendees seemed to appreciate the opportunity to exploit young talent and energy and perhaps draw a student or two to stay. "Out of the creativity phase, hopefully something comes and clicks and becomes a new model," said Patrick Moore, of Clean Up the River Environment, based in Montevideo.

Moore is one of those people who make things happen in a community and he facilitated the student presentation. "I'm hoping that the economic development of western Minnesota can grow. I love the towns and the people and the river. I want people to live in this landscape. I don't want it to be inhabited by robots and machines. I want people in these communities to thrive and raise kids and create art and music and plays."

"It's about building a new society in the shell of the old," he said.