‘We’re financially hurting’: How a warm winter is impacting the Art Shanty Projects

A closeup of lake ice
Thirteen inches of solid ice cover the surface of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis on Jan. 20.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Art Shanty Projects celebrated a terrific opening weekend Jan. 27 and 28 on Lake Harriet with 13 inches of ice, temperatures in the 20s, more than 200 artists and around 10,000 visitors.

But the following week, temperatures trended up, hitting a record 50 degrees on Monday and continuing to break records throughout the week. That 13 inches of ice quickly diminished to 10 — the Shanty’s established limit. Organizers had to cancel weekends two, three and four, citing “climate chaos.”

Neal Sorensen, board co-chair, told MPR News on Wednesday that safety concerns led to the tough decision, which disappointed the artists and guests alike. Pulling shanties ashore early also added to an already precarious financial situation after the pandemic and last year’s polar vortex plagued the immersive, on-ice art installation.

“We fell way short of our donation goal. We only saw about 10,000 people out of the 30,000 we were hoping for so, yeah, we’re financially hurting right now,” Sorensen said.

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The nonprofit behind the “extreme sport of art making” usually collects about 70 percent of the money it makes in a year during the month-long event, according to Sorensen.

This wasn’t the first time the shanties have had to move off the ice.

“Last year we actually had to initiate Plan Beach, where we installed in the Lake Harriet Bandshell Park instead,” he said. “A few years in White Bear Lake we had to move off the ice two times. So this isn’t completely abnormal, but it’s becoming a bit more frequent than we’d like.”

Sorensen said part of the mission of the Art Shanty Projects includes raising awareness of climate change.

“Us kind of going through these challenges is making people more aware that our climate is changing drastically and we need to pay some attention to that.”

Some artists also embrace that mission. Sorensen said a returning group of performers called “The Climate Disasters” lean into themes like oil spills with costumes. One fan-favorite interactive shanty called “Reduce, Reuse, Re-xylophone” was made entirely of repurposed and reclaimed materials.

So why try to stay on the ice?

Sorensen said the shanties were started as a subversive form of ice fishing, with the project’s unique culture and vibe. He hopes the “uniquely Minnesotan” tradition sticks around, no matter what Mother Nature throws at it. But a little help from the public is needed.

“We’re just asking anyone that’s enjoyed the shanties to support us right now because we really need it,” Sorensen said.

Learn more about the Art Shanty Projects at artshantyprojects.org.