Arts leader returns: Mohannad Ghawanmeh to lead Public Art St. Paul

A man poses for a photo-2
Public Art St. Paul's new director, Mohannad Ghawanmeh.
Courtesy of Mohannad Ghawanmeh

A longtime arts leader is returning to Minnesota. 

Mohannad Ghawanmeh has been named the new president and executive director of Public Art St. Paul, a nonprofit that commissions art for public spaces. He will replace Colleen Sheehy, who is retiring after helming Public Art St. Paul for nine years.

Ghawanmeh calls the opportunity to work in public art “exciting, tantalizing.” It’s a continuation of the kind of work he started doing at Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an Arab arts nonprofit he’s been leading in Philadelphia.

In the new role, he hopes to cultivate an education program at Public Art St. Paul, as well as elevate the Wakpa Triennial Arts Festival, which the nonprofit launched last summer.

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Ghawanmeh is also excited to return to Minnesota, where he previously lived for decades.

“Minnesota is sort of where I became an adult, and when I set forth the path for the rest of my life,” Ghawanmeh explains from his current home in Philadelphia.

Minnesota is somewhat of a creative base for Ghawanmeh, a filmmaker and cinema scholar. It’s where he co-founded the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival and directed the inaugural Minneapolis St. Paul Italian Film Festival. It’s also where he was on the board of Mizna, a national Arab arts nonprofit based in St. Paul.

He left to earn a Ph.D. in Media and Cinema Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles before heading to Philadelphia. He says he wanted to return to this arts community and rekindle his network.

“I have come to learn [Minnesota] has become an exceptionally thriving art scene,” Ghawanmeh says. “It was already overachieving in the early 2000s when I moved to the Twin Cities, but thanks to various legislation it seems, and a commitment on the part of Minnesota taxpayers, the Twin Cities really strikes me as an exciting place to move to.”

Although he’s been gone for a decade, Ghawanmeh knows the Twin Cities and Minnesota well. He first moved to the state, alone, when he was 17. He was born to Palestinian parents living in refuge in Saudi Arabia and attended high school in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

His parents encouraged Ghawanmeh to get an American education. He applied to Minnesota State University Mankato and received a scholarship for international students.

“I was embraced. I was treated well. I created networks and found myself quite fond of Minnesotans,” Ghawanmeh says. 

After finishing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he began teaching at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, where he stayed for 12 years. The Sept. 11 attacks happened on his second day on the job.

“In the aftermath of the attacks and the deluge of negativity relating to the Arabic-speaking people and the Muslim people, efforts throughout the country evolved to try and offer alternative narratives, ideas, about Arabic-speaking people and Muslim people,” Ghawanmeh says. “What their cultures entail and what their stories are about.”

Ghawanmeh was part of these efforts. In the summer of 2002, he met with his friend Kathryn Haddad, a co-founder of Mizna. The meeting led to the founding of the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, which celebrated its 17th edition in October.

“That became the sort of the launch of my work in arts programming and nonprofit organizations,” he says.

Ghawanmeh will relocate to St. Paul later this month.

“I want to acknowledge the Board of Public Arts St. Paul for hiring me; for bringing on somebody who is an immigrant, somebody who’s not of European background, to lead the organization, in an obvious gesture on their part toward the diverse communities of St. Paul,” Ghawanmeh says.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.