Folding Chair

Five years ago Joel Sisson's blend of art, social work, and lawn furniture was the talk of the town. Now the founder of the Green Chair Project is sitting on a pile of dreams and unpaid bills.

The first chair was not long for Sisson's backyard--it disappeared one night about a month after the painting party. Sisson remembers that while he was scouring the neighborhood for it, one of the kids' mothers told him, "You got to get our chair back." That comment, he claims, sparked the idea of organizing work crews of kids in his backyard, to make green chairs that would be set up in neighbors' front yards at dawn.

It's a nice story; prod just about any member of the local arts-and-nonprofit community and you'll hear a version of it, usually with a few embellishments. For instance, the original chair was taken by people who were helping Sisson's roommate move and thought the chair was his. But myth has it that someone stole it. Sometimes the alleged crime expands to include all sorts of porch furniture. Sometimes Sisson is said to actually have seen kids stealing a chair from his yard.

But as always with such stories, at some point the details cease to matter. Did Abe Lincoln really walk 10 miles to return a borrowed book? Did George Washington actually chop down the cherry tree? The Green Chair tale has become "folklore," says Louis King, Minneapolis school board member and head of the vocational training institute Summit Academy OIC, who goes on to enthusiastically recount his version: "Joel started this thing because he'd had a chair stolen, and instead of taking the typical response [of calling police], the radical that he is, Joel got kids together to build chairs. It's a great idea that's about peace, community. A great idea."

From his success with the first few chairs, Sisson wanted to expand. He says he saw kids selling drugs or causing trouble in his neighborhood and wanted to pay them to do something constructive. A former welder who had graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and dabbled in found-object art, he had never approached arts funders. But he started writing anyway--long, rambling letters to foundations, corporations, individuals. He got no takers.

Until he saw Mark Dayton talking about his work with inner-city kids out east in an early 1991 TV interview. The department-store heir responded to Sisson's letter with a check for $2,500; a few months later, he wrote another for the same amount.

In 1992 and 1993, Sisson went to work for the Lyndale Neighborhood Association while selling furniture part-time at Room & Board. He also kept building chairs in his backyard. Money to buy lumber and pay the kids came from the New Jersey-based Puffin Foundation, which, in Sisson's words, funds "art projects from prisoners and people who can't get funded in regular routes." Change Inc., an emergency fund set up for artists by Robert Rauschenberg, also kicked in a check.

But Sisson wanted more. In 1994, he began telling people that Green Chair work crews would build 1,000 chairs in one summer, and that all the chairs would be trucked to the state Capitol to make an enormous outdoor installation. It was an irrational, impossible goal--or it would have been, had the green chairs not begun working their spell.

Sisson hooked up with Urban Ventures, an economic-development organization with a warehouse on Lake Street and Fourth Avenue. The group offered its space, and work crews of kids paid through the federally funded Summer Youth Employment Project. Next he connected with Jack Becker, program manager of St. Paul-based FORECAST Public Artworks. FORECAST agreed to serve as Green Chair's administrator and fiscal agent, providing the 501(c)/3 nonprofit tax designation needed to reel in major supporters.

Even so, Becker remembers, the first year was a challenge: "It was a weird animal. Here was this individual artist who wrote these"--he chuckles--"these stream-of-consciousness letters, who didn't put together the things that usually are put in front of funders." Becker says the Green Chair Project's unusual combination of youth services and art also confused nonprofit administrators. "Youth-services funders could relate to the part about putting kids to work. But once he said that he wanted to put 1,000 chairs on the lawn of the state Capitol, he was on his own."

Since the Green Chair Project was difficult to describe on paper, Sisson and Becker often asked potential funders to visit the Urban Ventures site. "They'd start asking Joel questions about the project and he'd say, 'No, talk to Johnny here,'" Becker recalls. "I hadn't seen people do that before. Most of the time, it's more like 'I've got to say the right thing, because the kids might not.'

"We actually raised $35,000 in two-and-a-half months. That's amazing. It defied the laws of fundraising. One foundation gave us more money than we asked for. In my 20 years of fundraising, that just doesn't happen."

Neal Cuthbert, Program Officer for the Arts at the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, says foundations respond to organizations that have a "buzz" about them: "There is a zeitgeist about some projects. They hit a lot of people with a certain sense of excitement, and funders are just like those people. You jump on the Vikings bandwagon, it's no different."

 

By the fall of '94, Sisson estimates, the project's staff of almost 40 workers had nearly reached the 1,000-chair goal: "We made it to either 911 or 918, depending on which kid's numbers you accept." The workers, mostly low-income high-school and middle-school students, were paid minimum wage. Assistant director Hoyt received "between $10 and $12 an hour," says Sisson, and his own take for the year amounted to around $10,000. (His highest salary from the project, in 1997, was $19,000.)

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