Can local artists turn Block E around?

Can local artists turn Block E around?
Illustration by Sara Gossett

Built in 2001, the mall on downtown Minneapolis's Block E has already become a shell of its former self. Although the building is still anchored by Shout House Dueling Piano Bar, Starbucks, Jimmy John's, and the Graves 601 luxury hotel, shuttered stores, dimly lit hallways, and barricaded escalators are now commonplace.

This fall, Hennepin Theatre Trust, an organization with a longtime presence on Hennepin Avenue, hopes to inject Block E with new life through an initiative titled Made Here. The project will be led by Artists in Storefronts' energetic leader, Joan Vorderbruggen. For the past year and a half, Vorderbruggen has been helping to transform the Whittier neighborhood through commissioning murals, enlisting artists to create pop-up galleries in storefront windows, and hosting events in unexpected places like bars and restaurant basements. She aims to use a similar model for Block E.

By the end of September, Made Here will illuminate 40 of Block E's outside-facing windows, erect poetry on the marquees of the defunct movie theater, and play local music curated by performance artist Jaime Carrera from the speakers facing the sidewalk. Participating creatives include prominent locals such as Frank and Pamela Gaard, Jim Denomie, and Ta-Coumba Aiken. Hennepin History Museum, Textile Center of Minnesota, and the Loft Literary Center are a few of the partnering organizations.

In selecting the artists, Vorderbruggen sought a diverse mix of well-known and emerging talents whose styles and inspirations run the gamut. Submissions to the project came from all over the state, while a number of folks selected are veterans of the Whittier project. "I'm starting to get to the point where it's feeling like Christmas," says Vorderbruggen. "My inbox is blowing up. I can't believe all the people coming out of the woodwork." The artists, who will each receive a stipend of $250, will create "an urban gallery smack in the middle of Hennepin Avenue," she says.

The project opens Friday, September 27, when the public will be invited for walking tours, live busking by artists such as Dreamland Faces and Danny Viper, and drinks and snacks in the skyway.

Tom Hoch, president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, says Made Here stems from a strategic planning process the organization underwent a few years ago wherein they surveyed 300 people on their perceptions of Hennepin. Consensus was that the avenue is an uneven experience, and people didn't feel comfortable roaming the area freely, especially at night. Folks preferred to park close to the theaters, and frequented only certain businesses nearby.

In response, the trust has broadened its mission, with an eye toward community-building and cultural development that extends beyond the walls of its theaters. These plans got a boost in 2011 when the National Endowment for the Arts created a new grant program, Our Town. Minneapolis was among the 56 cities to receive $200,000 from the NEA, for its Plan-It Hennepin initiative, which centered on improving the avenue. To do so, HTT worked with the Walker Art Center and Artspace, engaging 1,500 people over the course of a year with speakers, workshops, and models of what Hennepin Avenue could be. At the same time, it was also collecting feedback from the community about how to improve the street. HTT then went to City Hall, and had Hennepin Avenue and its adjacent streets, from the Walker Art Center to the river, designated as the Hennepin Cultural District earlier this year.

Block E is now a top priority. "It's synonymous with everything [people] see as wrong with downtown," says Hoch. He hopes Made Here helps to change that.

Made Here began with a prototype, still on display, in the window of the long-vacant Witt Mitchell building across from Pantages Theatre. The vignette features furniture designed by Minnesota artists. "We could not be more pleased," Hoch says. Before, the place seemed abandoned. "Now the windows are clean, the furniture is beautiful, and it's engaging."

Made Here artist Frank Gaard remembers when the area was the "throbbing heart" of the Twin Cities. He describes that part of downtown Minneapolis as being more like Chicago. "It was intense," he says. "There was always something to read or to drink, and fresh food from the market was there." Back then, the bygone Shinders shop was a "sacred site, a shrine."

Like Gaard, Ta-Coumba Aiken was part of the downtown scene back in the day. "It was a thriving time," he says. For Made Here, he is showing several large canvasses in the old Borders Books space. With his interactive installation on the first floor, he wants passersby to discover things as they're waiting for the bus or walking by during their lunch break. By contrast, a big, bold display that can be seen from farther away is bound for an upper-level window.

Aiken, who is still a familiar face on the gallery circuit, began creating murals in the 1970s. "I figured, millions of people could see it, and it wouldn't cost them anything," he says. "Allowing people to see art for free is important to me. After all, what value is art if people don't know it exists?"

Anishinabe artist Jim Denomie, who plans to expand on the portraits he did for Artists in Storefronts, agrees. "If I could, I would exhibit on a bus at a red light."

Aiken says that Block E is poised for a renaissance, and artists should be part of that process. For example, retail spaces could become studio spaces.

"If every artist stayed in a museum or gallery, there would be no life," he says. "Museums and galleries can't handle it all."

Block E opens its doors (and storefronts) to local artists
Courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

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