"Sometimes I felt like a used-car salesman, pitching the idea to store owners who were very busy and did not typically have anything art-related on their agendas," says Joan Vorderbruggen, project leader for Whittier Artists in Storefronts.
The objective of Artists in Storefronts is to help revive urban areas by filling storefronts (especially those left vacant during the recession) with original artwork. The pilot project, now underway in south Minneapolis' Whittier neighborhood, brings together a wide variety of artists including potters, mural painters, woodworkers, letterpress designers and photographers. Twenty-two exhibits stretch along Nicollet Avenue and surrounding blocks, including storefronts as well as several outdoor murals.
Vorderbruggen, who was inspired by photographer Wing Young Huie's acclaimed 2010 University Avenue Project in St. Paul, initially wanted to find a city block to fill with her own designs, but found it hard to actualize that idea. As she attempted to cultivate her early plan, she discovered new seeds of inspiration. "I found some really successful storefront art projects on both coasts that were pairing vacant commercial spaces with various artists -- like a group show in a gallery -- and that began to make more sense to me," she said.
She found that store owners had a variety of reactions, from enthusiastic to dismissive, but with the help of organizations such as the Whittier Alliance and the Good Work Group, as well as her artist husband, Tom Siler, and their friends, the endeavor began to come together.
Vorderbruggen hopes to expand the Whittier project west to Lyndale Avenue, as well as to other neighborhoods. Powderhorn, University Avenue and north Minneapolis top her wish list.
One piece that is already gaining attention is New Orleans artist Candy Chang's interactive chalkboard at 2609 Stevens Av. S. The work consists of the words "Before I die," followed by blank spaces for public responses. The day after the piece was installed, all 56 lines were filled. Vorderbruggen plans to keep a photo journal with all the responses as she clears rows for new participants.
Photographer Steven Lang's pictures hang in an empty storefront at 35 E. Franklin Av., communicating a distinct brand of Minnesota loneliness, perfectly represented in a photo of a stray bike lying in the snow. Lang, who lives and works in Whittier, has documented the neighborhood through his photography for the past year, taking thousands of shots while wandering the streets and alleys.
"Whittier seems to offer an almost inexhaustible source of imagery," Lang says. "I can't imagine anywhere else in Minneapolis that would offer more to a photographer."
That this entire effort came together in the neighborhood where Vorderbruggen and Siler purchased a condo three years ago, after returning from several years in New York, made the project extra meaningful.
"I have to say, coming from New York to Whittier, it was a really comfortable fit with all the diversity -- the bodegas, the trillion restaurants, the noise," Vonderbruggen says. "My husband and I still go for walks and say to each other, 'Can you believe how kick-ass this neighborhood is?' I am over the moon to have a small hand in making it prettier."
WHITTIER ARTISTS IN STOREFRONTS
- What: Artist-designed storefront exhibits, street art and murals throughout the Whittier neighborhood.
- When: Free walking tours 2 p.m. May 5, 12 & 26. Free night bike tour 9 p.m. May 17. Free doggie tour 2 p.m. June 2. Storefronts are lit daily until 11 p.m. for self-guided tours.
- Where: Start from Whittier Alliance, 10 E. 25th St., Mpls.
- Closing event: "Busk Till Dawn," 9 p.m.-6 a.m. June 9, free. Northern Spark Festival, Icehouse Court, 2540 Nicollet Av. S., free.
- Info: Maps at www.artistsinstorefronts.com