Last night I spent a stimulating evening in a building that I had first visited as ruin 16 years ago—years that bridge a very transformative time for me, three arts organizations and the City of Minneapolis.
Artist Wendy Fernstrum and I talked about our long and episodic collaboration and the books that came out of it. We delivered a version of an earlier bookstore appearance together, absent Christmas carollers, and beefed up with slides and the pulsating presence of artists, designers, book arts luminaries and neighbors.
Today, the linked trio of three-story turn-of-the-century buildings is called Open Book, home to The Loft Literary Center, Milkweed Editions and Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA), the host for my final winter book event in the Twin Cities. It's a renowned center for literary and book arts activities and admired as an example of visionary collaboration throughout the arts world.
But in 1998 when I had recently joined MCBA's board of directors, the three partner organizations were still trying to get on the same page. Each faced different challenges and fears about setting up housekeeping together, and there were no models to reassure funders what we were about to undertake was not insane.
There were no neighbors in the neighborhood, no pedestrian traffic around the vacant storefronts. Down the block was a used plumbing fixture dealer. On select weekends, the area was flooded with fans seeking cheap parking near the Metrodome. Across the busy arterial funneling cars in and out of downtown was a gas station and busy liquor store that served the nearby University and the equally nearby folks who drank along the river and railroad tracks.
The dark, boarded-up spaces we toured had once served the teeming tenements at the edge of the city's historic flour milling district. In its last incarnation, the ground floor shops had been stripped down to storage space for an electrical supply company. The empty apartments above contained few traces of past lives.
When I stepped under the marquee last night I beheld a renewed part of the city—a cultural/residential district where condominiums, restaurants and creative office space wrap around the Guthrie Theatre, Mill City Museum, MacPhail Center for Music and Big Brain Comics.
Although we can't claim responsibility for that transformation, we were the pioneers. We looked at blank page and instead of being intimidated, we plunged ahead, doing the hard work but never losing the bigger vision that is required to create something beautiful, moving and lasting.
It's what artists do, written across the edge of our city.
You can read here the whole story about the vision, collaboration and risk-taking the three partner organizations undertook.