California Arts Council

State of California

Utilizing arts during crisis: an example from St. Paul, MN

Published: 09-19-2013

Businesses in local neighborhoods in St. Paul, MN, were faced with a dilemma: the city was investing in a light rail system that would enhance the city in the long run, but the four years of construction could crush local businesses along the planned corridors in the meantime. The long-term improvement created a short-term crisis for neighborhood small businesses-and an opportunity for a unique arts project to turn a negative into a positive.

"We wanted to mobilize local artists who cared about the neighborhood," said Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts.  The artists and their projects would be the key to turning public opinion about the temporary problems from the transportation project, especially for businesses that required happy customers during the challenging construction.

The project was titled Irrigate, and small grants ($1000 each) were distributed to a hundred local artists to collaborate with businesses negatively impacted by the construction. Rather than news stories about noise, blocked entrances and limited parking, the media reported about the art projects going on.

"We tracked one hundred news stories that were positive," said Zabel. The project was so successful in driving foot traffic that ninety percent of small business owners said they'd work with local artists again, even after construction was complete.

Zabel shares the story to show how working with artists can help businesses and commerce areas in transition, and she encourages outreaching to local arts nonprofits for ideas and programs. A little discussion and financial investment can turn what might be a commerce nightmare into something very, very positive.

This article was written by Arts Council staff in February 2013

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