Arts & Culture at One Water Summit

August 20, 2018

By: Shanai Matteson, Artist & Collaborative Director, Water Bar & Public Studio

Just over a month ago, the One Water Summit came to our hometown of Minneapolis. This national conference, organized by the nonprofit US Water Alliance, brought together 900 water leaders from across sector and geography to learn and connect for a more sustainable, inclusive and integrated water future. After attending the 2017 One Water Summit in New Orleans, it was our turn to elevate some of the great work happening here in Minnesota, and we were thrilled to have many opportunities to do so through the Summit and affiliated activities. 



This was the first year that the One Water Summit had a special focus on the role of arts and culture in water work. Along with other critical initiatives, the US Water Alliance released this report at the One Water Summit highlighting promising projects and partnerships that are utilizing arts and culture to advance sustainable, integrated and equitable water management.

Water Bar artist and codirector Shanai Matteson was one of the advisors to this blueprint project, and Water Bar was one of the featured case studies.

“The power of Water Bar lies in its informal, artistic approach to engaging citizens. Each experience is completely different from the other. It’s not about converting people or changing their ideas, but more about having conversations in a fun, water-centered environment that builds relationships and helps imagine what our water future could be like.” — Linda Henning, Manager, Special Projects Office, Metropolitan Council

The report details some of the ways that our work and the work of other artists and cultural organizers is advancing the shared goals of water organizations, governments, communities and water-reliant businesses.



In order to go deeper into these ideas, and to demonstrate artists at work, ArtPlace America, Helicon and US Water Alliance held a One Water Summit Institute on Arts, Culture and One Water at Water Bar & Public Studio. We were thrilled to co-host this gathering of artists and water colleagues from across the country, who shared their experiences, challenges and big dreams for working in collaboration. 

We began by asking Dakota media artist (and Minnesota One Water Summit Artist Delegate) Mona Smith to share a bit about who she is, where we are, and about the critical work of the indigenous artist-led Healing Place Collaborative. Mona shared her thoughts on what it means to be in a Dakota place, and to begin with the indigenous - especially as we consider ways to work together for water, and for healthier people and places. Mona also shared a quote that resonated deeply with many who attended the institute, as it speaks to the spirit of collaboration and care for the future that many artists bring to movements for water:

"There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.  They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly ... Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, Least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do,  our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt ... The time for the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from you attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration ... We are the ones we've been waiting for." - Attributed to an unnamed Hopi elder, Hopi Nation, Oraibi, Arizona



To demonstrate how artists can work with utilities and others, Water Bar was a featured part of the Summit. Together with partners, we served water from cities across the country. We were fortunate to be joined by water utility leaders from Philadelphia, Kansas City, Tucson, and a number of other places.

While we served water together, we learned about their plans to utilize arts and culture to more deeply engage the people and communities they serve with the critical water issues that must be addressed together.

We learned that the City of Philadelphia and water leaders in Seattle are already planning to create their own Water Bar projects modeled on our work. Following the Summit, a number of other cities expressed interest in beginning conversations about how they can utilize Water Bar to build relationships with artists and residents in their communities.

We're working with a handful of these partners now to create tools and resources that can enable these municipalities and water organizations to integrate what we've learned developing this project here in Minnesota, into their place-based work in other regions. 

If you're interested in being part of this conversation, or supporting this emergent Water Bar network, please be in touch



Thanks to support from the McKnight Foundation and ArtPlace, three delegations of arts and culture leaders were able to attend the One Water Summit together. A group of artists from across the US convened as a National Arts Delegation, cross-pollinating ideas that have been successful in different regions. A native nations and water proctors delegation was convened by Sharon Day (Anishinaabe), whose cultural and spiritual relationship with water has been an inspiration to so many (see a video we created about Sharon's Nibi Walk: Mississippi River here). Water Bar was also able to help organize a delegation of Minnesota-based artists to attend.

Here are a few brief reflections from some of the Minnesota artists who attended:

"This summit was absolutely the greatest for making many new connections. It is so helpful to have a bigger picture of networks evolving. Being from western Minnesota and one of a few rural arts delegates attending, knowing the Summit is integrating us too, into the greater population, creates hope for a better future along with providing helpful tools for addressing water issues locally and on the whole." - Don Sherman

"Being part of the Minnesota Artist Delegation was especially significant for me. It gave me confidence to keep showing up as an outlier. I had been giving up on being able to partner with other sectors, because I’m working in an entirely different dimension. But I feel renewed confidence that I should keep standing my ground in this different point of view, that it is in fact what is needed, and I can imagine being willing to create some new collaborations. It’s opening a door of hope and possibility for me. The key really was being assured that I was needed as an outlier and to have confidence in my perspective. That’s why the tone you set for the delegation was so important to me." - Emily Jarrett Hughes

"In sessions and in conversations with artist and non-artist alike I was reminded how the work of building healthy reciprocal cross sector collaborations is still a bit of a mystery. I heard the question, “How do I work with artists/ municipalities/ communities/ corporations?” asked multiple times and in multiple ways. The desire is there. Seems the respective fields are simply trying to sort out how it happens. That brings me a lot of good energy and hope. Intersectionality is everything, isn’t it? I appreciate and admire how it is central to the One Water Summit’s values and practice ... Leads me to thinking about field building—how artists who have navigated and built cross sector projects and structures might need to turn our attention to sharing that knowledge and practice with the respective fields perhaps from decidedly different vantage points that bring us closer together." - Angie Tilges

We continue to be in conversation with the National Arts Delegation, with new collaborations emerging. The Minnesota Arts Delegation will reconvene in September to look back at the One Water Summit experience, and to share some thoughts and plans for moving these critical conversations forward. Many thanks to Art Place, US Water Alliance, McKnight Foundation and all of the artists and culture bearers who attended the Summit.



As artists who've been working in collaboration with other sectors and networks on environment issues for over a decade now, it's inspiring to see this conversation elevated to a national level by partners in the one water movement. We look forward to continuing to think, to work, and learn from that work, sharing what we can with our peers and with partners across other fields.

A couple of things rose to the surface in conversation amongst artists attending the One Water Summit that we believe deserve deeper reflection and more dedicated support. The first is recognition that one thing we need is more opportunity to convene and share our experiences and learning as artists and cultural organizers. As outliers in what is considered "professional water work" we have some unique challenges, and very few spaces to convene and address those challenges with peers.

These include the challenge of communication and recognition as we move across sectors; The challenge of finding the financial and social support to attend gatherings like this, so that our critical voices and concerns can be heard beyond our own networks; And the challenge of immersing ourselves in professional environments and cultures that may not seem safe or welcoming for the concerns and ideas we bring.

Many artists and community-oriented cultural organizers work as freelancers without professional development budgets, or are low-income, working many odd hours with additional commitments to family and community. For these artists and communities, attending professional conferences like this involves additional barriers. Some members of our delegation also expressed that it was difficult to be part of conversations in which something as essential to life and environmental justice as water access, could be discussed in removed and impersonal terms (which it often is at gatherings where water is seen primarily as an industry or commodity). Though these barriers exist, many also expressed their gratitude to have the chance to learn by being immersed alongside other artists.

Given these challenges, it was especially hopeful to see so many artists and cultural organizations stepping into these conversations with bravery, and the support and welcome offered by US Water Alliance and other partners was a big part of making this possible. It was also great to hear from those at the conference who do not identify as artists expressing their support for the arts and their interest in continuing to build relationships and cultures for collaboration.

There was also conversation about the difference between supporting programs and projects led by existing nonprofit organizations, and supporting artists and cultural organizers by investing in their leadership and the networks that are necessary for their learning. 

The latter (supporting artists as leaders, and networks and communities of practice) is more challenging, since it requires investment in resources or aspects of this work that seem notoriously difficult to define and measure. But we believe (and heard from others) that this kind of support is essential if what we hope for is deep transformation in systems, and long-term impacts that ripple outward, both in local communities, and through the larger systems that govern water at various scales. 

Though these are challenging conversations and ideas to move forward, they are essential to the future of one water, and we look forward to continuing to do what we can to be a convener, a bridge, and a creative partner with others working at this intersection.