Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership

Funding Received: 2015
Slayton, MN
July 7, 2016

ArtPlace America’s Community Development Investments (CDI) program provides funding and technical assistance to community development organizations who haven’t previously had a significant history of working with arts and culture.  

The first nine months of the program have been focused on learning core concepts of creative placemaking, undertaking cultural asset mapping activities, and beginning to plan projects with local communities.

We asked each participating organization to reflect on three things they’ve learned at the recent ArtPlace Summit and technical assistance visits, three challenges and opportunities they are currently facing, and three things they’re looking forward to in the future. 

For more information about Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, visit their homepage on our website!

Hello from Southwest Minnesota! The Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership has had a busy few months since leaving you all in Ajo’s warm embrace, getting to know our first ArtPlace community of St. James, MN. St. James is the county seat of Watonwan County, with a rich farming and railroad history, and a diverse population of just over 4,600; where the racial makeup is primarily white and Latino, and over 50% of the elementary school is now comprised of minority students. St. James seemed a great fit to begin the focus of our ArtPlace efforts, due in part to the diversity; which was an important factor in SWMHP’s desire to engage in the CDI to begin with; though it was the community enthusiasm and willingness to try new ideas that really tied the bow on top. We worked closely with city, school and community leaders to learn more about community assets and how the arts could play a role in the strengths and needs of this energetic, rural town.

On June 6th SWMHP hosted a “Community Connection Festival” at the local high school, which included various interactive stations with a series of table topics to learn more from community members what works and what could be better in St. James. With about 75 in attendance, and a lot of energy in the room, the desire to use this format to engage more voices in the community seemed to work as there was participation from a cross-sector of the city, representative of the diverse make-up of St. James. One of our favorite activities was the community canvas painting activity, led by the elementary art teacher, in which participants were asked to paint a 6” x 6” canvas of “something that makes them happy.” These canvases will now be displayed in the community for all to enjoy. Moving on from the Festival, SWMHP is working on a community plan, based on the feedback received, and hopes to move forward with some project ideas in the next few months; engaging artists to assist in the these efforts as well as various community groups.

Let’s circle back, to when we departed the Summit and beautiful Ajo in April, to talk first about things we learned here and with our TA visits in May; new challenges and opportunities emerging; and what we are excited about as we continue in these efforts.

Three Things We Learned at the Summit and on the TA Visits:

  • Seeing “creative placemaking” in action is key to understanding what it is, and how it can impact a community. Have we mentioned Ajo, AZ yet? Ha! What a beautiful and quaint place to wrap-up the 2016 ArtPlace Summit, especially for those of us who are just exploring this idea of how arts and culture can so positively and dramatically impact a community. We can share stories and hear from those engaged in the work, but experiencing the community change through arts and culture in Ajo was the most powerful tool in understanding it.
  • There is no wrong way to approach arts-based interventions; no “one-size fits all” way of doing things; only opportunity to try and see what works. There has definitely been some hesitation (anxiety?) about whether the ideas we pursued to engage the community in St. James were the “right ones” and would get us the results we wanted. Rest assured, we were reminded by Lyz and team that failure is a learning opportunity too. (Thankfully, we did not fail in this maiden effort! And we are learning to become more comfortable in the uncomfortable idea that some things won’t work, and that’s okay).
  • Storytelling is important. Storytelling is something with which SWMHP has always struggled, primarily because our relationships have been solidly built over the years on relationships and word of mouth. Marketing ourselves hasn’t been a focus, and therefore we have never made it a priority. Storytelling goes beyond marketing efforts; however; it is a way to celebrate our region and strengthen our communities. SWMHP sees a key role in this story-telling through the ArtPlace work; particularly in celebrating the diversity and assets within the region.

Three new operational challenges/opportunities that were surfaced during or out of the TA visits:

  • Keep focused on the “north star.” Lyz used this phrase a lot with us at the TA visit in May to remind us not to forget what we excel at, not realizing that the term has great significance for the State of Minnesota (i.e. “the North Star State”). The accidental integration of a local term to describe a bigger picture concept seemed too artistically noteworthy to pass up mentioning here! But, we digress….The real point is that we had been struggling to make changes to the way we do things, when really the goal was to keep doing the things we’re really good at and then figure out how to integrate arts into the process. As a result we’ve begun to shift our approach to this work by trying to refocus back on our strengths and seek opportunity to enhance those strengths with the ArtPlace CDI strategies. As such, and as was mentioned in the intro, we are currently taking these strengths by creating a community plan out of the engagement activities accomplished in St. James, part of which will focus on ways to engage the arts and artists in potential project/program outcomes.
  • Engaging artists into the process. Community planning has several steps: gathering data, seeking public feedback, setting priorities, and implementation, just to highlight a few. SWMHP has had many discussions about when and how to engage artists in the process. Is it better to bring one artist on at the beginning of the process, or different artists throughout the process? There was an opportunity to connect with Intermedia Arts at the Summit in April, and through this connection a relationship is forming in which they will help SWMHP navigate this part of the process. As we reach a point in St. James where project focus is imminent, commissioning Intermedia Arts to assist with artist engagement will be of great benefit.
  • Going slowly to move quickly. Lyz also reminded us that there are many great resources to assist SWMHP in navigating these new waters (another great Minnesota reference!). With roles just beginning to take shape with Intermedia Arts, the Partnership has also worked with Metris on data collection, and Sarah Wolbert (Piecework Design) on asset mapping and community engagement techniques. However, we have been challenged in weighing the concern of going too slowly in the processm and whether integrating new consultation slows us down even more; against “going slowly to move quickly.” Rather, how do we use and integrate consultants in the most efficient way possible; and with that better define roles amongst our team as well as the roles the consultants play? Though we feel like the further we get in the process, the easier these questions become to answer; but we know we aren’t there yet.  

Three things we are excited about that are coming up:

  • Moving forward with the St. James Community Plan and project priorities. As mentioned earlier, there was great demographic representation at the Community Connection Festival, and a lot of great feedback provided. We plan to submit a draft of the Community Plan to City Officials the end of July, with hopes of making local connections on project opportunities in early August. In the meantime, we will work with Intermedia Arts on artist engagement through these various steps.
  • Commencing work with the City of Worthington, MN. Worthington, MN is the next community in which SWMHP will focus ArtPlace efforts. Worthington is the most diverse community in the region, with over 50 dialects spoken in the schools, and also has great leadership and momentum for arts. Though some community outreach has taken place, the Partnership will more officially kick-off efforts by participating in the upcoming International Festival with a booth where participants can talk with Partnership members about community ideas, or paint a canvas (similar to the activity completed in St. James). From these efforts, the Partnership will build on asset mapping and identify potential areas on which to focus project outcomes; also working with Intermedia Arts on artist engagement.
  • Selecting our third community; and exploring further how this work can make what we do even better. SWMHP anticipates it will select a third community in which to focus ArtPlace efforts by mid-August; hoping to start work by fall. In the meantime; as we get into project efforts in St. James, commence work in Worthington, and consult with Intermedia Arts to assist in creative placemaking program development within the organization; SWMHP will continue to keep focused on the community changes we’re trying to achieve in this process (and not so much on changing how we do the things that make us, “US”), while keeping track of knowledge gained versus assumptions made along the way. SWMHP is excited to see where the next steps take us!