The Saint Paul Art Collective will explore the potential for establishing a community arts center in the Lowertown neighborhood as well as an arts district designation for Lowertown. This exploration will include community engagement, a feasibility study and a report with recommendations for community stakeholders.
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
As a part of the first phase of our feasibility study, SPAC engaged different stakeholder groups and community leaders through specifically targeted large group and one-on-one meetings. The meetings with stakeholder groups in particular—artists, nonprofit and creative businesses, funders, and local leaders—were instrumental in helping us to shape the questions, opportunities, and concerns of different groups in Lowertown and greater St. Paul who had a stake in the arts. Anecdotally, these meetings opened up new connections with organizations, such as St. Paul Historic Preservation, allowing us to talk about what could be possible for an Arts District branding of Lowertown. Similarly, due to these meetings, we learned very practical information about the St. Paul Creative Arts High School’s plans for capital expenditures on creative spaces, and ways we could combine our efforts. In the aggregate, what these meetings also helped us to do was to start disseminating information and engaging a much wider set of community groups and individuals who had an interest in a potential arts center and neighborhood branding.
Without question, one of the most instrumental aspects of the study was the choice of Artspace as our consultants, and our continued work with them over a twelve month period to complete the different phases of the feasibility study. In January of 2014 the board evaluated proposals from 7 different potential consultants in response to an RFP, and we decided on Artspace based on a combination of their proposal, their long-time involvement and advocacy for the Lowertown neighborhood, their national reputation, and their specific expertise in the kind of project we were setting out to achieve. Throughout this process, Artspace’s ability to pull examples and analysis from other arts communities throughout the country, and to help us gain meetings with key individuals in St. Paul, such as council members and advisors to the mayor, played a crucial role in helping us gain both traction and notice from the greater community. Working with Artspace also enabled us to have valuable counsel as SPAC contemplated expanding into a physical space in Lowertown that could contain arts activities and become a future arts center.
In the final part of the study, Artspace designed an online survey after gathering information and feedback from the Feasibility Study committee and community for several months. This survey was then disseminated through multiple channels to enable us to collect feedback and reactions from a wide group of people who visited, worked in, lived in, or had a stake in the Lowertown neighborhood and the future of the arts. Our goal, as advised by Artspace, was to have 300 respondents to help us shape the next stage in our project. We had over 360 responses, and these responses proved to be instrumental in showing us the needs, hopes, and aspirations for a community art center in Lowertown. Having this concrete data, which included questions ranging from the kinds of art forms practiced to what visitors to Lowertown would pay for, enabled Artspace to make specific recommendations for the SPAC board to enact towards creating a community art service and space. This information, which we shared with the community and greater public, also helped to galvanize a larger group to get involved in order to make the suggestions a reality.
Key lessons learned:
A key lesson that the Feasibility Committee and SPAC board learned from this process, was that there was great interest amongst a wide variety of stakeholders in the future of the arts community in Lowertown, and there were also different ways that SPAC as an organization could meet or address these interests. With the help of Artspace, the SPAC board was asked half-way through the study to evaluate and decide upon an “arts center model” to test with the online survey and later aspects of the study. The models presented, in response to stakeholder feedback, were an entirely web-based virtual “center” that connected individuals, organizations, and businesses in St. Paul to give people a chance to connect to the arts in a new way, a “hub-and-spokes model” which would include a central go-to space/location that could act as both a convening and information hub to connect artists, visitors, workers, collectors, and more to the great variety of activities already happening in the Lowertown neighborhood, and finally a traditional “bricks and mortar” art center model that would involve a large capital expenditure, exhibition and classroom spaces, and more.
A second lesson learned from this process was the necessity, and challenge, of true community feedback and buy-in for any large scale project. We did a good job at getting the word out and giving multiple opportunities for artists, business owners, non-profit leaders, and residents to become involved with the project, but even so only a small section of the Lowertown and arts stakeholders who could benefit from a neighborhood district branding and/or arts center participated. I would not characterize this as a failure, but rather a learning point that the resources, time involvement, and competition for the attention of people and organizations is particularly demanding. We could have used a full time person dedicated simply to messaging and developing communications channels to both inform and attract participation at the events, feedback sessions, and monthly feasibility committee meetings held to help us be more comprehensive and connected throughout the community.
Reflections on the community innovation process:
Community engagement, as well as generating and testing solution/ideas, were both crucial parts of our feasibility study. In fact, the purpose of our entire study was both to determine the interest AND the feasibility of creating an arts district and/or community center in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul. Both of these questions rested heavily on our ability to engage and draw feedback from stakeholders in the community, and then, in partnership with Artspace, to generate ideas and potential solutions to the needs and concerns that came out of our community engagement. On a more specific level, I think community engagement via specific community leaders and personalities was especially important. By attracting leaders and well networked individuals at other organizations and groups, our study gained both from word-of-mouth and an implicit sense of “one to watch” in the community. As stated above, the ability to communicate regularly and often is instrumental in this process, and is something that we could have done more of and better to gain an even wider participation amongst the community.
Progress toward an innovation:
This feasibility study helped the SPAC board make significant progress for two reasons. First, it helped to provide concrete data and examples of successes in other communities with similar opportunities and concerns, and it also enabled the SPAC board to contemplate and evaluate a viable community art center for the near-future—the “hub and spokes” art center model—that is more realistically achievable both financially and temporally than a larger traditional “bricks and mortar” art center would be. Due to this balance in meeting a community need and practicality, the board has been able to set up a committee that will now take the recommendations from the feasibility study and create an action committee that will set about implementing different steps from the recommendations. The idea is to start with small, achievable, measurable steps that specifically focuses on creating access, connectivity, and greater collaboration amongst the assets that already exist in Lowertown, while establishing SPAC as the go-to place/organization for the arts in Lowertown and for greater St. Paul.
What it will take to reach an innovation?:
In our case, the innovation was the evaluation and testing of a viable model, and then putting in place the necessary steps and talent to make it happen. We have just finished the feasibility study aspect of this project, so the next step before the board is implementation. As articulated above, a committee has been formed and that committee will set about planning and implementing a series of steps from the recommendations of the study.
The next steps are the formation of a Feasibility Study Implementation Committee, the commitment of resources and time to create a small, physical “hub” through SPAC as part of the “hub and spokes” model, and a formal outreach to individuals, artists, organizations, and businesses that have an interest and will participate as “spokes” as part of the “hub and spokes” model. Then we can enact specific communications and outreach campaigns to different stakeholder groups—such as visitors to Lowertown, or artists, or arts collectors—to inform them of the opportunities available, give incentives and events to attract usage of the hub and spokes model, and keep building up a large base of “users” that will build towards a larger center in time. As part of these next steps, SPAC will measure actions against many of the stated desires and needs gathered from the online survey, such as a need for more opportunities to exhibit work, or the articulated need from visitors for more venues and opportunities to view art or performances.
If you could do it all over again...:
The piece of advice would have been to think much more broadly and intently in the construction of the feasibility committee, and to create a more professionalized structure and set of requirements for participation. The Feasibility Committee was instrumental in helping achieve much of the work of the study, but it came about after we had chosen Artspace as consultants and rather quickly as we set about our work together. Looking back, it would have made sense to have a much larger committee, with a more diverse representation, and a group with members that were able to be present for the majority of meetings. We ended up with a core group of individuals that were engaged and regular attendees/contributors, but much of the real work fell on too small a group. Additionally, the kind of advice needed and input for Artspace and the project would have been better from a larger and more broadly experienced group that could speak to issues of city politics, business interests, artist interests, urban planning, etc. I would have put much more time, planning, and outreach into the formation of this committee, even if it meant delaying the launch of the study by a month or two.
One last thought:
The Bush Foundation Community Innovation grant was truly a transformational opportunity for the Saint Paul Art Collective. As we stated in our application, there had been much talk, speculation, and desire in the community for some time to establish a greater presence, visibility, and sense of coherence for the long-time arts population in Lowertown. Through this grant, and the way that it enabled SPAC to communicate a real serious intent around this project, we have seen in the past year not only a huge upsurge in the interest and engagement of community members, but a real sense of practical movement in what may have only seemed like “a dream” a few years ago. One example demonstrates this well—we held a Town Hall meeting to give the results of this feasibility study and report on SPAC’s greater work in the community in January 2015. We thought 50-60 people would be a great showing, and ended up with between 110-120. The audience was engaged, offered solutions and suggestions, asked lots of questions, and we gained dozens of volunteers for various SPAC committees.