Art-a-Whirl began in 1996 as a way for a handful of Northeast-based artists to showcase their work and drum up interest from a few individually invited local buyers. The following year, the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA), a non-profit artist collective, was formed to support and promote the artists who had flocked to the area in search of affordable live/work options. For years the community of makers thrived, as did Art-a-Whirl. However, as the arts community in Northeast — locally referred to as Nordeast — grew, so did the commodification of arts culture.
Historically a blue-collar and largely Eastern European community, Northeast was transformed when major industries left the neighborhood in the 1980’s and left large, unregulated warehouses in their wake. Once filled with a community of fine artists, Northeast has largely been replaced with developed, regulated spaces home to tech companies and mass-produced art created by design firms, explains Dr. Brittany Lewis, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.
Lewis led a survey-based study on the gentrification of Northeast Minneapolis which found, among other things, that “the act of creative placemaking has driven Northeast Minneapolis’ unique form of gentrification in the Twin Cities,” with Art-a-Whirl as a telltale sign of that change. What was once a small, invite-only event designed to fund artists is now a mega party that draws roughly 30,000 visitors who spend more time at the breweries and outdoor music performances throughout the district than buying or even looking at art. “Now it’s more like Mardi Gras than any kind of real fine arts event,” one survey respondent told Lewis’ team.
For Lewis, the question comes down to this: Who benefits? Cities have the power to mitigate the negative impacts of gentrification, but doing so would require investing money in existing neighborhoods as opposed to focusing on bringing private, outside money in. One way that cities interested in preserving the genuine culture and affordability of arts districts, formal and informal, is by reconfiguring how affordability is calculated.
“Cities are using HUD’s median income to determine what’s affordable, but because our geographic area includes outer ring suburbs like Bloomington, our median income goes up … But if you look at North [Minneapolis], the median income is $30,000,” Lewis says. When cities use HUD benchmarks to designate affordable housing, the only outcome urban neighborhoods will see is gentrification pressure in one form or another, wiping out the culture and community that made it a desirable location in the first place in the process.
“There has to be an intentional education of people of the value of art and this history of fine art and the time it takes to make it — a revaluing of those artistic expressions and money invested in different artists’ residencies that severely subsidize these artists’ ways of living,” she says. “Because before, it was super cheap — they didn’t need to be subsidized.”