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Why Joan Vorderbruggen and Hennepin Theatre Trust have parted ways

Everyone has a breaking point, even “Joan of Art.”

Joan Vorderbruggen’s a one-of-a-kind powerhouse doing a job most people couldn’t do, or wouldn’t want to do, or wouldn’t even think of doing.
Joan Vorderbruggen’s a one-of-a-kind powerhouse doing a job most people couldn’t do, or wouldn’t want to do, or wouldn’t even think of doing.
Courtesy of Joan Vorderbruggen

If you’ve admired the iconic Bob Dylan mural in downtown Minneapolis, or noticed art filling otherwise empty windows along Hennepin Ave., or looked up at billboards featuring Minneapolis’ essential workers, you’ve seen some of Joan Vorderbruggen’s work as Director of Hennepin Theatre District Engagement, a position she held until recently with Hennepin Theatre Trust.

But only some; the iceberg’s tip.

The five-story mural of Bob Dylan by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra located at 15 South 5th St. in downtown Minneapolis.
Photo by Weston MacKinnon on Unsplash
The five-story mural of Bob Dylan by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra located at 15 South 5th St. in downtown Minneapolis.
For eight years and countless projects, meetings, long days and nights, Vorderbruggen has helped HTT build a reputation as not only a presenter of Broadway musicals but also a caring member of the community, one willing to invest time, effort and resources to make the Theatre District — Hennepin Ave. from Fifth to Tenth streets, where its Orpheum, State and Pantages theaters are located — a safe and welcoming place for all.

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She’s a one-of-a-kind powerhouse doing a job most people couldn’t do, or wouldn’t want to do, or wouldn’t even think of doing. Isn’t the Trust’s primary purpose to fill its theaters? Not to hire artists to paint murals, take photographs or perform at parties on sidewalks and in parking lots, and make sure the artists are paid fairly and treated with respect?

Given what she’s done and was in the midst of doing, despite the pandemic, we were surprised — make that shocked — to see this post on Vorderbruggen’s Facebook page in late August:

As of today I am no longer in my role at Hennepin Theatre Trust. I am grateful for the eight years I spent working for the organization and am proud of all we accomplished together. My relationships mean a lot to me. I will be taking several weeks off to spend time with my family and then excited to consider what my next steps will be. In the meantime you can reach me at my personal email. Much love.

The post drew hundreds of reactions and comments, because most people who work in and around the arts in the Twin Cities know who Vorderbruggen is and what she does.

We had questions, and soon after, we sat down together. Among her first words were “I’m really grateful to Hennepin Theatre Trust.”

Before getting into “What happened?” here’s some background.

Vorderbruggen was first hired in 2013 by Hennepin Theatre Trust’s then-president/CEO Tom Hoch as a freelance consultant. Hoch was impressed by Vorderbruggen’s successful “Artists in Storefronts” project in her own Whittier neighborhood and thought, why not downtown? Vorderbruggen soon found herself with a full-time job. This was after she had transformed the old Block E, then a vacant, monstrous eyesore, into an eye-catching, buzzworthy urban gallery filled with art by local artists including Ta-coumba Aiken. That was the first “Made Here.”

From Cultural District Artist Coordinator, she rose to Director of Public Art and Placemaking and ultimately Director of Hennepin Theatre District Engagement. She became a nationally recognized leader on placemaking and public art and a sought-after speaker and advisor. She was named a Creative Community Fellow by National Arts Strategies and was selected to participate in the nine-month Policy Fellows program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, one of the country’s most respected public affairs leadership programs. She was a founding member of the Placemaking Leadership Council and served on the boards of directors for Forecast Public Art, Minneapolis Mad Dads and Salvation Army Harbor Light Center.

Over the years, Vorderbruggen became known as “Joan of Art” (sorry, Joan Mondale) for her close personal connection with the arts (she’s an artist herself) and artists, her unflagging support for arts of all kinds and her belief in the power of art to change things. In 2014, the Star Tribune’s Kristin Tillotson dubbed her “Joan the Connector” for her ability to bring all kinds of people together for a common purpose.

Joan Vordebruggen leading a tour of "Brilliance! Made Here" in 2014.
Photo by Steven Lang
Joan Vordebruggen leading a tour of "Brilliance! Made Here" in 2014.
Meanwhile, in March 2017, Hoch stepped down and Mark Nerenhausen stepped in as HTT’s president/CEO. Vorderbruggen’s many projects continued: the twice-yearly downtown window displays of “Made Here,” the largest project of its kind in the nation (June 2018 was the 10th iteration); “5 to 10 on Hennepin,” a placemaking program of arts and cultural experiences for Minneapolis youth; “It’s the People,” an outdoor gallery of large-scale fine-art portraits capturing the life of the avenue; “We Are Still Here,” a multi-year initiative to uplift Native voices; “Art Connects Us,” a digital billboards project with Clear Channel Outdoor that displayed original art by Minnesota-based artists on 60 roadside billboards. At Vorderbruggen’s behest, artist Reggie LeFlore brought the State Theatre’s boarded-up windows to life in the months following George Floyd’s murder.

Under Nerenhausen, her responsibilities increased. She served on committees to drive and inform the Hennepin Ave. reconstruction project, working with planning committees and department leaders at the City. She led cross-sector, comprehensive public safety planning for the district, chairing the Hennepin Avenue Safety Committee and serving on multiple boards and commissions. She drove organizational change to engage 80% BIPOC artists and communities.

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Vorderbruggen is tremendously compassionate. She spent many years as a nurse and brings that same selfless diligence and caring into everything she does. Like most people, she also has a breaking point.

She’s a bridge-builder (and probably, given the chance, a bridge-painter), not a bridge-burner. So she spoke with care.

“I’m an honest person, mostly,” she said. “The workload at Hennepin Theatre Trust was immense. My team worked with 15% more artists since the pandemic happened, and we executed one large-scale mural and another smaller mural. We did a weekly youth program. We have an Indigenous public art cohort, and we hosted them for a week. We had the ‘It’s the People’ public art project. So my workload could be, like, 60 hours a week for several weeks nonstop, which is fine. No one ever expected me to work that hard. But at the same time, these are projects that have a lot of momentum, that had funding from various sources.”

There were pandemic-related furloughs and staff turnovers at the Trust. “We haven’t had a director of communications since before the pandemic. We didn’t have a director of finance for a very long time, and we haven’t had a director of development for almost two years.

Visual artist and muralist Reggie LeFlore spent two weeks painting “The Overseer, Divinity and Humanity” beneath the State’s wide marquee.
Courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust
Visual artist and muralist Reggie LeFlore spent two weeks painting “The Overseer, Divinity and Humanity” beneath the State’s wide marquee.
“I have been okay with being a one-woman band, in a way, and trying to delegate to all the different departments the things that are needed, but it’s inevitable that a lot gets missed. So I guess I will say the first part of this is that the stress and amount of work that I was expected to do was pretty much unbearable and unsustainable since May of this year. I mean, there’s always peaks and valleys. There’s always busy times, and I can crank, and I love to work hard, and I get a bang out of waking up at seven in the morning and just cranking until a big thing appears — I get a lot of energy out of that — but to have to do that over and over and over again …

“At one point, I was on, like, 14 different committees, so it was pretty nutty.

“I was also very focused on developing my own leadership and professional development, which Hennepin Theatre Trust has been very supportive of. I was advocating for support for employees of the [Salvation Army] Harbor Light [Center], running their meetings and trying to be a good neighbor to the people who show up every day to work there and serve.

“That has been rewarding and challenging, but if you put it all together it’s enough to make you pop. And I have no one to blame but myself. … When someone comes to me with an opportunity, I’m like, ‘Oh, I think I could do that, and I think I could help you with it.’ That’s the caretaker continuum. …

“It’s been a really amazing journey of growth and learning, and you’re building the bike while you’re riding it, so of course you’re going to make mistakes.”

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The last straw for Vorderbruggen wasn’t the workload, the running around or the pressures of the pandemic. It was a statement Hennepin Theatre Trust ultimately released on Sept. 9 titled “Hennepin Theatre Trust public safety update.” It says, in part:

Last June, when George Floyd was killed and our theatres were shuttered due to the pandemic, we issued a statement that Hennepin Theatre Trust would discontinue using off-duty Minneapolis Police Department officers for part-time event security. We made this announcement in collaboration with our theatre management firm, Historic Theatre Group (HTG).

Now, as we approach the re-opening of our stages, we have a greater understanding of the contracts our management firm holds that require a police officer to be present during events. While we do not have the authority to cancel these legal agreements, we accept responsibility for not being as careful as we should have been when we made our statement about this very serious issue.

She had known for months that a statement was coming, but not that she would be one of the people responsible for the crisis communication. In a mid-August meeting with Nerenhausen and her colleagues from the communications department, she objected.

“At first I’m quiet, and then I just say, ‘You all know that this affects me so much more than it affects you, because of my community-facing position with artists and activists and community. I’m the one that’s going to take the blow from this.

“I can’t do this, and I’m not going to do it.’”

Concurrent with the update, an exhibit in the photo gallery at The Hennepin, HTT’s events center adjacent to the Orpheum, was featuring photographs by seven photojournalists of Move for Justice News, who recorded scenes of social unrest — and police brutality — in Minneapolis during 2020. (That exhibition closed yesterday, Sept. 23.) Vorderbruggen said at the meeting, “Do you want me to look all those artists in the face and say, ‘Sorry, we lied about our promise about the cops?’ I’m not doing it.”

After that, “Days go by. Nothing. I don’t know what’s happening. I told the HR director and I told my boss that the stress was unbearable.”

It was suggested that she take a vacation, come back, and they would figure it out.

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Instead, Vorderbruggen did something impulsive — “the stupidest thing I could possibly do, and it reminds me of being in high school.” She fired off an email that, well, got her fired.

And that was that.

When we spoke, she was philosophical. “I don’t think I could be successful there, with this type of a breach,” she said. “I think it was over at that point. For me, it centered this feeling that we’re a community organization that cares a lot. There have been many investments, and I don’t ever want to cheapen the work that I’ve done and I’ve been supported to do.

“I’m super proud of it. I don’t know any other organization who stuck with a programming person like me, who leads programming in the way that I lead. I know that’s probably been really hard across the years for a lot of people. Like, why are we providing community meals for people who are experiencing homelessness? We’re trying to sell tickets to Disney! There’s always been this clash of interests.”

What about the future?

“The staff that is there have said they’re committed to continuing public art.”

And her own legacy?

“I feel that probably one of the best contributions that I’ve made to downtown is I advocated for leadership to be human. And to be human-centered, not just about this part of downtown, but about the people who are there.”