The string of event cancellations around New Year’s sure put a damper on the start of 2022, but there’s reason to be optimistic. Even in the frightfully cold weather, Minnesotans can head to the outdoors for joy and beauty experienced with distance and safety. Beginning Jan. 15 through Feb. 6, the outdoor, interactive Art Shanty Projects offer bright and creative artist-designed shanties assembled on Lake Harriet. They are like fishing shacks, except on overdrive, and without the fish part. The festival is chock full of music, theater, dancing, skating and adventures you can enjoy while socially distanced.
Originally, when ASP was first conceived by artists Peter Haakon Thompson and David Pitman as a project hosted by the now-closed Soap Factory, the fun took place on Medicine Lake. After a stint at White Bear Lake, ASP began hosting the festivities at Lake Harriet, also known as Bde Unma, in 2018. They took a year off last year for the pandemic, but are back again better than ever. There are even sleds for people with wheelchairs and other folks that need an accessible way to experience the ice shanty village.
A major player in making the Art Shanty Projects shine is artistic director Erin Lavelle, a former Art Shanty artist who took over the reins in 2019. Lavelle also is part of the team that puts together the Northern Spark Festival, which takes place in June, and has loads of experience with creating outdoor, interactive art experiences.
According to Lavelle, the 2022 festival made a point of having fewer art shanties and more performers and art actions. “Part of that is because we’re entirely open air this year,” she says. In the past, visitors could enter inside of the different shanties, but they are skipping that feature this year. “We had to make this big shift for pandemic reasons, and we just decided the most vibrant village possible was the most important thing,” Lavelle says.
Among the highlights this year is a show called “How’s the Weather,” by zAmya Theater, made up of artists who have experiences being unhoused. The group will be transforming its Homeless Network Newz, a video program they’ve been sharing on social media during the pandemic, into a live event. There’s also going to be a program presented by the local chapter of American Ice Theatre, a national organization, which will be putting on a skating show called “Skate the Village.” There will also be places for visitors to free skate.
On the final weekend of the festival, watch out for Fashion Disasters, a tongue in cheek fashion show that takes on environmental disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, and rising waters, complete with narrated catwalk and larger than life costumes. The group also plans on doing a climate walk through the village to raise awareness about climate change.
Other fun programs to look forward to are the “The Tick-Tock Shanty (The Shanty Where We Waste Time).”
“The shanty itself is gorgeous,” Lavelle says. “It’s clear, and it has these exposed beams, and it’s a clock tower. Audiences can move the hands of the clock on the outside and the performers will shift how they’re wasting time.” Lavelle is also excited about HearSee Hall, who are creating an icy hallway you walk through with cranks and contraptions and spinning mirrors.
Financial and structural changes
Thank goodness the shanties are back, because the festival hit a rough patch a few years ago financially, and the organization took a year off in 2019 because of funding issues.
“We decided that we had to take 2019 off to be financially responsible and ensure the longevity of the organization,” says Danielle Jackson, the current board co-chair.
She wasn’t on the board until the fall of 2019, but has knowledge of the organization’s recent history. “We turned internally, and we started to think really deeply about how we could change our funding strategies and our spending strategies, and make sure that what we were doing could ensure stability for the organization long term,” Jackson says.
Boosted by an anonymous donation that helped support ASP while it regrouped, ASP focused on making organizational and structural changes. For instance, the board decided to have less of a top-down approach.
“We want to make sure that our programming, and therefore our staffing structure, was as non-hierarchical as possible,” Jackson says. “Folks work together collaboratively, and side by side and sort of divvy up the work based on capacity and interest and availability. There’s no ‘boss.’”
Part of the reason for that, Jackson says, is to make sure everyone, from staff and artists were getting paid fairly. “We were actually able to put our money where our mouth was and ensure that our artists and our staff are paid appropriately for their work,” she says, “and that we were living our values through our financials and not just through our programming.”
According to Lavelle, artist stipends for creating shanties has increased around 30% since 2017, when she was a participating artist. Right now, the stipend for creating a shanty is $2,400. “We don’t manage their budgets,” Lavelle says. “We do connect them with resources for free materials and discounted materials, and a lot of artists, especially if they’ve been artists in the past, will repurpose a lot of what they’ve already used.” There’s a bit more variation in pay for performance/art action groups depending on how many people in the group, and how many times they perform.
Another big change that was implemented in 2020 was to revamp its audience engagement and fundraising. Working with consultant Scottie Hall, ASP tested out a way to create an artist-created, flag-adorned perimeter around the festival, with a gate. There visitors were asked to give a donation in order to enter the space.
“We found that a lot of people were more than happy to do,” Jackson says. “We would like to link it to the idea of radical generosity.”
The plan worked. The ask generated around $60,000 for the organization in 2020, and ASP hopes to do the same thing this year. “It’s going to be gentle,” Jackson says. “We do not want to turn anyone away. Especially because we do not think that finances should be a reason someone can’t experience joy. Our messaging is more of an encouragement of giving what you’re able to, then a requirement to give.”
Besides changes to its organizational and financial structure, ASP is also taking steps to be more sustainable, both as a community and environmentally. For the former, they are asking folks to donate winter items for others to be able to use. They also wrote the issue of climate change into the mission, which is reflected by a number of projects that have raised that theme.
More practically, the organization has taken strides to address warmer weather with protocols to get the shanties off the ice efficiently in case of warmer than normal weather. Hopefully that won’t happen, and we get four full weekends of arts and performance on the ice.