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Gülgün Kayim aims to use artists to remake parts of Minneapolis

The goal of Minneapolis’ director of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy is “creative placemaking.”

Gülgün Kayim

Courtesy of Gülgün KayimGülgün Kayim

Don’t go running to her with your funding request for a theater troupe specializing in the works of Luigi Pirandello, an all- accordion orchestra or any other artsy project. Gülgün Kayim, Minneapolis’ director of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, can’t help you. “I don’t have a staff or a budget,” she says. “It’s just me.”

Kayim, whose name—it’s Turkish, but she grew up in London—rhymes with “HEY-JIM” if you say it really fast (Gülgün sounds like “GHOUL-GOON”), is no stranger to artistic schnorring. In her previous job at the Bush Foundation, she helped artists with financial support. And, as a dancer and co-founder of Skewed Visions, a performance collective, she presumably did some money scrounging on her own.

So you might ask: If she doesn’t hand out dough to local creatives, what does a person with her title actually do?

As they say, it’s complicated. She has a perch (a large one at City Hall with beautiful bow-shaped windows) in the Office of the City Coordinator, which oversees finance, communications and a gaggle of other departments. As Kayim sees it, her job is to work with all or some of them to achieve their goals partly by weaving in elements of the creative economy. Doing all that will presumably build a better city.

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Don’t get it? Well, neither did I.

Kayim took the job only last August, and there’s no obvious path for her to follow since she’s one of just a few people holding similar posts around the country. But she can already point to one achievement in this melding of arts and city planning: receipt of a $325,000 grant, announced this week, to the City and Intermedia Arts, a local group whose purpose is “to be a catalyst that builds understanding among people through art.” The money comes from ArtPlace, a consortium of 11 huge foundations (Ford, Mellon and Rockefeller, to name a few), government agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, and six big banks. Their goal is to “accelerate creative placemaking across the U.S.”

Urban gathering places

Creative placemaking? Kayim admits that this is the latest buzz phrase to infiltrate the city planning community. If I understand the concept correctly, it means establishing (or encouraging) urban gathering places that are lively and interesting where people enjoy themselves and maybe buy and eat stuff.

Such spots — plazas, parks, markets and streets bursting with life — abounded naturally in the pre-automobile age, though they weren’t always the nicest parts of town. As Raskolnikov noted when he was on his way to kill the old lady in “Crime and Punishment,” the liveliest areas are often magnets for the city’s seediest denizens.

In any case, seedy or not, such spots are hard to come by these days, particularly in the Twin Cities where the climate, skyways and car travel conspire to vacuum life out of streets. Boosting street life can in theory make a city more attractive to visitors and residents, promote commerce, boost tax revenues and prosperity — with everybody living happily ever after.

More particularly, one portion of the grant will place four artists in residence at the city’s planning division where they will collaborate on projects that would “explore creative ideas for addressing the city’s problems.

My hope is that they can come up with plans to turn Washington Avenue into the Champs Elysée and Fifth and Hennepin into Times Square. Some money goes to Pillsbury House, which plans to develop a “creative arts corridor” on Chicago Avenue from 34th to 43rd. The Native American Community Development Institute, another recipient, plans to transmute the Franklin Light Rail Station into “a destination” — meaning that you’ll aim to go there, not just pass through on your way to the airport — by creating a market with food trucks, vendors and performances. Both these projects sound pretty pie-in-the-sky, but God bless if they work out.

Another project on Kayim’s agenda is to work with the city’s housing agency to redevelop the North Side. “The Mayor wants to focus on housing, and the city owns vacant tracts of land,” she says.

Nothing concrete has happened yet, but she is hoping that somehow the city can make the area an attractive place for artists to live and work. While artists don’t make much money, they can and have pulled neighborhoods out of the slough of despond — or the ditch of ordinariness. (Consider the Nordeast.)”Artists are good tenants, they pay taxes and they engage in activities that attract others,” says Kayim

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North Minneapolis

There are already studios in North Minneapolis; getting more to come in and encouraging artists to live nearby could help the neighborhood turn around. To make her case, Kayim brings out a copy a (somewhat self-serving) study commissioned by Artspace, a Minneapolis non-profit that creates affordable studio facilities for artists across the nation. Such projects, concluded the report, can repurpose deteriorated or underutilized spaces, bring them back on the tax rolls, raise property values and draw new residents.

If Minneapolis can make itself known as a place that’s hospitable to artists, it could conceivably draw more of them from around the country. Again, more people, more activity, more income, more taxes, more happy-ever-after.

“We’re trying to do it with some sensitivity,” says Kayim. “Artists often make a place fabulous, and then they’re priced out.”

Kayim is also developing a “creative vitality index” which, she hopes, will “help people understand what’s involved.” She showed me a chart, configured like the Target logo on steroids and growth hormones, with rings showing every possible artistic activity, including education, philanthropy, the public sector, festivals, crafts, tourists, audiences and civic groups.

My mind immediately went kablooey. I guess I’d prefer to know (and maybe somebody has already done a study) how much money in Minneapolis goes for the arts, how many jobs they produce both directly and indirectly and how big a role they play in the economy. Are the arts more important than retailing or the hotel business or about the size of the dry-cleaning industry? It might pay to know.

I asked Kayim if Minneapolis is big enough or engaged enough to support all this artiness. After all, most groups here — theater, music and so on — can’t survive on ticket sales alone. They cobble together budgets from donations and grants — not always successfully. Both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra currently face budget deficits; last year, the 102-year-old Southern Theater barely eked out an existence after cutting its budget by 85 percent, and the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul had to cancel most of its 2011-12 season.

Kayim agrees that the arts, like so many other industries, face an iffy future. Among the problems she sees: aging audiences; diminished interest among young people except for performances, like Northern Spark last weekend, that invite active participation and run all night.

Kayim also mentions the ongoing decline in donations. Large corporations in the Twin Cities that historically forked over millions to create world-class institutions, like the Guthrie, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Walker Art Center, may not necessarily continue to be reliable sources of funding. Practically overnight their economic models are changing; some may have to struggle for their own survival.

Says Kayim, “We’re working in a whirlwind.”