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Block E’s ‘art windows’ next step in promoting Hennepin Cultural District

The displays are meant to promote the street’s diverse offerings, which stretch from the Mississippi up to the Walker Art Center.

Local furniture-makers displayed in the first Made Here exhibit in the Witt Mitchell Building.
Hennepin Theatre TrustLocal furniture-makers displayed in the first Made Here exhibit in
the Witt Mitchell Building.

Finally! Something is going to happen at Block E, the luckless entertainment complex on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.

It’s not the drastic change that many have been hoping for. Neither Google nor Apple is opening a Midwest headquarters there; nor is the place slated to become a glitzy casino with Las Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffets. (Darn!)

The building will remain just as empty as it has been since the AMC theater operation moved out last year, with only Kiernan’s Irish Pub, the Graves 601 Hotel, Shout! Piano Bar and a couple other spots open for business.

But starting in late September, Block E’s windows will play host to “Made Here,” an initiative led by the Hennepin Theatre Trust, to showcase the work of Minnesota artists. Honest to God, I’ve been by and in Block E many times and never noticed that it had windows.

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“It does, it does!” says Joan Vorderbruggen, the project’s artistic coordinator. “There are about 40.”

The purpose of this extravaganza — and I hope it becomes one — is to promote the Hennepin Cultural District, which stretches from the Mississippi up to the Walker Art Center. So far the district is, dare I say, hardly where it wants to be. Yes, it boasts theaters (the Orpheum, State, Pantages and New Century, not to mention the Cowles), the Sculpture Garden, the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, a couple of galleries and, to the north, some sleazy nightclubs, which offer culture of a different sort.

But the street has got holes that need filling — surface parking lots and empty buildings, the biggest of which is Block E. The hope is that some artistic razzle-dazzle will draw attention to the building’s leasable space — maybe induce potential tenants to view it in a new way.

Artists in Storefronts decked out empty windows throughout the Whittier neighborhood.
artistsinstorefronts.comArtists in Storefronts decked out empty windows throughout the
Whittier neighborhood.

“I’m excited about it,” says Tom Hoch, president and CEO of the Hennepin Theatre Trust and the heavy-lifter behind Plan-It Hennepin, an effort to revive Minneapolis’ main drag. “If it’s going to be a cultural district, we’ve got to have artists at the center of it.” 

Hennepin Trust’s “Made Here” project got its start this spring in the Witt Mitchell Building on the corner of Hennepin and Seventh Street with an exhibition of locally crafted furniture. Until then, the place hadn’t been occupied for a quarter of a century, according to Hoch, and while no lessee has yet come forward, the project improved the building. “We got the graffiti off the windows and got them clean,” he says. 

Vorderbruggen, who is a nurse by day and a free-lance window-designer at other times, operated a similar project in south Minneapolis called “Artists in Storefronts.” She initially wanted “to animate a whole city block with my work” — she also designs body-hugging slip dresses — but found that effort too big to wrap her arms around.

Getting a block of property owners to cooperate was pretty difficult. So instead she decided to help showcase other artists’ work wherever she could find agreeable landlords with vacant property.

Last year, with the help of the Whittier Alliance, a neighborhood group, she launched “Artists in Storefronts.”  Since then, she’s helped more than 120 local artists, ages 5  to 80, display their works, assisted in the creation of six permanent murals and hosted more than 40 live performances. In eight months, seven properties with a combined vacancy of over 15 years acquired long-term lease agreements. “Two of them are women-owned businesses,” she says. “I’m very proud of that.”   

Joan Vorderbruggen
Photo by Lucia CarrollJoan Vorderbruggen, who launched Artists in Storefronts in
South Minneapolis, will now be coordinating Made Here at
Block E.

I saw a few of the exhibits on Eat Street. Some were fascinating; others, not so much. But even un-great art, and more often really bad art, grabs people and beckons them out of their ruts and routines to look, which is a good thing, even if their only reaction is to complain about the travesty on display.

The Hennepin Theatre Trust is already accepting applications from artists; the deadline for submission is Sept. 3. A panel will select the participants, and exhibits begin going live on Sept. 28. The spaces are available free to the artists, and Bob Lux, the owner of Block E, will allow them to use the spaces for at least 90 days, unless a new tenant appears. Then artists receive 30 days’ notice before they have to clear out.

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The application states that “Made Here” is looking for material that is “engaging, apolitical, inoffensive” and “appropriate for public view.” That’s a little disheartening. While I’m not looking for anything evocative of Anthony-Weiner-style sexting to go in Block E’s windows, it would be good to see stuff that makes the public think, at least a little bit.

Vorderbruggen says that she’s used the same guidelines for the Artists in Storefronts project. “We featured one oil painting with a penis, and we got so many complaints that we had to take it down,” she says, adding, “It’s childish to believe that artists can’t rise to making something incredible within the guidelines.” She points out as well that the exhibits will be ensconsed in a private building, not an art gallery or museum, where displays of edge, sex and politics are routine.

Even so, I’m hoping that these artists go out of the box — far out. And I mean literally. I don’t know if Lux will allow it, but it would be great if artists would be allowed not only to place their work within the windows but also to paint or attach stuff around them. Chilean artist Macarena Yañez, for example, used paint and cuttings to transform abandoned storefronts in Etienne, France. She didn’t confine herself to the windows. The effect is stunning. Forty such displays right in the middle of Hennepin couldn’t avoid attracting viewers and visitors.

 Have a question for Marlys? Don’t miss your chance to ask at an August drinks-and-dinner event for MinnPost members and their guests. More details here.