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The world’s first full-fledged ‘water bar’ is about to open in Minneapolis

Courtesy of Works Progress Studio
The artists' pop-up Water Bar at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas in 2014.

Hot on the heels of the new vegan butcher shop comes another groundbreaking self-negation. Within a month Northeast Minneapolis is going to have the first full-fledged water bar of its kind, an establishment where you can sit and drink a variety of local tap waters to your heart’s content. Their delightful motto: “Water is all we have.”

Though I can’t help but chuckle, the Water Bar is no joke. It’s the culmination of work from a team of Minneapolis social practice artists who specialize in community engagement, and the idea is to start calling attention to the importance of communal water systems. For the next year they’ll be serving Twin Cities waters to the masses and, they hope, starting conversations that could not be more fundamental to our everyday lives.

‘This is water’

The late writer David Foster Wallace famously used the parable of the fishbowl in a commencement speech [PDF]. Here’s Wallace’s joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace went on to discuss culture and kindness, but he could have talked about underground pipes. Just as a fish cannot see the water all around it, the first rule of infrastructure is that it’s almost always invisible. We tend to take our infrastructure for granted. That is, until it breaks.

“People think Minnesota doesn’t have any water problems, that we have so much water because we’re the land of 10,000 lakes,” Shanai Matteson told me. Matteson and her partner, Colin Kloecker, run a Minneapolis-based social practice art organization called Works Progress Studio, and the Water Bar is their brainchild.

“Water is not something people think about, but we have potential water shortage problems and water quality problems, like what’s going on in White Bear Lake. And across Minnesota, most people get their drinking water from groundwater sources, and those are not immune to pollutants,” Matteson told me.

For the record, the tap water in Minneapolis and St. Paul comes from the Mississippi River — after a visit to each city’s treatment plant, where it is filtered and disinfected. That said, though it takes a discerning palate, you can taste differences between waters from different places.

“We do tasting flights,” Matteson explained. “There are subtle differences in how the water is treated; for example, private well water is not really treated in the same way. Sure, it’s tested and safe to drink, but it tastes different from city water. And we travel to other places and you can really tell where water isn’t quite so abundant or where cities don’t have the same level of treatment methods in place.”

The water bar’s brick-and-mortar migration

Like the Steam Plume Project I wrote about a few months ago, the idea for the Water Bar came out of an art and science collaboration organized by Public Art Saint Paul, which had focused on starting conversations between artists and scientists. In particular, the group worked around the Mississippi River, asking questions about how it relates to the Twin Cities’ physical and social environment.

Courtesy of Works Progress Studio
The organizers of the Water Bar hope to start conversations that could not be more fundamental to our everyday lives.

As they learned more about the river, Matteson and Kloecker began to think more carefully about water. And thus the water bar was born.

The premise is pretty simple, really.

“The Water Bar is a bar that serves local tap water. We give it away for free; it’s primarily Minneapolis tap water, but we’ll have other local metro area taps, some rotating taps, maybe some time tap waters from other parts of MN. The idea is to help people talk about their connections to tap water,” Matteson said.

They’ve taken the project all over the state, and around the Midwest. And now, kind of like a food truck that finds a permanent home, the Water Bar project is moving into a shop on Central Avenue just off Lowry. Having a permanent home will allow the project to expand its reach.

“The most important thing is that we’re actually combining the Water Bar with a public studio, which we’re thinking of as an art sustainability studio and incubator, intended to build local projects with other artists and designers, all about water and environmental sustainability at the local level,” Matteson told me.

The first step though, is to recruit some bartenders. Works Progress is going to wrangle experts on the water system from various capacities — engineers, city employees, environmental experts, students — who will be trained in some of the basics of the Twin Cities’ water system. Their job will be to pour the drinks, and start the watery conversations.

(The tip jar will go to water-related charities, I am told.) 

At the intersection of art, place, and water

Northeast Minneapolis is famous for lots of things: the sometimes awkward marriage of churches and bars, lots of diversity, the Mississippi River, beautiful parks, and a burgeoning art and local brewing scene. It turns out that a water bar on Central Avenue might bring all of those things together.

“Sure, it is like the vegan butcher, but it’s bigger,” Adelheid Koski, the president of the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association replied when I joked with her about the name. (For the record, the Holland Neighborhood runs from just East of Central Avenue half way to the Mississippi, embracing the neighborhoods on either side of Lowry.)

“There’s always this talk about technology or the green economy, about getting artists involved. Well, this is a way to bring artists along as your neighborhood changes. People think of artists as being in studios with paintings or sculptures, as not necessarily being a part of the bigger community. But here it’s about community building,” Koski said.

A segment from TPT Rewire’s “TV Takeover” gives an idea of what to expect at the Water Bar.

Through the collaboration with the Holland neighborhood, the Water Bar will be occupying a newly remodeled space on Central Avenue for the next year. And if it works, they’re going to be serving the ultimate in watered down drinks for some time. (Works Progress is currently writing grants to keep the Water Bar going into the future, and there’s a GoFundMe page where you can help support the project.)

“Putting it on Central Avenue, this is a way to bring this to the next level,” Koski told me. “Right on Central, where 90 percent of Northeast will travel. At any given time during the week you’ll have artists engaging kids, older people, middle-aged people, white, black, Latinos. It’s right there. It can’t be more visible.”

I love imagining the look on the face of bewildered passers-by first noticing the words “water bar” hoisted above the narrow storefront. Then going inside to see a bar, some stools, and a bartender waiting to serve all-you-can-drink free water.

If you really need a beer instead, Fair State Brewing is just a block or so away. But in the meantime, enjoy the Twin Cities’ finest local taps. And feel free to chat with the bartender. That’s the whole point.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/07/2016 - 09:49 am.

    (The tip jar will go to water-related charities, I am told.)

    What’s 15% of nothing? I heard they are going to start serving notfood as well. “Here’s your diet plate, sir. It’s a plate.” This is a Monty Python routine come to life. Were all the good volunteer opportunities taken?

  2. Submitted by Nicky Noel on 03/07/2016 - 12:48 pm.

    Misleading headline

    Great article for a great project, though the headline is stirring up some bias against the project because it makes it sound like some super-hipster ~artisanal water brewer~ or some other bogus pointless venture. Wouldn’t it be better to say something like “First ever “Water Bar” opens the tap on municipal water concerns” or something like that? It’s an art installation, not a business.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/07/2016 - 02:27 pm.

      :The idea is to help people talk about their connections to…

      tap water. My connection is my faucet. Done. Rather than super-hipster, I hear super-earnest helping project to help the less intellectually gifted. I get that it is not a business, but they got a grant to pay the rent for a year for something that screams “SILLY!”

      • Submitted by Nicky Noel on 03/07/2016 - 03:04 pm.

        Have you heard of Flint?? Having safe, clean tap water is not a given in our country. I’m glad that you have a good relationship with your tap, but thousands of people all over the country don’t. And it has nothing to do with their intelligence (though in the case of Flint, the lead content of their water is enough to cause permanent, sever brain damage to children), but rather everything to do with political power.

      • Submitted by Shanai Matteson on 03/07/2016 - 05:16 pm.

        As one of the artists organizing this project, I can tell you that we did not get a grant to pay the rent — though if we did, we would put it to good use engaging our neighbors in water, environment, and public health issues that face all of our communities, and finding ways to encourage them to get involved — like we have been for the past 5 years as artists at

        If that screams “SILLY” I would love to share a glass of water with you to talk about why I don’t think it’s silly at all.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 03/07/2016 - 09:15 pm.

      misleading but accurate?

      The idea behind the headline is to get people to read the article. It literally is a “water bar”, is it not? One of the concepts of public art is to play with social conventions.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/07/2016 - 01:33 pm.


    I hear a Grot franchise is going to open a few doors down next fall.

    • Submitted by Brian Stricherz on 03/08/2016 - 08:07 am.


      An unexpected place to find a Reginald Perrin reference! I didn’t get where I am today, but not recognizing a Reginald Perrin reference.

  4. Submitted by Alan Muller on 03/07/2016 - 03:05 pm.

    Here we go again….?

    This organization sound like a PR firm dressed up in incomprehensible bullshit. Or am I reading it wrong? Very likely, knowing who or what is paying for this activity would shed some light on the question. A pretty obvious point that should not be missed by a credible writer.

    Lindeke has almost no credibility with me after his puff piece on the “Steam Plume Project,” designed to greenwash the biggest air polluter in St. Paul–“District Energy.”

    • Submitted by Colin Kloecker on 03/07/2016 - 10:04 pm.

      I hope I can help.

      Hi Alan,

      I’m sorry that you’re so skeptical about our work. Water Bar is a nationally recognized art project that my wife and I have been working on for over two years now. To give you a bit of context, we’ve been running our small art and design studio (called Works Progress Studio) full-time for almost 6 years now. We’re a mom and pop operation (our two kids are 3 and a half and 6 months). You can see our work here: We operate through a combination of commissioned projects, partnerships with much larger institutions, individual artist grants, and for-hire work. We’re extremely fortunate to live in Minnesota where art and design are so highly valued. I don’t think our business would be viable in many other parts of the country.

      Our simple goal with Water Bar is to spark conversation about water.

      During that the last two years, we’ve done pop-ups all around the metro area and state, and have also done the project nationally. For instance, we served 2,000 people water during Northern Spark last year and over the course of a 5 month project at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art we served 20,000 people tap waters from NW Arkansas.

      Our Water Bar bartenders come from all walks of life, and include people from Healing Place Collaborative, the U of M Art Department, Barr Engineering, Freshwater Society, MN Department of Natural Resources, 1 Mississippi, Institute for Advanced Study, U of M Sustainability Studies, Master Water Stewards, U of M’s River Life, Macalester College Environmental Studies, Saint Paul Regional Water Services, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, just to name a few. They generally all volunteer their time for this project.

      There isn’t a single source of funding for the Water Bar & Public Studio. It’s all coming together via a pretty expansive network of supporters, many of which are already named above.

      I’d be happy to answer any further questions!

    • Submitted by Shanai Matteson on 03/07/2016 - 05:31 pm.

      I might be able to shed some light on who is paying for this — as one of the artists behind the project (not a PR firm, sorry to disappoint) a lot of our own sweat and personal income has gone into developing it. We’ve also been working for over 2 years to build partnerships with other small community organizations, who are helping to pitch in because it also serves their mission of educating and engaging the neighborhood on water and environmental sustainability issues. Right now, we’re actually running a crowdfunding campaign, and you can visit the page to see who some of the 50+ donors are:

      Not everything is a conspiracy, though I tend to share your interest in knowing these kinds of details.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 03/07/2016 - 09:20 pm.

      more on District Energy

      I’m curious about your critique of this Alan. I think Colin and Shanai can speak to the actual purpose of the Water Bar project better than I can, but the idea of district energy is to me an example of efficiency in action. Locally generated power and heat is “green” in as much as it greatly reduces energy waste associated with transmission. Instead of each building having its own heat plant, there’s one centralized one. Instead of electricity being produced from hundreds of miles away, it’s produced right in downtown, and “waste heat” losses are then used for productive purposes instead of being vented into the atmosphere. The local energy consulting non-profit, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has done work on this topic (

      So while it’s the biggest “polluter” in downtown, it’s also the most honest energy arrangement you can find, because the energy used is produced directly on-site, within a mile radius. That creates, in my opinion, a direct relationship between producer and consumer, and that can be a catalyst for sustainability in ways that things like carbon offsets cannot.

      Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing more from you on this, comparing district energy to the alternatives, and not considering it in a vacuum.

      • Submitted by Alan Muller on 03/24/2016 - 11:08 am.

        District Energy and Water Bar …..

        Billl Lindeke:

        Sorry I didn’t check back for responses after posting my original comment, probably because I’m not used to seeing responses. I’m glad to see that there are some on this.

        I’ve written a bit about District Energy over the years and will dig some of it out. But my basic point is that your piece appeared to be based on propaganda without any effort to learn anything about the other side of a matter. There used to be many more district energy (non caps) systems in Minnesota than there are now, for good reasons. Nina Axelson artfully fed you a line and you swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. (So did the Strib and MPR, and likely others.) ILSR has promoted District Energy for many years, without, as far as I can tell, taking any interest in the actual health and environmental consequences. I’m generally an admirer of ILSR; agree with David Morris more often than not, but not on this one.

        As for the Water Bar, I stand by my comments.

        The bigger picture, to me, is that art is supposed to be, in some fundamental sense, about truth, not about industrial or political propaganda.


        • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 03/24/2016 - 11:18 am.



          Your reply here still lacks any of the substance of your argument. What is the case against district energy systems in general, and this one in particular? I’m genuinely curious. Just because someone says “this is propaganda” doesn’t make me change my mind or even think more about a subject.

  5. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 03/07/2016 - 05:03 pm.

    This is an art installation, folks. As art, it combines a probably very serious set of public issues around our access to potable water with a hip take on the Bar Scene, satirizing mildly for a hip young crowd. Calm down. Nobody is doing anything but raising consciousness in a clever way. The clever angle may wear off and they’ll go away and do some other art installation around something else. They’re not breaking any public agency’s bank to do this, not depleting general tax funds or anything.

    I like the idea that they’re bringing up the sources of our water, how water is treated, the differences in taste according to how that’s done, and how water can get polluted in various ways, including from our own infrastructure of pipes (as in Flint: the lead was leached from the pipes to homes after lousy treatment of more heavily-polluted river water).

  6. Submitted by Sam Rivall on 03/07/2016 - 09:17 pm.

    For the record

    Hello, Reddit brought me here.

    I am also a resident of Minneapolis, and was wondering if you have seen SlingShot?

    I like to see universal solutions, not just for our own backyard.

    This is a weird idea, but I’ll check it out once it opens and see what’s up.


  7. Submitted by Danielle Wojdyla on 03/08/2016 - 10:25 am.

    Why not?

    How cool and on point with current events. Why not draw more attention to one of our best resources in MN- water. And keep conversations up to date on the state of our infrastructure. Also- a pretty neat community gathering place where one does not need to pony up for coffee or beer to sit down and connect with others.

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