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Five questions: Works Progress, a Minneapolis-based public design studio

Co-directed by Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson, some of their projects include Salon Saloon with host Andy Sturdevant and the West Bank Social Center.

Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson

Works Progress is a Minneapolis-based artist-led public design studio co-directed by Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson. Some of their most well-known projects include Salon Saloon with host Andy Sturdevant, Give & Take, Solutions Twin Cities, and the West Bank Social Center.

You define yourselves as an “artist-led public design studio.” How did that definition come about and what exactly does it mean?

We should preface this by saying the way we think and talk about our work is still evolving, and we hope that it continues to evolve, because we hope we continue learning from our experience. We started out as a creative collective, a group of collaborators loosely working together on different projects with similar goals. As things evolved, we found that our interest was in a more practice-based approach. We settled on “artist-led public design studio” because we feel it best captures how we work, and where. 

Do you edit how you describe or define your organization depending on who you’re attempting to communicate with? How does your language change between working with businesses versus working with nonprofits versus working with independent arts organizations?

We recognize that the wide-ranging collaborators we find ourselves working with (businesses, nonprofit arts groups, neighborhood organizations, social service organizations, other artists) all have their own languages and ways of approaching public constituents. Often we’re working in ways that require us to think and communicate as translators between these different groups, so it’s a benefit to us to try to understand other languages. Sometimes we end up adopting language from our collaborators. In every case, we learn a lot about how to communicate our intentions in different situations.

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You recently received an MRAC (Metropolitan Regional Arts Council) organizational development grant and are working on making Works Progress a more sustainable model. What do you think you can learn from more traditional businesses or nonprofits as you go through this process? More generally, what do you think arts organizations can learn from for-profit businesses and vice versa?

Part of our organizational development has been about exploring old and new precedents. Nonprofit/for-profit are tax designations, by themselves they don’t describe a sustainable business model. There are nonprofits that we’ve learned operate like entrepreneurial businesses, and businesses with social missions. The challenge for us is to create a business model that works for the range of creative work we’re interested in, and the collaborative, iterative way that we work. This year has already been enlightening as we’ve set aside time to explore these challenges, and we expect to be much closer to our sustainability goal by next year. 

When working with for-profit business, do you find that it helps for them to see you as an artist first and a business partner second, or the other way around? Why do you think that is? 

In general, we want our collaborators and our supporters—whether they are businesses, nonprofits, or other artists—to see us as artists running a small business. One is not more important than the other. Instead, we see our artistic skills as an important part of our business strategy, and vice-versa. And we don’t think we’re unique here. Lots of artists run their own small businesses, and the creative economy is booming. Being an artist should not be seen as somehow opposite of being a business entrepreneur. Creative communities have a very high percentage of small business entrepreneurs, but perhaps we don’t always see them as such.

How do you see the future of collaboration between artists/arts organizations and businesses evolving over the next few years? Has it come very far since you first started Works Progress?

In addition to new collaborations across sectors, we expect to see more blurring of these boundaries. The creative economy is changing rapidly. There are lots of new tools (Kickstarter is one popular example) that artists and creative entrepreneurs are using to launch new businesses that are rooted in their creative practice. And it seems that nonprofit organizations are taking cues from this as well, finding new entrepreneurial ways to support their important work. So as we move into an era where more artists and creatives are launching serious business ventures, will we start to see the business landscape changing as a result? We don’t know, maybe it already is, but in any case, it’s exciting to think about the possibilities.

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