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Arts Midwest: Quietly forging the Midwest arts world and beyond

Arts Midwest enables individuals, organizations, and communities, both local and international, to better understand and serve each other.

Photo by Wing Young Huie

Arts Midwest might not be the first name that comes to mind when you think about art in the Twin Cities. You likely don’t notice their high-ceilinged office, hidden in plain sight right next to the Uptown Theater. You probably won’t see their name anywhere prominent on the playbills or brochures of countless exhibitions that wouldn’t have happened without them. They do most of their work behind the scenes of the arts world, enabling individuals, organizations, and communities, both local and international, to better understand and serve each other.

They’ve been quietly forging powerful connections that go beyond exhibits and performances for almost thirty years, and their influence reaches far beyond the realms of Art and the Midwest. David Fraher, the gregarious executive director of Arts Midwest, endlessly praises the artists they’ve worked with before mentioning anything about his organization. He particularly focuses on Minnesotan photographer Wing Young Huie, whose work Arts Midwest recently toured across China. Huie is perhaps best known for The University Avenue Project, where he photographed residents of St. Paul then turned their neighborhoods into a six-mile long outdoor exhibit, directly representing a community within that very community.

“Wing goes out into the community and spends time getting to know people, and then he takes pictures of them—not for gallery exhibition necessarily, but for creating, through the photography, an exhibition of their lives back on the street or in their neighborhood so that they can see themselves in an artistic, creative way,” Fraher says. “The whole point is to get people talking about issues in their community through art, of which they are the subject.”

Arts Midwest brought Identity and the American Landscape, a retrospective collection of Huie’s work over the past thirty years, to China. Huie is the only member of his family who wasn’t born in Guandong, China, and this travelling exhibition was the first time he visited his parents’ homeland. Both Huie and the more than 100,000 people who saw the exhibit in China learned a great deal through this cultural exchange.

“[Huie] met with groups of students and talked about his work, and they were very surprised by his representations of life in America. A lot of their understanding of America is the glamorous life they see in television and movies, but in [Huie’s] work they were able to see the diversity of life in America.” Fraher says. “It’s also been an interesting self-exploration for [Huie]. They view him as an American, but [In America] he’s generally viewed as Chinese, and he’s done a lot of exploration internally about what that means.”

Much of their programming is intended to foster community relations on both local and global scales by presenting art outside the context of a formal museum. One of their most recent projects, Caravanserai, brings contemporary Muslim art to American communities that have limited access to international cultural exchange. The program started last year with a group of musicians and filmmakers from Pakistan visiting small communities in Montana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. The artists had residencies in each community, where they worked and performed with local artists, held workshops and film screenings in K–12 schools, and held public performances. The goal of these residencies was to not only showcase Islamic culture, but to give residents of these communities a chance to engage with the artists, offering an alternative narrative to the negative stereotypes about Muslims that are common in America.

“We strive to work with non-traditional, behind-the-scenes projects and stories that are less about presenting an artist to an audience and more about building unusual collaborative networks, trying to create new dialogues, and changing a community’s self-understanding,” Fraher says.

While Arts Midwest directly operates many of their own programs, perhaps their biggest influence on the arts community is as a capacity builder for small to mid-sized arts organizations through their program ArtsLab. ArtsLab functions as a combination of workshops and seminars designed to teach organizations to be sustainable, focusing on adaptive capacity, leadership, management, and technical capacity. The program accepts sixteen organizations to participate over three-year cycles, and is rooted in the belief that the arts are an essential part of vibrant communities, competitive industries, and strong economies.

“The most rewarding part for us is seeing organizations working together to build up their collective capacities,” says Colleen McLaughlin, Director of External Relations at Arts Midwest.

The program is funded by The McKnight Foundation, F.R. Bigelow Foundation, Mardaq Foundation, The Saint Paul Foundation, and Bush Foundation.

“These foundations came to us a few years ago and asked if we could build this support mechanism,” Fraher says. “It’s very rare for foundations to collaborate like that, even when they share common goals, because they have a tendency to want something of their own, with their own brand on it. ArtsLab has been especially successful because of their collective efforts.”

Originally published at