The citys champion for artists

About a decade ago, Gülgün Kayim was trying to convince the Fire Department to allow a theater show inside a vacant Northeast warehouse. Today, she’s on the other side of the tracks, advocating for artists as the city’s director of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy. 

“Every artist that has stepped out of space zoned [for the arts] walks into a regulatory maze,” Kayim said. “Just having people on your side is a huge asset.”

The woman with a Turkish name and an English accent beat out nearly 200 applicants last summer to operate the one-person department.

City officials created the position after several years without an arts director. As the Minneapolis economy struggled to pick up in 2008 and 2009, city staff were surprised to see that the arts industry was one of just three growing sectors. 

Kayim said she was shocked to learn in a recent study that the Twin Cities metro is a national hub for book publishing. Minneapolis is also reported to be second only to New York in theater seats per capita. 

“Is it true?” Kayim said. “Are we a powerhouse, or just a player? … I’m tired of the subjectivity driving the conversation around the arts.”

Kayim plans to number-crunch the economic impact down to individual zip codes, so that council members can see the direct impact of the arts in their wards. She’d like to track the data over a three-year period, offering a snapshot of how different arts industries are faring over time. 

In addition to quantitative analysis of factors like job creation, Kayim will also study the arts’ qualitative impact on Minneapolis. That impact shows up when a musician chooses to live in Minneapolis because of its music scene, Kayim said. 

“This will be an attempt to tell that story,” she said. “My job is to make it understandable and not so geeky.”

Kayim calls herself a data wonk, but her background is hardly dull. She was born in Cyprus, at a time when indigenous violence against British occupiers was commonplace. To escape the violence, her family migrated to London, shortly before the Turkish army decided to partition the country into two sections and require all Turks to move north and all Greeks to move south.

Kayim grew up in London and received two MFA degrees in the United States, but her artwork is drawing her back to Cyprus again. She is collaborating with a non-governmental organization inside a demilitarized zone to investigate the potential for peace through theater performance. “The project brings people together using theater as the forum,” she said. “It transcends politics.”

Site-specific art is a hallmark of Kayim’s background. She co-founded the Casket Arts-based Skewed Visions in 1996. The collective has staged monologues on buses, created pieces for Elliot Park storefront windows, built audio pieces that guide people down Lyn-Lake alleys, and written scripts for audiences sitting in the back seats of cars. One 24-hour performance inside Southwest High School depicted New York’s “rubber rooms,” which are holding places for teachers deemed incompetent. Another performance set inside a vacant warehouse in the Thorp building told a semi-biographical story of Kayim’s migration out of Cyprus. 

Kayim said site-specific art is nothing new — there was plenty of it in London — but she’s seeing more of it now in the United States, with mass yoga in Times Square and street art in Los Angeles. 

“It’s catching fire across the country right now,” she said.

In addition to Skewed Visions, Kayim has worked in several arts-related positions. When the Weisman Art Museum was built, Kayim was one of the founding staff members working on public art. She teaches theater and dance at the University of Minnesota, a job that Kayim said “keeps me honest —  I have to explain myself to the students.” Most recently, she worked at the Archibald Bush Foundation, a nonprofit that supports artists. 

“I have a day job, because I can’t earn a living doing what I love to do,” Kayim said. 

Given her background, Kayim has no trouble sympathizing with the struggles of artists. She noted that traditional data coding categorizes artists in a professional class of workers. 

“Artists have the same coding as doctors and lawyers because of our training and skill, yet the return on investment in income is very low,” she said. 

Kayim said she identifies with artist concerns about being priced out of neighborhoods where they were the first to add value. She said she doesn’t know the solution, but it’s crucial to find it.

“I hope I can help,” she said.