Bringing art to Eat Street

MCAD breaks through ‘bubble’ and reaches out to its neighborhood

WHITTIER — There is no glass dome over the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, no invisible force field that separates its roughly 700 students from the surrounding community in Whittier.

But for students like Joe Hrabe, a junior studying graphic design, the “MCAD Bubble” is very real. And he’s not the only one who finds long hours in the studio and computer lab can make even a quick trip over to Eat Street a rare event.

“It’s really easy as a student to get tied up in your work,” Hrabe said. “I commute here from Savage every day, so I come to school and I go home, and I don’t ever really come around here.”

That’s changing, though, for both Hrabe and his classmates in MCAD’s three-year-old community arts course. Working in collaboration with the Whittier Alliance and the neighborhood’s business association, the students developed a storefront gallery on Nicollet Avenue that will get its debut later this month.

“My class is about not working in your studio,” said adjunct professor Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl. “[It’s about] working with people.”

This spring, students interviewed Whittier residents and business owners about their hopes and dreams for themselves and their neighborhood, and then set about translating the nearly 200 responses into a temporary art exhibit. The pieces will hang in vacant storefronts, hiding ugly holes in the streetscape while drawing attention to the neighborhood’s potential.

Cedarleaf Dahl said the recent recession, with its devastating effect on small business, led to a kind of mini-boom in similar community art projects.

“Brooklyn’s doing it, San Francisco’s doing it, New York’s doing it,” she said. “Artists are taking advantage of these street-front spaces and looking at them like areas for expression and temporary beautification.”

A much needed spruce-up

Whittier’s stretch of Nicollet Avenue — dubbed “Eat Street” by a 1997 neighborhood marketing campaign — has for several decades offered a vibrant mix of small businesses and restaurants, many of them owned by Asian and Latino immigrants. Their trailblazing in the 1980s helped turn around a once dark and dangerous street, said Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn.

As with any small business incubator, though, there is a significant amount of turnover in the small storefronts that line Eat Street. In the wake of a major recession, there seemed to be more empty storefronts remaining vacant longer, said several neighborhood observers.

“I think the neighborhood is still a strong neighborhood, but it just isn’t moving forward,” Biehn said. “With that kind of vacancy I think it sits status quo, and the concern is that it would slip backwards.”

Cullen Donovan, who last year opened The Lost and Found thrift store on Nicollet Avenue, said long-term vacancies can be a drag on neighboring shops.

“We have no store there, no store there,” Donovan said, referring to his immediate neighbors. “Why are people looking on this side [of the street], then? It just looks really dead.”

Jasmine Deli employee Luke Truong agreed the vacancies leave a bad impression on passersby. Truong said he hoped the art exhibit would boost foot traffic outside his restaurant.

“I think it’s a great idea to cover up the windows, so it will look much nicer and be more attractive to people,” he said.

Engaging with community

“What I see our students getting out of it is a chance to test their skills and ideas in the real world (and) to explore and experience the diversity of the communities that surround us,” MCAD President Jay Coogan said. “In some ways, we’re a microcosm of the world in Whittier neighborhood.”

Here’s what tested the skills of Cedarleaf Dahl’s students in early April: an Asian market vacant for nearly two years, its shelves still lined with moldering goods.

Condiment jars oozed their contents. Rice cookers and wooden chopsticks lined a shelf near refrigerator cases filled with warm, two-year-old sodas.

As students shoveled up a heap of trash near the windows, it became clear that community art demanded students use an entirely different set of skills than, say, Photography 101. Cedarleaf Dahl’s course blended community interaction with creativity and a big dose of elbow grease.

It’s a mix that appeals to students who want their art to have an impact beyond the gallery.

“I think what we’re doing goes beyond fine art,” said Rachael Nelson, a junior and photography major. “It’s a different kind of art. It’s a more, like I said, a kind of activism. It’s about the process, it’s about meeting new people.”

Open house
The Whittier Storefront Project open house is 3­–6 p.m. April 24 in the former Payday America space at 2600 Nicollet Ave. S.