Head of the class

Mayor Jacob Frey. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.


Creatively well-adjusted

As CEO of Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey technically heads up our city’s Creative Class. Now beginning the second year of his term, Frey’s youth, vitality, fitness and prowess as a marathoner are legendary and obvious — reflected in his trim, upright bearing.

What is not so apparent is his pedigree. Not only is his father a well-respected Washington, D.C. area chiropractor, conceivably contributing to our young mayor’s perfect posture, but Dr. Christopher Frey and his wife, Jamie, were also once world-class dance performers.

“My parents were both professional modern ballet dancers,” Frey confides. “In fact, my father had a seven-year career in modern dance with two world-renowned companies: Lar Lubovitch Dance Company of Manhattan, and Nederlands Dans Theatre.”

Young Frey did not inherit that gene. Jacob Frey is a runner. Full stop.

“I was a weird kid,” he begins, “overly energetic and a bit too intense for my own good. But I found an outlet in running. Through running I could burn off energy in a productive way, allowing me to focus more in class.”

Frey believes that running provides a direct correlation between hard work and success.

“If you train harder than the guy standing next to you on the starting line, you probably are going to beat him,” he continues. “I remember going for runs with my father beginning when I was nine or 10 years old. The winner would get to grab the newspaper from the mailbox on the way home and hand it to my mother — the true sign of victory. For a solid two years, my father was always the winner. Until one day, after doing quite a bit of training on my own, I kicked my dad’s butt, grabbed the newspaper and handed my mother a sweat-soaked Washington Post!”

Frey was elated and hooked. Since then running has taken him around the world.

After college he ran professionally, competing for Team USA in the Pan American Games marathon, finishing in fourth place. Part of his local legend is that in 2006, running introduced him “to the greatest city in the world — Minneapolis of course, through the Twin Cities Marathon.” It was love at first sight.

For the record, Frey ran that race in 2:20. Shortly after the race, he was recruited by then law firm Faegre & Benson, and as quickly as he runs, he became a full-fledged resident and a respected civil rights advocate.

Though Frey might be lacking his parents’ dance DNA, he has inherited a passion for the performing arts. He waxes poetic when discussing a favorite cultural pastime, walking along 13th Avenue from his home in Northeast Minneapolis with his wife, Sarah Clarke, a respected community organizer and lobbyist, to attend performances at the Ritz Theater.

“This is really special to do over the summer,” he explains, “to enjoy a meal at North East Social or Dangerous Man Brewing Company, and then attend a play at the Ritz by Theater Latté Da.”

Frey practically demurs when asked about his own creative propensities, deferring rather to his athleticism. However, with a bit of cajoling, he admits that he has strutted upon a stage or two, occasionally performing at Black Box theaters during his undergrad days at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia.

However, his thespian inclinations did not continue during his stint at Philadelphia’s Villanova University where he earned his law degree.

“No,” he admits, “My time in law school featured my nose in the books.”

Yet, he’s still able and willing to croon a sappy Neil Diamond parody for a good cause. Online readers can click here for his hilarious “Sweet Caroline” spoof of himself at MinnPost’s charity roast last year.

Keeping Minneapolis’ innovation meme front and center

Lightheartedly, I assure the Mayor that although this column normally profiles the art makers, his stewardship of the Minneapolis Creative Class is the fundamental motive for this 2019 inaugural column.

In fact, upon pointing out that our column’s Creative Class moniker is attributed to Professor Richard Florida, Frey enthusiastically announces that he was seated right next to Florida during Bloomberg Philanthropies’ annual CityLab conference held in Detroit last October. This by-invitation only conference, a collaboration of The Atlantic magazine, the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies, tracks urban innovation and creativity worldwide. Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg himself hosted October’s gathering.

Along with his good pal and mayoral colleague, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, Frey joined about 25 mayors from around the globe and a roster of urban experts, academics, artists and activists. Detroit’s recent experiences were the focus of a series of site visits, discussions and networking events.

The overarching theme of the conference was “opportunity”: creating jobs, workforce development, artistic endeavors, business growth and entrepreneurialism. Certainly Minneapolis’ soaring Creativity Vitality Index (CVI) performance makes a strong case history about leveraging artistic endeavors for job creation, business growth and entrepreneurialism.

Steering the helm

Which brings up a good question: What is a mayor’s role in creative/innovation stewardship?

“Of course,” declares Frey, “with our high profile bully pulpit, we can be a prominent supporter of the arts. But what’s even more exciting about local government is that we’re able to serve as a laboratory for testing new ideas. Because we’re in direct contact with the people we serve our feedback loops are shorter, so cities can experiment, test new policies and really work in ways that are not traditionally right or left on the political spectrum in order to get things done.”

And beyond the realm of purely cultural activities, Frey asserts this includes shepherding things like growing our tech workforce, or exerting leadership on curbing climate change.

“Minneapolis is simply at the forefront of innovation,” he remarks.

A recent article in The Economist supports the mayor’s claim that Americans in general have long trusted local over state and national government, emphasizing that most local governments are largely non-partisan. Therefore, Minneapolis can operate with enlightened self-interest to create a politically neutral innovation laboratory.

The Economist article actually highlights our metro region: “Today the Twin Cities area is one of America’s most successful, with a rare mix of well-off residents and affordable homes.”

Affordability and access are key drivers for creatives seeking regions to settle. Obviously, there is much work yet to do to lower the burden of housing costs, so Frey’s notable focus on affordable housing fits perfectly within his overall cultural leadership. He has been indefatigable in his efforts to address economic disparities by providing more affordable housing and his efforts have won praise from across the political spectrum.

Another area of government guidance comes from working diligently with various city departments to alleviate some of the restrictive policies that impinge on artists’ abilities to showcase their creative endeavors.

“The city has a tangle of regulations, fees, and/or permits that basically hamstring the livelihood of artists seeking to host parties, openings, galas, etc. I’ll be looking at adjusting policies like noise ordinances,” he assures.

Frey has tackled more nationally prominent issues, too, like the fight for marriage equality that really marked a turning point in his decision to run for office. With parents who were both professional dancers, Frey explains that his father “was one of the only straight males I knew growing up.

“The thought that people who loved each other wouldn’t be able to experience that love in the same way as others was just wrong, so I organized the Big Gay Race in the lead up to the ballot amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The second-annual Big Gay Race was just before the final vote and drew about 7,000 people and raised a bunch of money.

“We talk about Minneapolis being inclusive, and — as the engine for the rest of the state in that campaign — I really felt it,” he concludes.

The group of friends who Frey met through the Big Gay Race became part of his campaign team when he ran for city council. Equal rights and social justice are also critical issues within the creative community.

All you need is love — or Mayor Oscar the Grouch proposes

Frey’s own love story with Sarah Clarke reads like a Sesame Street fairytale.

Frey and Clarke first met in a high school auditorium during a Minnesota Young DFL (MYDFL) meeting; however, they didn’t get together as a couple until years later. At first they shared a close friendship. In time, Frey knew Clarke was the one.

“Prior to our engagement,” he confesses, “I bought a ring that was burning a hole in my pocket. I had plans of a romantic backdrop to the proposal — either in the woods or on the Stone Arch Bridge. Finally, I had my opportunity when she had a night off from work and law school, so I asked her to go for a walk.”

Underscoring his extreme practicality and dedication to a green environment, Frey figured he might as well drop off the recycling on the way down their fire escape to go on that walk.

He sheepishly continues, “As I was walking to the recycling bin with Sarah, as is normal, she said something so incredibly sweet that I simply needed to propose to her right there.”

So, their special moment resulted in the mayor proposing to his future bride in the alley next to the dumpsters.

He adds, “This certainly was not the most romantic setting, but it’s how it went down, and she’s the best possible partner I could ask for.”

In spite of (or because of) this Oscar the Grouch moment, our city’s head of creative class is actually a very classy guy. He fuses his diverse passions into extreme forward movement — Frey undeniably is a man of action — and with a family of chiropractors at this back, we are assured he’s bound to stay very aligned with his vision and goals.

Photo by Susan Schaefer
Photo by Susan Schaefer