Alison Anderson Holland

September 25, 2013

In April I wrote an article for Minnesota Playlist citing some of the lessons I've learned from local artists and organizations about growing an artistic career. One of these lessons was about the importance of connecting our art to our communities. As artists we can serve our communities not only through the work we make, but also through our creative thinking skills. And as Irrigate (a Twin Cities-based, artist-led placemaking initiative) has shown, artists excel at leading placemaking efforts. What is this 'placemaking' business? I will use the definition shared on the Irrigate website:

Placemaking is the act of people coming together to change overlooked and undervalued public and shared spaces into welcoming places where community gathers, supports one another, and thrives. Places can be animated and enhanced by elements that encourage human interaction – from temporary activities such as performances and chalked poetry to permanent installations such as landscaping and unique art.

I find the potential of placemaking (and the way its being implemented in the Twin Cities) really exciting.

In May Ben and I were hired by social practice choreographer Alison Anderson Holland to document a project in Mora, Minnesota. The goal of Alison's project, which was funded by Forecast Public Art, was to start a community-wide conversation: the very beginning steps of placemaking. The conversation surrounded the future of an abandoned gravel lot in Mora. Ben and I documented discussions with elementary and high school students, the Mora chamber of commerce, a retirement community, and other Mora residents. These community conversations were instigated by the empty lot, but led to a lot of discussion of future hopes for the community that expanded far beyond it. 

When Alison listened to ideas for the abandoned space, she encouraged the participants to think outside the realistic parameters of space and money-- an easy task for the kids participating in the project, and much harder one for the adults. In the 4th grade classroom Ben and I visited, the ideas never stopped: a sushi restaurant, a soup kitchen, an arcade, a donation center, another Mall of America. The kids were so excited to have their opinions considered. 

We documented parts of Alison's process and Mora life from May through the beginning of August. This woman is so inspiring....and articulate, and resourceful. Let's just say that spearheading a project that emphasizes creative thinking and uncertain outcomes to a small town (population just over 3,000) that has limited experience with anything resembling the performing arts requires massive flexibility and conviction. I really admire Alison's commitment to sharing her work with rural populations. It was a reminder to me of the numerous ways that artists can take their skills and serve their communities: right-brained civic engagement, as Alison called it. She sums it up well in the video with these words:

I think that art can help people open up a little more, and to explore ideas in a different way or to value other people's ideas, because one idea leads to the next. Whether or not one idea is logistically feasible or not doesn't really matter, because it can lead to that next idea...that might be that perfect idea.

Dozens of ideas for the empty space were collected. The most important outcome of the project wasn't finding the perfect idea, though. It was showing that there's power in starting a conversation, and that the only way to solidify a better future for any place is to make your voice heard. 

You can watch the full 14 minute video of the project below, or the two-minute trailer over here. More information on Alison's work can be found on her website. You can also connect with her on twitter or facebook. Photos of the process are from my instagram feed


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