A vital role

Arts, culture, and the ‘creative economy’ are essential to the Twin Cities — and Gülgün Kayim aims to prove it

By Erica Rivera
Wednesday, February 25, 2015

You don’t have to convince Gülgün Kayim of the value of the arts. “I would argue that arts are businesses,” she says. “People make a living from art.” 

Since 2011, she’s served as the City of Minneapolis’s first director of arts, culture, and the “creative economy,” a role in which she, among other things, highlights the economic importance of the creative sector. “It’s a position in a small office, but one that is very systemic,” she says. “We work with other departments in the city to develop strategic partnerships or policies.”

During her tenure she’s seen a “huge uptick in evaluation and measurement, in trying to prove what a lot of people have known intuitively about the creative economy: that it is an effective and resilient sector in delivering a lot of value to a lot of other economic activities.” 

Every other year Kayim’s office produces the Minneapolis Creative Vitality Index (CVI), a colorful, infographic-laden report using data collected by the Western States Arts Federation (along with “deeper” data from its own research). Among the results about the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area: In 2014, its creative sector contributed $831 million to the local economy, and its “CVI score” placed it fifth in the nation, up from sixth in 2013 and behind only Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. 

As for the term “creative economy,” it encompasses both for-profit graphic design firms and nonprofit community theaters. “One can consider anybody creative,” Kayim says. “[But] what I refer to as the creative economy is the creative arts and culture. The popular imagination is that it [the arts sector] is the Guthrie or the Walker, which it is, but it’s also the for-profit business, like the photographer that’s serving advertising.”

Born in Cyprus, Kayim moved to the Twin Cities from London in 1990 for theater training at the University of Minnesota, where her master’s program combined the production of plays with the business side of theater. Before her current role, she worked at the Bush Foundation (as assistant director of the artist program) and at the Weisman Museum (as coordinator of public art on campus). She still produces plays and teaches theater on the side, but the bulk of Kayim’s time is now spent spreading the gospel about the creative sector’s importance. 

She says the Twin Cities is lucky because of its generous private-funding community and the “tremendous asset” of legacy funding. “Most states don’t have this level of public acknowledgment and investment in creative activity.”

Of course while on a national level Minnesota has much to boast about, Kayim knows the arts in the U.S. are underfunded compared to many European nations. “It’s hard to compare because European activity is so top-down; it’s government-based,” Kayim says. “Here, it tends to be ground-up, because it has to be. It’s about private donors and small businesses doing it themselves on a small scale.” 

Companies can support the arts community in a number of ways, she notes, including through galleries. “Galleries create excitement, interest, and help interpret,” she says. “They showcase the work. They help me come in and see the work and decide if I want to purchase [it]. They are part of the marketplace of art.” 

For example, some of the biggest supporters of the northeast Minneapolis gallery Public Functionary, which strives to make art more accessible and less exclusive, are owners of small and midsize businesses. 

Brunsfield North Loop, a luxury apartment complex in Minneapolis, was one of them in 2014. “Public Functionary’s grassroots approach in bringing art to the masses resonates with Brunsfield’s desire to bring works of creativity to our neighborhood and promote appreciation for good design,” says Vincent Lim, director at Brunsfield America. “Supporting a local nonprofit organization through our sponsorship program budget is one way we are able to accomplish our corporate citizen goal of giving back to the community.”

Started with help from a 2012 Kickstarter campaign that raised $30,000, Public Functionary operates on an annual budget of less than $100,000 and each year hosts four flagship exhibitions, complemented by a number of smaller events. Tricia Khutoretsky, its curator and co-director, teaches and freelances to make ends meet. “At Public Functionary we are working to broaden our audience and truly embody a spirit of inclusivity so that more people can feel connected and engaged with contemporary art,” she says. Her goal is for Public Functionary to provide a “gateway experience” for the next generation of art lovers. 

“What Public Functionary is doing is a little extra,” Kayim says. “They’re demystifying art and making it friendly and accessible, which is huge.”

Brunsfield North Loop, which regularly hosts social events for residents and the community, also partnered with Public Functionary for a satellite lobby art program. And the gallery curated a temporary exhibition for Brunsfield’s garden party last June.

Khutoretsky encourages businesspeople to commission local artists to create artwork, signage, and furniture for their businesses. Artists are resourceful, she notes, and can often find cost-effective solutions. “If businesses don’t know where to start, a gallery can provide suggestions and mediation between the artist and the business,” she says. Meanwhile donations of food, products, or supplies — or even a $500 sponsorship — go a long way in producing a program or an exhibit for a gallery.

When a small business buoys an arts space, Kayim says, the benefits go both ways. She cites the case of Pat’s Tap, an eatery in Minneapolis owned by restaurateur Kim Bartmann. When it opened in 2011, there was a vacant space next door. A longtime supporter of the Soo Visual Arts Center, Bartmann rented the space and offered it to the organization as long as they filled it and paid the utilities, insurance, and other overhead. For two years, under the name SooLocal, the space exhibited visual art, pop-up collaborations, performances, and shops with a Minnesota focus. “It was a worthwhile investment,” Kayim says of Bartmann’s support. “Any restaurateur knows that atmosphere is crucial. She was smart enough to see that what’s in her restaurant matters as much as what’s outside her restaurant.”

A project accomplishing something similar is Made Here, launched in 2013 by Hennepin Theatre Trust as a pilot project to showcase Minnesota-made art in commercial real estate available for rent. What started as one vacant storefront has turned into 100-plus windows (since the project’s inception) over 16 blocks of downtown Minneapolis. “It’s filling the storefronts so they don’t seem empty and abandoned,” Kayim says. “You continue to create vibrancy. You continue to attract attention to these spaces. They’re marketing the building space, and art is used as a way to do that.”

Advisory panel members curate the art with an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity. “Made Here supports the local arts community by creating an urban walking gallery that displays the talent of Minnesota artists,” says Tom Hoch, president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust. 

“They’re capitalizing on the idea that visual arts need to be part of downtown,” Kayim says. “Historically, it used to be that way. There was a robust gallery scene that was destroyed when the Target Center was built. I think it’s returning some of that energy back into Hennepin.”

Made Here also provides an opportunity for artists to sell their work. According to Hoch, artists have sold more than $13,000 of art since the project’s inception.

Kayim believes in the non-quantifiable benefits of artistic activity, too, including social cohesion, cultural diplomacy, relationship-building, resiliency, and a sense of safety. She cites Irrigate, a “creative placemaking” initiative started in St. Paul in 2011 as a response to the Green Line light rail construction that affected small businesses and communities.

Irrigate — a collaboration between Springboard for the Arts, Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corp., and the City of St. Paul — mobilized artists who lived in the affected communities to help the neighborhoods survive and thrive during the construction period. 

To participate in Irrigate, artists partnered with either a small business or neighborhood organization along the route. Over three years, 150 projects were created, from an evening of jazz at a restaurant to a performance in a parking lot to an art installation mounted on a chain-link fence. The projects were simple, temporary, and cost under $1,000 each to produce.

Laura Zabel, executive director at Springboard for the Arts, says businesses were receptive to the collaborations: “They were pretty excited. Most of the businesses really saw an opportunity to give people another reason to come to their business, even if it was tricky or hard [to get there due to the construction].”

Kayim hopes the Twin Cities can see the arts “beyond the buying and selling of stuff.” Questions she’d like to ask include: How does it feel to be here? What is our identity locally? Is that identity tied to a festival? (For instance Northern Spark, or the Walker Art Center’s quirky Internet Cat Video Festival.) Is the creative sector delivering the intangible feeling of what it is to be Minneapolis? 

“You could consider art as a product,” she says. “You could buy a painting and hang it up, [but] your interaction is limited to purchasing it or getting that thing up. [Or] you could see art as an environment — the thing in which you swim — and you can collaborate with artists, arts organizations, and think of them as places that are essential to your neighborhood.”

Ideally, Kayim would like to see Minnesota known for more than its cold climate: “We have a very vibrant arts scene. Even if you’re not an artist, that should be of interest to you, as someone who wants to live in an environment that’s active and interesting. We talk a lot about outdoor activities and sports, but we don’t talk about the arts, and I do want to see that.”

“The well-being of Minnesota is also dependent on both retaining and attracting talent to live and work here,” Khutoretsky says, “so a vibrant arts community can be a huge draw or reason to stay. The arts are imperative to creating a culture of imagination, creativity, and creation. The local economy is stronger if we cultivate citizens who are entrepreneurial and inspired.”

Kayim is doing her best to keep arts in the spotlight. Her office issues updated data every year, with the stylized CVI reports released every other year. “I’m always looking back into the past and making decisions for the future,” she says. “We won’t understand its full value until we have a few years of measurements under our belts so we can see how it trends.” 

Kayim isn’t comfortable talking about goals (“It implies I have control over these things,” she says) but does have hopes and desires for the arts community. She would like to see it be more connected between mediums and wishes the Twin Cities had an online resource on par with Time Out New York’s website to help locals and out-of-towners learn about quirky entertainment options and plan an itinerary from one source. 

Most all of, “I want the arts in this community to be better recognized,” she says. “Not necessarily people being told ‘You’re fantastic!’ but to recognize that what we have here is one of our assets. I think the arts community gets that, because we work in it, but I don’t know if businesses get that. This asset that we’ve displayed in the data has not been leveraged.”