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How Artists Are Helping Governments Reach Everyday People

Step 1: Attract citizens with interactive art installations. Step 2: Talk to them about the community.

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What do table tennis, letterpress printing and drum circles have in common? Government officials are using them to lure citizens into conversations about their community.

The city of Bloomington, Minn., for instance, wants to improve the South Loop, an underutilized neighborhood that houses the Mall of America.

“Right now the area is composed of a lot of parking lots, some businesses, a lot of hotels,” says Alejandra Pelinka, Bloomington’s director of creative placemaking and engagement. “It’s not a residential mixed-use space, and we really want to develop that.”

Most cities have areas they want to redevelop, but Bloomington has a unique approach: It has ditched the typical tables and brochures and replaced them with pop-up parks and table tennis trailers, created by artists and manned by artists and city officials who are eager to discuss the South Loop's future with participants.


The Temporary Table Tennis Trailer, a project of artist Peter Haakon Thompson, in action at People's Center Health Services in Minneapolis. (Bruce Silcox)

“We wanted something that could really draw people in, instead of just standing in a tent at a city event and handing out surveys,” says Pelinka. “[The art projects] really made people more comfortable and allowed us to engage in conversations with them that were natural.”

Bloomington’s approach is part of the city’s collaboration with Springboard for the Arts, a not-for-profit organization that connects governments with artists as a resource for urban planning and public engagement.

“We’ve learned that [government officials] are open to working with artists, but it’s too hard. We were getting calls saying, ‘where do I find an artist? How do I know how much to pay them?’” says Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts. “I always say I want it to be as easy to work with an artist as it is to rent a bounce house."

So Zabel and others at Springboard spurred the creation of ready-made, portable art projects that can be customized to suit a city's needs. The installations range from table tennis trailers to a “free speech machine," which records residents' impromptu speeches given through a megaphone, to a streetcorner letterpress, which helps people create and print their own postcards. They range in price from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand for a four- or five-hour event. 


A woman has her photo taken with the Instant Box Camera, a project from artist Lacey Prpic Hedtke. (Uche Iroegbu)

Springboard has been offering this service for 18 months. So far, Zabel says it’s been used by dozens of municipalities in Minnesota to help them attract and retain talent, promote infrastructure improvements, address historic inequities or better use their public space. Some have even started using the tools at weekly meetings or events. 

Zabel hopes these projects will act as an onramp for governments to begin working with artists in a more sustained, intentional and developed way. 

“We know that artists can engage people in new ways and break down barriers for people to engage in a public or civic project,” she says. “Artists and creative people are an untapped resource. They’re really skilled at helping governments prototype ideas.”

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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