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Looking for artists to take on city hall: Granite Falls, Minn., looking to embed artist in city

Ashley Hanson recently got the go-ahead from the city council in Granite Falls, Minn., to work towards putting together an artist-in-residency program to embed an artist in the city. Hanson believes there is no other community of under 10,000 with an embedded artist, even though small communities may have the most to gain. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service1 / 3
Ashley Hanson recently got the go-ahead from the city council in Granite Falls, Minn., to work towards putting together an artist-in-residency program to embed an artist in the city. Hanson believes there is no other community of under 10,000 with an embedded artist, even though small communities may have the most to gain. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service2 / 3
Ashley Hanson recently got the go-ahead from the city council in Granite Falls, Minn., to work towards putting together an artist-in-residency program to embed an artist in the city. Hanson believes there is no other community of under 10,000 with an embedded artist, even though small communities may have the most to gain. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service3 / 3

GRANITE FALLS, Minn.—You can't fight city hall, but soon, you might be able to infiltrate it.

That's kind of what Ashley Hanson is up to, and she has the formal approval of the powers that be in Granite Falls to do it.

City Council members recently approved a proposal by Hanson to pursue funding and create an artist-in-residency project that would embed an artist in the city.

If she's successful, artists could work within city government on a variety of initiatives. Suggestions range from engaging more citizens in community affairs to helping the community's young people feel more connected to the place they call home.

"We can create what this looks like as a community,'' said Hanson in describing her proposal at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast event on Tuesday, March 13.

A number of large cities already do this, and with some success. In St. Paul, the artist-in-residence project is more than 10 years' running. Hanson told of one project in which the artist pulled up with a canopy-covered vehicle at events like block parties and handed out popsicles in return for ideas and input on city projects in the neighborhoods.

Hanson was part of an artist-in-residency project in Minneapolis to gather citizen input on a rapid transit proposal along Penn Avenue. Playing on the television show "Jeopardy," props were placed at bus stops under categories of affordable housing, transportation, liveability and safety.

An artist-in-residency program in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul got citizens talking about and working to change its status as an urban food desert. Some 2,000 residents joined face-to-face along a half-mile-long table in 2014 to enjoy a meal together as some 400 volunteer servers encouraged discussion.

Hanson said she knows of no community in the country under 10,000 population with an artist-in-residency program embedded in city government. And yet she believes that small, rural communities have the most to gain by offering one.

The arts can play a very major role in helping promote the community connections, entrepreneurialism, and enthusiasm needed for community development, she explained.

She has seen it first hand. Hanson, who grew up in northern Minnesota, helped create PlaceBased Productions. She works with small communities to create live theater productions telling the stories of their place.

PlaceBased Productions has worked with locals in Appleton, Granite Falls, New London and Milan on productions in the last few years. The New London and Granite Falls stories were told as "paddle theater,'' with audience members paddling canoes to view the scenes.

This past year, Hanson toured small towns in 20 states in what she called her Public Transformation vehicle to explore the intersection of arts and community development in them. She returned to Minnesota convinced. Community development projects are the most successful in those communities where artists are directly involved with city departments, she said.

Tapping the creative spirit, and getting people involved in the creative process, can lead to good things, she explained.

Hanson is currently serving as the artist-in-residency with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. She is committing the next 18 months to raising the funding she believes is needed to make possible the artist-in-residency program in Granite Falls.

Her goal is to raise $90,000 for a two-year project. In each year, three or four different artists would serve for three- or four-month stints as the artist-in-residency.

A community advisory committee would help select the artists. That's where the community can determine what this will look like, Hanson said.

They might pick one artist to work on issues related to youth or the community's indigenous population They might select another to promote entrepreneurialism, or another to promote recreational opportunities.

"A lot needs to happen between now and 18 months,'' said Hanson of her efforts to get this launched. But, pointing to the recent Granite Falls City Council go-ahead, she said: "The first step has been taken.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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