Artists light up Block E’s empty storefronts

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October 7, 2013
By: Maggie Kane
Photo by Karen Nelson
Maggie Kane

DOWNTOWN—Block E’s previously vacant windows have a brighter look this fall, featuring the work of local artists in 27 different displays.

Made Here Block E is part of a plan led by the Hennepin Theatre Trust to weave together the Hennepin Avenue experience through arts and culture. Lights illuminate the windows between 4 p.m. and 6 a.m. each day, making the displays a 24-hour experience.

“This is like having an urban walking gallery,” said Joan Vorderbruggen, the project’s artist coordinator. “It went from being this pitch-black whole city block… which is totally unnatural, to now just being extraordinarily beautiful.”

Vorderbruggen launched and currently runs Artists in Storefronts, a similar project in the Whittier neighborhood. When the Hennepin Theatre Trust approached her about taking on the Block E project, she was hesitant.

“Block E is mired in controversy,” she said.

The building that currently sits on the block bordered by 6th and 7th streets on Hennepin Avenue was built in 2001 and funded partially by the city. Initially marketed as an entertainment destination, many of the original tenants have relocated.

“I think Block E in a lot of ways epitomizes what many people see as the shortcomings of downtown,” said Tom Hoch, president and chief executive officer of the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

The Trust partnered with Artspace, the Walker Art Center and the City of Minneapolis in 2011 to put together Plan-It Hennepin, an outline for enliven what Hoch calls Minneapolis’ main street. The designated Hennepin Cultural District stretches from the Walker Art Center to the Hennepin Avenue bridge.

Artist Ta-coumba Aiken was involved in Plan-It Hennepin’s early stages. He said he heard from community members that there were areas of downtown that they considered to be dead zones or dark areas.

“[Block E] is one of those spots that seemed to keep going up and down as great and dead,” he said.

When Vorderbruggen decided to take on Made Here, she chose Aiken in advance as one of several well-known local artists to anchor the show. Aiken has multiple pieces on display at the corner of 6th and Hennepin, including a set of large paintings in the entryway.

“There are a lot of people that come to work and go home, and their lives are relegated from that square block on busses that pass through,” Aiken said. “I just wanted to have some bright colors in there.”

Vorderbruggen also had an open call for submissions. Minneapolis artist Rachel Breen was chosen through this process.

“I had been spending time all summer drawing at Zenon dance company,” Breen said. “[I thought] it would really be great to figure out a way to use those drawings in this space because it’s so physically close to where the drawings took place.”

Breen used a sewing machine to make a pattern of small holes in a sheet of black paper that fully covers a window. At night, light shines through the pattern from behind, casting a glow on the nearby bus stop.

“People aren’t expecting to see art when they’re walking down the street in Minneapolis,” Breen said. “I love the idea of transforming that space into a gallery.”

Made Here Block E will be up through the end of the year — Hoch said the plan is to fill the space for a minimum of 90 days.

A statement from Alatus LLC, the group that owns Block E, expresses excitement about the installation as a way to fill the empty storefronts until redevelopment plans are in action.

Attracting potential tenants to the street is one of the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s end goals for the initiative.

“Standing there [on opening night] when we had people in the street, we could really imagine restaurants that were spilling out,” Hoch said.