Joan Vorderbruggen, the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Cultural Arts District coordinator, is the unseen force behind much of downtown's public art. Credit: Photo by Eric Best

Joan Vorderbruggen, the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Cultural Arts District coordinator, is the unseen force behind much of downtown's public art. Credit: Photo by Eric Best

Joan of Art

Updated: January 19, 2016 - 12:49 pm

If you enjoy downtownÂ’s public art, you likely have Joan Vorderbruggen to thank.

Neighborhood Spotlight: Downtown West & East 

Joan Vorderbruggen doesn’t ask for more art downtown. She shouts from the rooftops to rally hundreds of artists, spectators and nonprofits to get more and more creations into every nook and cranny in Minneapolis’ busiest blocks. And a five-story mural of Bob Dylan isn’t going to cut it. 

Vorderbruggen is the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Cultural Arts District coordinator, but for many she is downtown Minneapolis’ public art innovator, putting art in unexpected places. 

For the past few years, the 41-year-old St. Paul native has curated Made Here, the country’s largest showcase of storefront window art, which has brought art from hundreds of creatives and students to vacant spaces. When she’s not activating long-forgotten storefronts, she spends the rest of her few waking hours coordinating massive projects from behind the scenes, from Eduardo Kobra’s colorful mural of Bob Dylan to Greg Gossel’s Pop art-inspired wall at 10th & Hennepin. 

Vorderbruggen got her start in art from a young age and only pursued it professionally after years as a nurse and, before that, a waitress. 

When Tartan High School’s education didn’t fit well with her passions, Vorderbruggen was expelled, only to get her GED and begin community college at 17. Inspired by her grandmother, she eventually dropped waitressing to become a nurse. Despite the work, she was always curating the environment around her.

“My bedroom was very often an installation. [I had] a wicked imagination,” she laughed. “I had imaginary friends. I really thought there was a universe inside my closet and a universe underneath my bed. I had a stuffed animal army on the perimeter of my bed just to be sure that nothing could get me from either universe.”

After years of nursing, the Whittier resident started her “Artists in Storefronts” project in 2012 with 26 artists despite not ever having curated a gallery show. The project, which evolved into Made Here, has now featured the work of hundreds of artists who have activated underutilized spaces across the Twin Cities. It was the push she needed to leave her full-time job and begin a new career. 

“It was almost like I was being led into a direction that I didn’t even recognize what it was going to do. I was really tired of nursing. I felt like my life was being wasted,” she said. 

Despite having no formal education in the arts, she got a job leading the vision of the Trust’s Cultural District, which stretches from the Walker Art Center to the Mississippi River. She now had the largest canvas imaginable to play with. 

Though she has been with the Trust less than three years, Vorderbruggen has brought high-profile projects to Hennepin Avenue. This past year, internationally renowned artist Eduardo Kobra transformed a five-story wall at 5th & Hennepin with Bob Dylan’s likeness. 

While the project seemed like a breeze to pedestrians, who saw the colossal mural go up in a matter of days, Vorderbruggen was the one-woman welcome wagon handling the nitty-gritty details. As the downtown’s foremost artist advocate, she was the one who brought Kobra’s team around the city, buying paint from any store with the right supply, all the while barely being able to speak to Kobra, who speaks Portuguese, not English. 

“Every time I see it I can’t believe we did it,” she said. 

And the biggest criticism she hears of the piece is “why Bob Dylan?” What they don’t understand, Vorderbruggen said, is that Kobra admired Dylan enough to put Minneapolis ahead of projects around the globe just to paint the mural.

“Kobra put us ahead of five other countries,” she said. “It’s often lost on people that a man made this with his hands.”

The project is the largest single effort in Vorderbruggen’s mission to beautify and connect downtown, though she also has several seasons of Made Here and countless storefronts pieces under her belt. This year, Vorderbruggen said she wants to see four more murals, all on Hennepin between 5th and 10th. 

“I need to create a dense footprint so I can create a culture of opportunity and possibility. It has to be dense so people without arts agendas can be like “how cool is this?” she said. 

It’s this “place-making” work through public, accessible art that Vorderbruggen hopes can bring together both the people and the infrastructure of downtown Minneapolis, one wall, one storefront or one new, diverse voice at a time. 

“Really my heart and soul is rooted in the idea that this a vehicle of connection,” she said. “[The city’s art scene] is opening up. It’s less exclusive. There are more voices, and more diversity. There can never be enough of that.”

For Vorderbruggen, the city should also be a place of pride.

“When you have a friend come visit you from New York City, do you take them downtown? That’s the measure for me,” she said. “I don’t want to be embarrassed of our downtown.”

If there’s a secret to her success, it’s that compassion can be an effective rallying cry. 

“I have a fortune next to my computer that says, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ I approach a lot of different personality types to make things happen. Sometimes it’s a businessman with no arts agenda. I have to get him to be like ‘Joan, I trust you. Now I’m excited too,’” she said. 

And for Vorderbruggen, a little — or a quite lot — of dedication goes a long way.

“Everyone who’s close to me has this understanding that I’m kind of a woman obsessed. I don’t think you can take on the challenge of inspiring a blighted area to become a vibrant, artistic creation without living your work,” she said. “I don’t punch out, really. I work in my sleep. I figured some things out while I was dreaming and I woke up happy. ‘Oh yeah, that’s how I can frame that!’