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Study delves into native artists' careers, challenges, and impact

A new study from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Native Artists: Livelihoods, Resources, Space, Gifts, documents the economic and cultural contributions of Native artists using Minnesota's Ojibwe artists as a case study. Through in-depth interviews, the study probes how artists' vision, training, employment and self-employment, access to space and resources, location, and commitment to community affect their ability to make a living from their work.

"Addressing contemporary urban and rural experience, Native artists preserve and celebrate traditions and provide bridges to the future for youth and between Native and non-Native communities. Yet Native artists find it difficult to make a living from their artwork," says Ann Markusen, Humphrey School professor and co-author of the report.

Co-author Marcie Rendon, Ojibwe playwright, poet, and writer adds, "Art keeps Native people alive. Young man brought back from the dead decides to pursue art and now makes a career on the plains of 'Pleasantville' in Fargo, North Dakota. Father paints spirit of daughter killed in school bus accident into each work of art he creates. Man rehabs self from debilitating stroke by carving images out of stone."

The study finds Ojibwe artists are more likely to be self-employed than artists in general. Few work for commercial or nonprofit employers, the legacy of discrimination, poor access to arts training, and living far from employment centers. Some are successful entrepreneurs, while many travel to sell work at Indian markets and powwows. Overwhelmingly, the artists interviewed would like to concentrate more on their art and make more income from it.

Many Ojibwe artists do not see themselves as individuals pursuing a career, but anchor their artwork in community cultural practice. Native values, such as gift-giving, cooperating, and "not standing out," clash with Western norms of artistic aspiration and self-promotion. Nevertheless, many Ojibwe artists have been successful in bridging traditional with contemporary artistic forms and content.

McKnight Foundation program officer Vickie Benson welcomed the findings by saying "Despite remarkable creativity and great demonstrated skill, most Native artists in Minnesota have not received the respect, the attention, or the financial resources their cultural contributions merit. We at The McKnight Foundation were pleased to support this report's research into the multiple barriers our state's Native artists face in developing their work."

The study showcases pioneering efforts that offer Ojibwe artists opportunities to present and earn income from their work. "There are one-of-a-kind instances where a Native entrepreneur creates a place for young musicians to practice, record, and perform (Cass Lake's North Star Coffee Bar); visual artists to hang, speak about, and sell their art (Two Rivers Gallery); and authors to read and sell their work (Birchbark Books)," says Markusen. "In other cases, non-Native patrons or managers dedicate a space for Native artwork (Todd Bockley Gallery, the Mahnomen Shooting Star Casino gift shop, Fond du Lac's Min No Aya Win Clinic, Grand Portage Lodge, and Mille Lacs Grand Casino and Hotel)."

The report makes recommendations for artists, arts resource/space managers, tribal leaders, funders, city leaders and Native arts organizations, among others, to raise the visibility of the value and impact of Native work and to build careers and good incomes for Native artists. "We believe that, through the talents of many of our interviewees, Minnesota and neighboring states could build a reputation for distinction in Woodland Indian art, comparable to the place Pueblo and Navajo art holds in the southwest," says Markusen.

The complete study, including profiles of more than 50 artists and pioneering arts managers, can be found online at www.hhh.umn.edu/projects/prie. The study was funded by The McKnight Foundation, in support of an environment in which artists are valued leaders in our community. While supplies last, copies are available from McKnight by calling 612-333-4220.

The Humphrey School ranks among the top professional schools of public affairs at public universities in the country. The Institute is widely recognized for its role in examining public issues and shaping policy and planning at the local, state, national, and international levels, as well as for providing leadership and management expertise to public and nonprofit organizations. The Institute offers four graduate degrees, plus a Master in Development Practice degree in international development that will welcome its first cohort in August 2010.

Painting credit: Jim Denomie, Untitled Portraits; Photo credit: Cheryl Walsh Bellville

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