From Pop Up Markets to Hockey Stadiums – Growing the Arts Ecosystem in White Earth

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015



“Go talk to Joe.” This is a common phrase in the community on the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. 

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“Joe” is Joseph Allen (Lakota/Ojibwe), project coordinator for the Gizhiigin Arts Incubator. Gizhiigin (“grow fast”) is a project of the White Earth Reservation Tribal Council’s Economic Development Division. Gizhiigin is also the recipient of a 2019 Indigenous Arts Ecology Grant from First Peoples Fund.  They work with culture bearers in their community to foster growth, promote local artists, assist with skill development and marketplace goals, and provide artists with space and resources for entrepreneurial development. 

When emerging artists are starting out, they are often referred to Joe and the Gizhiigin Arts Incubator. Whether a phone call, text, or Facebook message, Joe is always open to coaching artists.

“We assist them with their careers,” Joe says. “We help them take photos of their work and teach them how to take photos of it, and connect them with markets or opportunities for exhibitions.”

One such artist is Rick Kagigebi (Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe), who makes ceremonial star quilts and other blankets. He never viewed his creations as art, they were just something that he did. 

In the small community of 1,500 people, where everyone knows everyone, Joe was familiar with Rick and his wife’s art. Penny Kagigibi (White Earth) is a talented birch bark and quill box maker. One of her quill boxes was exhibited in the Anishinaabe Arts Initiative Grant Recipients exhibition Gizhiigin hosted. The couple works together in their art mediums.

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“They are getting close to retirement age, and they want to do this full-time,” Joe says. “Rick is starting to sell now. He’s learning to make things for market, going through that process of deciding what it is you’re going to sell and what you’re not going to sell.”

Through Gizhiigin, Rick connected with galleries and is now exhibiting regionally. He recently won best in show in a juried art show at the Watermark Art Center in Bemidji, Minnesota, and is gaining recognition as an artist — publicly and for himself.



Indigenous Arts Ecology Projects Growing Fast

Joe is the project coordinator for the 2019 Indigenous Arts Ecology (IAE) grant from First Peoples Fund. He was a First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership Fellow in 2012 and has stayed connected to First Peoples Fund’s work over the years. After reading First Peoples Fund’s 2018 report, Investing in the Indigenous Arts Ecology, Joseph urged his community to deepen their work with artists and helped completely change the local strategy for economic growth. 

Now, using the IAE grant, Gizhiigin is helping materialize the tangible elements of that strategy. Joe has spent this year creating new market opportunities for artists in his area. They began holding pop up markets inside Gizhiigin on the first Saturday of every month. Young artists exhibit their beadwork, paintings, star quilts, and baby quilts.

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Joe is also developing relationships with businesses that want to buy from Native artists. One of these is the Sanford Center, a 4,700-seat multi-purpose arena and convention center located in Bemidji. Home of Bemidji State University hockey, the center is purchasing Native art for halls of the venue concourse areas and outside their suites. The presence of Native art in such a high-traffic public space is raising awareness of Native arts and helping overcome one of the greatest challenges for artists in the region. 

“The biggest issue right now is lack of knowledge of Indigenous art in the art buying market,” Joe says. “Indigenous art is not commonly recognized as part of Minnesota.”

Without public support and awareness, Native artists struggle to keep their art forms in practice.

“With the lack of a viable market, the quality of the art has diminished,” Joe explains. “Things are getting lost because artists can’t make a living. We’re trying to revive those arts, but there has to be someplace where they can make money. Teaching these traditions is where a lot of our artists are supplementing their income. We try to connect the artists to organizations that want traditional artists to come in and teach.”

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Gizhiigin also regularly hosts classes and open studios. Last fall, they focused on black ash basket making, and have noticed interest in these kinds of classes increasing. One of the students was mentored by 2000 First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Awards recipient Clyde Estey, Jr. (Minnesota Chippewa) in Gizhiigin’s Traditional Arts Mentorship program. 

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That student is now an instructor. 22-year old Courtney Olsen (Ojibwe), a recent graduate of the White Earth Tribal and Community College, was the lead artist in Gizhiigin’s Black Ash Basketry Open Studio Lab.

“The next generation is already teaching,” Joe says.

Courtney is long familiar with her people’s art, being upheld by her grandmother and also her mother, Melissa Widner (White Earth). Courtney nominated her mother for the 2019 First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Awards. Melissa’s honoring was held at Gizhiigin, where she teaches sewing classes.




Informal Arts Association Launching an Arts Market

A critical aspect of the IAE project Gizhiigin proposed was networking to create an informal arts association for organizations and cities in the region. Joe is working to deepen relationships with the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and Bemidji Native arts communities, and they are now pushing toward a joint arts market in 2021. Four Directions Development Corporation, another FPF partner, received a National Endowment for the Arts grant that is supporting this work.

The traditional arts classes and open studios, popup markets, art in the Sanford Center, coaching by Joe, and networking are coordinated efforts to build toward the 2021 arts market.

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“We’re working with artists even more in-depth with individualized training so they can show at market,” Joe says. “This whole thing is all about marketing, getting the word out there. We’re working with the city of Bemidji and regional partners, planning well in advance of the market.”

Joe is an artist himself with over 25 years of experience creating and exhibiting his photography. He served four years on the Region 2 Arts Council’s Board and began a three-year term in July 2018 serving on the Board of the Plains Arts Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. He was in the first learning cohort with Gizhiigin in 2015. Joe understands artist needs and how important it is that Gizhiigin and the IAE program be artist-led. 

With Gizhiigin being a project of the Economic Development Division, they approach it from an economic development perspective, helping their people earn more and develop the economy there. “We’re looking at the arts as, ‘it’s there, now how can we help it and make it thrive?’”