Rite of Spring

A few minutes with a very busy Anna Becker, NEMAA executive director, on the state of the top arts district in the USA according to USA Today


It’s two weeks to Art-A-Whirl and Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA) executive director Anna Becker is standing on a loading dock in Northeast Minneapolis, sounding very much like an air traffic controller. Metal-on-metal dump-truck sounds are screeching and groaning in the background while she shouts about the state of the state of the arts in Northeast Minneapolis.

“It’s such an incredibly important part of the fabric of Northeast Minneapolis,” she emphasizes. “It’s the reason why this neighborhood, this area, is the way it is.” The neighborhood is, as far as anyone can tell, the densest enclave of working artists in the country, garnering a nod from USA Today as the top arts district nationwide.

“In the arts district alone, just the square from Broadway to Lowry, Marshall to Central, here are a dozen studio buildings within blocks of each other, featuring 1,500 working artists. It is rare to have such a density of artists that are working in a spot.” Becker says noting that plenty of artists have studios just outside that square, and are even spread across the Twin Cities. “Plenty of arts districts in the U.S. that are gallery rows, plenty of touristy curated spaces. But Northeast is a working artists’ community, so it has that dynamic feature of it. It’s a community of artists that know each other and work together. And that is something special too.”

Art-A-Whirl started as an open-studio arts crawl but as the neighborhood thrived and grew, the festival evolved into something much larger, spilling out into the streets, and into the bars and onto the bar patios, with music joining the visual arts exhibitions and demonstrations. A full-fledged, entire neighborhood celebration of creativity and community. Becker has seen NEMAA through rain, sun, tornados, pandemics, first as NEMAA staff for five years, then as its director for the past five years.

She says right prior to the pandemic, organizers estimate that 45,000-50,000 Whirlers came through the studios and filtered through the streets. But in post-quar era, estimates rang in nearly double: A jaw-dropping 80,000-100,000 in those short, packed three days. And, And, she says, the pandemic helped some realize the “Current system wasn’t serving their needs”: Artists’ memberships for NEMAA alone jumped by 40 percent this year.  

“Coming out of the pandemic, people really want to be out and experiencing art events and also want to be in person,” Becker says. “What Art-A-Whirl allows is people to walk up and talk to an artist and access that work completely free of any kind of interference, really… People realized how important art is, and a lot of people realized they had the capacity to become artists.”

Post-Art-A-Whirl surveys of artists and visitors revealed two clear themes: People still didn’t realize how up close and personal their experience with the art and artists would be, a totally different experience than their preconceived notion that hands-off galleries were the only way for artists to exhibit their work—and that it could be affordable. The second? It’s kid-friendly, encouraging a new generation of artists to step in. “We heard a lot, ‘Thank you for making this an event where we can show our kids they can be artists, too,’” Becker says.

To that end, NEMAA created a coloring contest—available as a two-page spread in the program directory, and also available on 11×17 printouts, and also available for download on their website. There will also be a host of interactive events, demonstrations, and features in every building and studio, too.

Becker is thrilled to put on Art-A-Whirl every year, but says the continual growth year-round is the real gift. “Artists are a really, really, really important part of community and if you want to have healthy communities and healthy societies, art needs to be a part of that,” she says.

“We’re at a really exciting point in time,” Becker adds. “Everyone is giving it their all. It’s going to be epic. Art-a-Whirl is like a rite of spring.”