Minnesota’s Native Artists: Raising their visibility and earnings

by Ann Markusen and Marcie Rendon

Ever wonder why Minnesota doesn’t celebrate our Ojibwe and Dakota artists the way the southwest does its Pueblo, Apache and Navajo artists? That’s one of the questions Marcie Rendon asked in our three-year study of how the state’s Ojibwe artists do their work and make a living. You can download it free from our website:

We found Native artists all over

the state making beautiful work, sharing it with their communities and beyond. Yet they struggle to build careers. They are more apt to be self-employed than artists in general and less likely to have found formal employment. A few teach in tribal or state colleges or work in staff jobs in cultural centers or as graphic artists for their tribes. Some run their own enterprises, such as Marcie McIntire’s beautiful gallery in Grand Portage, Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, or Richard Schulman’s North Star Coffee Bar in Cass Lake that provides space for young musicians to rehearse, perform and get feedback.

But most make and market their own creations. Like many artists, they face stiff materials and equipment costs, lack space to work and think, and are baffled by how art markets work. Some find outlets in their own communities, like the gift shop at Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen that displays and sells one-of-a-kind work by White Earth artists. Or opportunities to perform at tribal casinos. Commissions and sales of visual art for tribal community and social services complexes. Some score with non-Native organizations: a public art project, such as Steve Premo’s outdoor mural for Hinckley and Robert DesJarlait’s mosaic for the Minneapolis Franklin Library. Or land a book contract with a commercial or non-profit press.

We discovered many ways that Springboard and other artist-friendly organizations, including funders and educators, can nurture Native artists’ careers. A prerequisite involves understanding how Native artists work and how they bridge traditional culture with contemporary urban or reservation life. Recognizing, too, issues surrounding sacred practices and access to materials from nature, and the Native ethic of sharing and giving away work. Rather than teaching, funding and providing services structured by Euro-American notions of the artist as an autonomous creative individual, those with resources and space to share could begin by listening to Native artists.

Some gatekeepers, as we call the folks with

resources, have pioneered in creating space for Native artists to present their work, share it with their communities, and get paid for it. Juanita Espinosa has done this for years at Two Rivers Gallery in the Minneapolis, while encouraging generations of young Native artists through her Native Arts Circle network. Phil Norrgard, the Director of Fond du Lac’s Min No Aya Win Clinic, invests tribal funds in contemporary Ojibwe artist work that hangs on health care center walls, generates income for artists while emphasizing the role of art as healing. Fargo’s The Plains Museum, UMD’s Tweed Museum and the U’s Weisman exhibit and sometimes purchase Native work. Minnesota funders have helped the American Composer’s Forum, based in St. Paul, run its First Nation’s Composers Initiative.

Photographer links:
Cheryl Walsh Bellville
Travis Novitsky