Art is an integral part of connecting people to community and culture. With this strong belief in mind, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) launched the Native Arts Capacity Building Initiative (NACBI) in 2014 to significantly increase the organizational, managerial and programmatic capacity of Native organizations and tribal government art programs. NACBI, which is supported by the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation along with contributions from tribal, corporate and individual supporters, provides direct grants, technical assistance and training to Native organizations and tribal government art programs so they can continue to work with and support Native American arts and artists.
In October 2014, First Nations awarded six $30,000 grants to Native art programs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. Gizhiigin Art Place, located in Mahnomen, Minnesota, was part of the first round of grant awards through NACBI.
Under the umbrella of the White Earth Tribal Economic Development Office, Gizhiigin Art Place was formed with assistance from Michael Neusser, the economic development director for the White Earth Reservation Tribal Council, and in partnership with the City of Mahnomen. Gizhiigin focuses on developing the arts industry on the White Earth Reservation and supports the growth of local artists and entrepreneurs by providing business tools and resources that help them generate a sustainable income through their art.
Tom Ferrarello, project specialist with the Economic Development Division of the White Earth Nation, was instrumental in the initial start-up stages of Gizhiigin Art Place program. From the beginning, Ferrarello consulted with artists from the community and asked them to talk about their art and define their current needs. “The first thing I did was reach out to all the artists in the community. This program doesn’t work unless all the artists are involved from day one,” Ferrarello said. “We had a loosely defined idea of what we were going to do from the start of it, and we selectively choose artists who had been doing their art for a long time so they were able to inform how this program took shape.” Six artists were then chosen to receive business skills training in marketing, finance, accounting, portfolio development and business technology. According to Karen Goulet (Chibinesiikwe), artist advisor and coordinator for Gizhiigin, “A lot of artists are selling already, but we want to develop them so they are past the survival stage.”
Aside from the business training Gizhiigin offers, another important component to the program is the creative labs, which expose artists to other techniques and mediums. “It’s about making art to keep their creative spirit, not about making art just to sell. We want them to think about maybe diversifying what they do and intersecting what is art and what is crafts,” said Goulet.
Joseph Allen (Lakota/Ojibwe) who works at White Earth Tribal and Community College and has been an arts photographer for 25 years, is an artist advisor at Gizhiigin and has helped grow the program. He says, “Mahnomen is a pretty dead town. After 2 p.m. in the afternoon everything starts to shut down. We are the only thing open on Main Street in the late afternoon and evening. We need more opportunities for our youth, so we worked really hard to figure out what we were going to do to start making this more visible to the community.”
Within the space, artists have the opportunity to mentor youth and to host workshops, trainings and events for the larger community. There’s a printmaking class, a sewing lab and a photography lab that all members of the community can access, not just Gizhiigin’s artists.
Giziigin also provides resources to prepare artists for grant or exhibition applications, and also offers assistance in photographing artists’ works as well as access to studio space. Ferrarello says, “Over the past year, we spent a lot of time building relationships with artists in the community and designed a service model that creates an economy that allows artists to thrive as artists.”
With the foundational support from First Nations through the Native Arts Capacity Building Initiative, Gizhiigin is doing just that. Successfully launching its services, completing community outreach and recruiting artists during its first year of programing. It is important to remember, however, that programs like Gizhiigin Arts Place can only continue to be successful with consistent funding that will continue to create opportunities to help nurture Native artists and entrepreneurs on rural reservations.
By Abi Whiteing, First Nations Program Officer