Artist Aki Shibata remembers her first Northern Spark in 2011, the start of the popular Twin Cities all-night festival modeled after nuit blanche/"white night" in Europe. Shibata was working as an artist assistant for Marcus Young and Grace Minnesota's project "The Lullaby Experiment." They invited people to give up their daytime routine, and sleep at the Walker Art Center for an evening.
"I had a baby three months before Northern Spark," she said. "Marcus' project was about how to create resting spaces and Northern Spark is about staying up all night, right? It was kind of cool that the project actually worked for me as a new mama, you know, I mean obviously, I couldn't sleep at all."
The days of staying up all night for art are over.
Northern Spark wraps up with its "A Night With the River" at Upper Landing Park in St. Paul, on Saturday from 9 p.m.-1 a.m. The farewell event, which doesn't go all night, will have outdoor installations by Bayou Bay and Studio Strange, and visitors can contribute their memories at the Memory Station. Over the course of 11 years, the festival at times ran a single night, for a few years two nights, and one time for two weeks.
Northern Lights, the organization that operates Northern Spark, Artists on the Verge, Artist Council and Creative City Challenge, decided to pull the plug on the entire operation, which has been around since 2008. The organization announced this news in January, citing the pandemic, leadership change and changes in art funding.
"We're at a place where it was hard to imagine being able to keep an organization going to even kind of like reboot the programs that were a part of it," Northern Lights Executive Director Sarah Peters said. "Artists on the Verge was our longest-running program, and it was being rethought but also we had lost funding for that program a couple of years ago."
Although there was a hiatus planned in 2020 after longtime director Steve Dietz stepped down, the plan to come back in 2021 was different.
When that announcement was made in a pre-pandemic 2019, Peters, who took over for Dietz, described the organization's financial status as "healthy," with an annual budget that varied from year to year but averaged $500,000 to $600,000.
"We could have simplified and just gotten smaller and smaller and smaller, and we decided not to do that," she said. "I mean, that's what it came down to for that program is that we decided that that was not what we wanted to spend our time doing."
Northern Spark's digital and physical archives will be housed at the University of Minnesota's Performing Arts Archives.
Loss of experimental arts programs
Northern Spark isn't the only experimental art program that's been lost to the arts void. In the Heart of the Beast stopped organizing the May Day Parade, but neighborhood groups reimagined and kept May Day activities going in 2022. In St. Paul, Rondo Days won't come back for the fourth year in a row, but it is slated to return in 2024.
After 32 years, cutting-edge performance space Patrick's Cabaret said goodbye in 2018, the same year as longtime arts organization Intermedia Arts. Experimental art hub the Soap Factory called it quits in 2019.
But with funding from the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation and the Legacy Amendment in a state like Minnesota that is known for arts funding, why couldn't Northern Lights survive?
Carl Atiya Swanson, former Springboard for the Arts associate director who's now executive director of the National Independent Venue Foundation, thinks that although local governments have public art funds, there aren't necessarily funds to support live activity within city spaces, or an event like Northern Spark.
"We have really great civic infrastructure, foundation infrastructure, and State Arts Board infrastructure, and they'll support lots of new ideas and things coming through," he said. "But that makes it harder for programs or projects that are in a five- or a 10-year cycle, to keep coming back for those kinds of funds."
For composer and sound artist Dameun Strange, whose work is featured in the farewell, the end of Northern Spark is a major loss. He attributes his growth as an artist to his involvement in the program over the years.
"If we're closing down with an example of what Northern Lights has done for artists in the Twin Cities, I feel really good about that," he said. "I certainly wouldn't be doing this type of work if it weren't for Northern Lights, and their invitation to me as an artist to explore outside my comfort zone."