Ben Johnson, the new director of Minneapolis' Arts & Culture Department, attributes his audience development chops not to the many years he's spent in arts leadership positions, but to his grandfather, a farmer and jazz musician.
"His claim to fame was that in rural northeast Iowa with his jazz band, he'd play every Saturday night with his brothers," Johnson said. "He was the Scottish guy, and he always made sure all the wallflowers had someone to dance with before the night was over. His dance parties were really fundamental to my audience development skills."
Johnson sat at a picnic table painted yellow behind Mojo Coffee in northeast Minneapolis, wearing chunky black square-framed glasses and a black T-shirt. In the background, the sounds of hammering emanated from a new condo development being built.
Johnson, 56, grew up in the small town of Le Roy, Minn., on the border with Iowa, and comes from a family of artists, musicians and mathematicians. Johnson has spent his life working with arts organizations, from the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts to his last job as arts and culture manager for the city of Beverly Hills, Calif. For now, he's living in Loring Park, the quintessential transplant neighborhood, and is busy getting rooted in the city.
Minneapolis has never had a dedicated department for arts and culture. Its creation is an attempt to consolidate the arts infrastructure — the old Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Public Arts Division merged into the new department. That way, resources and access are streamlined and, hopefully, easier to navigate.
Johnson says Minneapolis' annual budget for the arts should be higher than it is, especially since the arts draw people to the city. In 2022, the budget was $2.5 million. Austin, Texas, with twice the population, spends nine times as much, according to a report by the former Office of Arts, Culture & the Creative Economy for Minneapolis.
About six months into the job, Johnson is figuring out how everything could come together to make "Minneapolis a world-class art city," as he said.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the newly formed department.
This department allows arts and culture to be in conversation with all the other departments in the city. My job is to advocate on behalf of arts and culture in the city of Minneapolis in a way that really turns us into a world-class art city. Our work is centered on supporting artists who live and work here, and surfacing and amplifying their work, finding opportunities for them locally, nationally, internationally.
What areas do you cover?
I'm meeting with all the council members in the city. My portfolio currently is to look at all these different sectors — music, dance, theater, film, visual art, architecture, fashion, venues, festivals, creative entrepreneurship, education. What are we doing to lift up all those in our community? Just like Public Works has funding and staff to maintain our public streets, our lighting, whatever else they manage — our arts and cultural ecosystem needs the same.
What's a ballpark amount of funding you'd ideally want?
I want the salary of one football player. The opportunity is that we now have this department as a tool to further amplify the value of arts and culture in our city because it's a brand of our city. We've never had a grants program. We've never had a lot of funding for supporting festivals or new initiatives or for scholarship research.
What are you working on now?
Soon we will be announcing our first Minneapolis Poet Laureate planned in partnership with the Loft Literary Center. It'll be a one-year term in 2024 and then we'll announce another one in 2025/26 for a two-year term. Our plan is to expand the next iteration to include both a poet laureate and a spoken word laureate, as well.
The mayor is supporting my portion of the Vibrant Storefronts initiative, which is a collaboration with CPED [Community Planning and Economic Development] and the Minneapolis Downtown Council. For the Arts & Cultural Affairs side of this partnership, we will be looking at placing a variety of multidisciplinary arts organization and creatives in the empty stores in the area around Harmon Place, from Loring Park to downtown, and down Hennepin Avenue to the Cowles Center. We are in the initial stages of determining how to place artists in these stores, but our vision is to create a "creative cluster" of visual artists, theater/stage artists, fashion designers, musicians and literary artists to utilize empty spaces to create work, build a new arts community and host gatherings, popups, and creative events. The proposed title of this area is the Downtown Arts Loop.
Vibrant Storefronts also includes an initiative to have holiday windows on Nicollet Avenue. The pitch is that we'd have our own version of Bergdorf Goodman windows, and you know, you can't do anything without the nostalgia of Dayton's in this town.
Then we're funding the city's seven designated cultural districts with an arts and culture overlay. The districts are Lowry Avenue, West Broadway, Cedar Riverside, George Floyd Square, two areas of Lake Street and Central Avenue. The funding will help prop up and support existing festivals and cultural spaces in those neighborhoods, so they don't get displaced.
We'll invite a stakeholder from the community to organize all the cultural spaces and artists of the neighborhood to actively meet on a quarterly basis and talk about projects.
It's about investing in arts and culture. I'm calling the seven cultural districts jewels, the crown jewels for the city.