The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Feb 11, 2013

Twin Cities' night-long arts festival, Northern Spark, moves to St. Paul for 2013

Posted by sschouweiler

Last week, the website for Northern Spark, the Twin Cities' annual, nocturnal arts festival, was updated to read: June 8, 8:58 p.m., Lowertown, St. Paul. And that quiet change caught my eye, because it made official the hummuna I’ve been hearing for a couple of months among arts folks that, for its third iteration, Northern Spark would be sited exclusively on the capitol city side of the river.

From its initial outing, the all-night spectacle proved to be a wildly popular community event, drawing more than 20,000 revelers to its debut  in 2011, and more than double that number, 40,000-some people, for Northern Spark 2012. When the non-profit Northern first launched Northern Spark in 2011, the nuit blanche-style festival featured artist-run projects and interactive performance happenings sprawled through both Minneapolis and St. Paul. But well-attended or not, such an event is not just expensive, it also demands virtuosic orchestration of a host of logistical details by the tiny team at its helm: balancing the aspirations of the presenting organizations with the requirements of parks, permits and city agencies, as well as the practical, brass tacks-sorts of needs of partnering artists and arts organizations in order to pull off their individual projects.

Strapped for cash and faced with the hurdles of light rail construction along the Central Corridor and the subsequent loss of some key St. Paul partner organizations, last year Northern Spark’s organizers found they needed to tighten both the budget and scale of the event, at least temporarily. So, in 2012, they opted to situate the proceedings only in Minneapolis.

Jim Campbell, "Scattered Light," an installation in the 2011 Northern Spark at St. Paul's Upper Landing. Photo courtesy of Northern and Northern Spark

As it happens, for 2013 there are similar roadblocks to hosting the festival in Minneapolis. Notably, the Walker Art Center, an anchoring venue in previous years’ festivals, pulled out because of summer-long, on-site construction; there were also hitches with hosting artists' projects and events on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus, another key partner. Add to that the inevitable constraints of budget and a genuine desire to spread the wealth and move the festival to a new locale to keep things fresh – perhaps it’s not surprising that Northern Spark is concentrating its festivities a bit and migrating across the river to Lowertown for 2013. It's a stroke of terrific good fortune for St. Paul, and no exaggeration to say this promises to be the event of the summer.

What's more, given the recently completed renovation of the historic Union Depot – this year’s Northern Spark HQ – not to mention the opening of Minnesota Museum of American Art’s nearby Project Space and Bedlam Theatre’s new Lowertown location, along with the Black Dog and other cultural stalwarts in and around downtown – it’s a perfect time to celebrate the flourishing of this arts-dense neighborhood.

In an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, president and artistic director of Northern, Steve Dietz said, “We have about 45 partners, and 75 projects, which means there will be over 100 artists participating. It's mostly Minnesota (artists) this year, and a significant percentage of them are from the Twin Cities."

Of these, I’m particularly looking forward to what artist Chris Larson has planned. He received a substantial, $15,000 grant from National Endowment of the Arts to recreate architect Marcel Breuer’s 1962 St. Paul house; he’ll build it to scale and according to the original plans, in wood frame and cardboard rather than the original’s concrete blocks. Upon completion, the artist and his team of University of Minnesota architecture students will float the house down the river on a platform and set it aflame “as a symbolic act of celebration and destruction.” How cool is that?

Janaki Ranpura&squot;s "The Peleton" on Main St. in Minneapolis for the 2012 Northern Spark. Photo: Bruce Silcox Janaki Ranpura's "The Peleton" on Main St. in Minneapolis for the 2012 Northern Spark.
Photo: Bruce Silcox

Northern Spark 2013 will run from Saturday, June 8, 8:58 p.m. through the night and into the morning of June 9. This year’s festival will be headquartered in Lowertown’s Union Depot, with projects spread through Lowertown and into downtown St. Paul, spilling in and around Mears Park, bounded by the Mississippi River. For more information:

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