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Strolling through the Whittier neighborhood of south Minneapolis recently, Joan Vorderbruggen spied opportunity where less imaginative types might just see blight. Murals could brighten boring walls and flags fly from lampposts. Art could paper the neighborhood's empty shop windows and sculpture fill its vacant storefronts.
She pointed to a little banner in a window above a seedy, albeit popular bar: "The beginning is near," cries a cartoon character waving gaily from the banner, painted by local artist Lori Mocha.
"It was inspired by the Occupy movement, which gave Lori a stirring of hope," said Vorderbruggen.
The poster is part of Vorderbruggen's "Whittier Artists in Storefronts" project, a six-week effort to enliven neglected parts of the neighborhood. Most of the art is installed on or near a seven-block stretch of Nicollet Avenue between Franklin Avenue and the Midtown Greenway.
The 10 projects are modest, ranging from a few lonely posters plastered on an empty window to colorful yarn-bombs around the Waldorf school. An abstract banner fills half the window of one shop. Next door sits an eccentric installation of bricks and spittoons emblazoned with political messages inexplicably recalling world events of 1919.
Candy Chang's chalk mural "Before I Die" strikes a poignant note at 2609 Stevens Av. S., where passersby can add their own endings to the phrase "Before I die I want to ... " Recent completions included "tell the Jesus story," "perform at the MOMA," "tell my parents I'm gay" and "meet Bill Cosby."
Vorderbruggen's own project, in the window of the Lost and Found thrift shop at 2524 Nicollet, is a girlish fantasy featuring a pop-singer mannequin in pink spandex and a unicorn riding a bike. Plus lingerie, vintage record albums, roller skates and silver streamers.
"It's my tribute to the comedic traditions of Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin," said Vorderbruggen, 37, a full-time nurse and part-time artist who moonlights as a freelance window-designer.
One of the more ambitious projects is a "moss mural" that Vorderbruggen is trying to grow on a wall outside the Rainbow Chinese restaurant at 2739 Nicollet. In huge letters it spells out "Everyone Together Different," words chosen by artist Sheila Regan and the font designed by Anton Pearson. The words were applied with moss spores mixed into yogurt, beer and "retention gel," a glop that has to be watered pretty much every day. That job has fallen to Vorderbruggen.
Recent chilly weather seems to have inhibited the mural's enthusiasm, leaving a brownish stain instead of a lush green carpet. Still, restaurateur Tammy Wong is thrilled.
"Omigod, this was my dream," said Wong. "I wanted to do a piece of art for my 20th anniversary but I couldn't afford it, so now in my 25th year in business I have a big graffiti piece on my building. And I like the message."
The storefront art is sponsored by the Whittier Alliance, a neighborhood advocacy organization. It committed about $3,000 to the project, hoping that the storefronts will stir more activity in a neighborhood that's already bubbling with art. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Minneapolis College of Art and Design anchor the area, which is also home to "Eat Street" restaurants. Many art students live nearby, as do some college and museum staffers.
"There is a lot of retail and commercial investment here, but there are storefronts that have gotten tired and landlords who have not pursued tenants who complement the neighborhood," said Marian Biehn, executive director of Whittier Alliance. "We're glad to be a pioneer for this concept."
Cities elsewhere have had mixed success in trying to revitalize neighborhoods with storefront art. Seattle Storefronts is a full-fledged urban renewal program whose website boasts that it can "turn desolate half-empty blocks into the hippest, happiest and hottest real estate in town."
A 2009 economic and cultural development effort in San Francisco included storefront art projects in several neighborhoods. City officials say the projects were popular but too ephemeral to get credit for rental activity, business development or property sales.
"The things they affect aren't really quantifiable," Robynn Takayama, program manager for the San Francisco Arts Commission, said recently by phone. "There is increased foot traffic, an increased sense of safety, and they were temporary tourist attractions. On Facebook we saw that people were coming into the city to see them, but property owners have different motivations and plans" that don't necessarily capitalize on the art.
Locally, artists occasionally have done window displays on Hennepin Avenue, murals in north Minneapolis and storefronts in downtown St. Paul. The Whittier project is a first for its neighborhood, however.
Landlord Marcelo Diaz watched happily as artist Joby Lynn Sassily-James hauled into his shop a colorful load of fake flowers, tissue-paper geegaws and a gaily decorated mannequin. His empty store at 19 E. 26th St. has been for sale for more than a year with no nibbles. Sassily-James quickly transformed the shop into an eye-catching garden fantasy.
"I'm kind of a procrastinator, but when she gave me a deadline to clean it up I got it done," said Diaz as he set to work washing windows. He hopes the art will help sell the building, but he's energized regardless. "I thought it was just going to be some paintings, but this is great," he said.