Minneapolis got more than a bureaucrat when it hired Melisande Charles to lead its new arts commission. It got a whole new neighborhood.
The outspoken, eccentric New York transplant pioneered an artist-led revival of the city’s Warehouse District in the 1970s while also securing recognition and resources for local artists. She died on Sept. 2 of lung cancer at age 86.
Whether she was beaming lasers off downtown buildings or soliciting renderings of small-town post offices, Charles injected art into civic life. At a time when local art largely revolved around institutions like the Walker Art Center, she was known as an advocate for the little guy.
“She’s the grandmama of the arts scene,” said sculptor Aldo Moroni. “She really was this sort of encouraging, guiding force.”
Charles was the head of a Staten Island arts organization when Minneapolis officials tapped her in 1975 to be the first executive director of the city’s art commission. Former City Council President Lou DeMars said they wanted someone to challenge city leaders.
“I said … you’ll never hear any complaints from me for being outrageous,” DeMars said. “Because we need to wake the community up. So I think she did that.”
Charles championed the economic development potential of art, convincing City Hall to encourage artist housing to rejuvenate the blighted Warehouse District. The arts commission studied the issue and began connecting artists with landlords, an initiative that later spun off into Artspace — now a national nonprofit that develops and rents artist housing.
“She was the driving force at the end of the ’70s and the ’80s that changed that into a really exciting place to go,” said Kelley Lindquist, president of Artspace.
Charles practiced what she preached, too, living in a Warehouse District building on 4th Street above the social hub of the city’s Bohemian set — the New French Cafe. Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan dubbed her the “den doyenne” of the district in a 1976 column.
“Everybody turns to her for information, inspiration and to use the shower,” Flanagan wrote. “Hers is the only one that works, so far.”
That improvised living ultimately gave way to condos, clubs and cafes by the 1990s, leaving little trace of the district’s pioneers.
Under Charles’ leadership, the arts commission funded neighborhood art programs and established a voucher program to incentivize hiring artists for events. It sponsored a massive laser light show beamed from the top of the IDS tower in 1978, but the spectacle fizzled amid the glare of city streetlights. Charles left the post in 1981.
Warren Hanson, a former Artspace board member, said Charles was an ever-present “bright light” at art functions around the Twin Cities. “She knew everybody and she connected people who didn’t know each other to other important people that needed to know each other,” Hanson said.
A painter by training, Charles dabbled in a variety of visual mediums from photography to computer animation and taught computer art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. For her last major project, she invited artists to adopt post offices and mail in artistic tributes.
She found creative outlets all around her, rollerblading and dancing around the lakes or crafting mini-exhibits at home with objects purchased at Axman Surplus.
“In her every aspect of life she did not follow the norm,” said her daughter Justine Tucker. “Or, if anything, she would go out of her way to be the opposite.”
Charles is survived by three daughters, Rachel Charles, Justine Tucker and Alexandria Charles. She is also survived by her ex-husband, Frederick Charles.