American Indian artist Greg Bellanger has been an advertising agency art director and worked for design firms.

But his passion is creating and selling woodlands and plains Indian art through Northland Visions, his family’s 13-year-old south Minneapolis Indian-art retailer.

Bellanger, 45, a graduate of art schools and the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, is an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Chippewa. He also is part of a growing movement that stretches from hundreds of low-income artists on Midwest reservations to several Twin Cities galleries and shops that feature Indian artists. The goal: to expand the market for native art and economic opportunities for Indian artists.

Over the years, three Minnesota governors, the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul and a variety of business associations have shown up at Northland Visions to buy unique gifts.

“I once even made a pipe for a gift for Fidel Castro,” recalled Bellanger, who seeks to expand the pipeline between Indian artists and the art-buying public. “Our primary customer has been our people. The native community is a gifting community and our culture is about gifting and sharing. But there is a broader market for our art.”

A 2011 study by First Peoples Fund of South Dakota, a community development organization that supports Indian artists; Art Space; the Northwest Area Foundation of St. Paul, and Colorado State University found that a third of Indian people make art on several impoverished Western reservations. But they report household incomes of less than $10,000.

The Northwest Area Foundation, recognizing the power of art as an economic driver, recently committed $1 million over the next three years to help build the business-making capacity of several dozen Indian artists on several reservations, including Pine Ridge in South Dakota. The strategy is outlined in a recent report, “Establishing a Creative Economy: Art as an Economic Engine in Native Communities.”

The Twin Cities is a seen as a growing gateway for Indian art and plans are afoot for more public showings, with public and corporate partners, at locations around the Twin Cities. And metro residents with backgrounds in Indian art and business will train artists in town and on reservations in small-business management, access to markets, supplies, credit, networks and working spaces.

“The Twin Cities could be the ‘Santa Fe of the Midwest’ as a market for native art,” said Dyani White Hawk Polk, director and curator of and its gallery and restaurant at 1414 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis. “That’s our long-term goal.

“The First Peoples Fund supports tribal artists, and those of us who are in fine arts,” said Dyani, a University of Wisconsin graduate who will be one of the business trainers. “Having more people trained will strengthen the entire arts/business sector. It’s also about ‘culture bearers’ and culture continuity. They want to ensure that [native] culture moves forward through their art.’’

‘Very few … make a living’

The report found that 36 percent of Indians are practicing artists, but most work out of their homes, lack financial resources, business training and live in poverty.

The 2011 study found that of the 22 artists who enrolled in First Peoples Fund Artists in Business Leadership program, the average cost of items sold rose from $587 to $2,337 and annual incomes rose on average from $19,575 to $26,982.

“Very few of my native artists make a living,” Bellanger said of suppliers to Northland Visions. “It’s what they do after hours, after work and after the kids go to sleep and weekends. There used to be three or four native art shops in Minneapolis. Now it’s just me and Charlie Stately, who runs the Woodland Crafts gift shop at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. This training is going to help some artists. And we need more public native art in building lobbies and outdoors. Remember, ‘Minnesota’ is a Dakota word.”

Todd Bockley, who shows Indian art by Frank Big Bear, Wendy Red Star and others at his Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis, said: “The lot of the artist is always difficult and that can be compounded for the American Indian artists. I work with numerous Indian artists who are quite accomplished and they are still challenged to get the proper materials and as much as they need. If they can get more work, it helps their careers and their families.’’

White Hawk Polk, who also attended tribal colleges that stressed Indian art, said little is taught of native art in most universities. Part of her mission is to bring their study and understanding to “mainstream galleries and cultural events. Plans already are afoot to bring an outdoor gallery to a space near the light-rail station on E. Franklin Avenue and elsewhere next spring.