When small businesses in St. Paul got cut off from customers by light-rail construction, a giant black dog came loping to their rescue.

The dog — actually a dog suit worn by two people — was the creation of artist Chris Lutter, a customer at the Black Dog Cafe who wanted to help owner Sara Remke remind people that the place was still there, serving hot lattes behind all the scaffolding and closed-street signs.

"The day we walked the dog through Union Depot, business tripled," Remke said.

A lovable example of art aiding commerce, the big hound is one of dozens of projects in which local artists are helping to solve urban woes — a trend that national policymakers are watching.

"There's no doubt the Twin Cities is leading the charge on this," said Carol Coletta, head of ArtPlace, a Chicago-based consortium of foundations, federal agencies and banks that finances just such projects, including $1.3 million awarded to local efforts last summer. "You have a creative ecology that spawns this work much faster and in a more leading-edge way than other cities."

In St. Paul, engineers with the Public Works Department regularly consult their officemate Marcus Young, the city's lead artist-in-residence. The big black dog was funded through Irrigate, a program created to harness artists' ideas for drumming up business along the city's Central Corridor. In Minneapolis, artists are engaged in 20 small projects designed to enliven a 10-block stretch of Chicago Avenue S.

"Artists have always made wherever they are more interesting," said Vickie Benson, arts program director for the McKnight Foundation. "The difference now is that people with ties to purse strings and major resources want to harness that creativity."

Case in point: A few years ago, Young noticed that construction companies imprint their logos into sidewalk cement. His idea to do the same with short poems, solicited from city residents, is now a popular annual program.

"The best solutions are often born out of a diversity of thought, and Marcus brings new perspectives to the work we do," said Bruce Beese, public works administration manager.

Over the past couple years, "there's been more collaboration between artists and the city than at any other point in our history," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. "The last place you'd look for an artist would be the public works building. … That artists can earn a living by being part of developing their community — that's integration."

Irrigate is another example of integration. It is hiring "artist organizers" to help businesses and residents along the light-rail line tackle high-priority issues.

"People who used to think art … had nothing to do with them are embracing it as a way to find solutions," said Laura Zabel, director of the St. Paul nonprofit Springboard for the Arts, one of Irrigate's funders. "For artists, that's been the silver lining of the recession."

Gaining respect

That change in attitude is fueling the increase in what might be called left-brain/right-brain collaborations. Once perceived as icing on the cake, artists are beginning to find a place among the meat and potatoes.

"As a society, we understand what value scientists and engineers bring to us, but we haven't appreciated artists in the same way, even though we live in an increasingly visual and aural world," said Ann Markusen, an economics researcher with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The Minneapolis project to enliven Chicago Avenue came out of meetings with neighborhood artists initiated by City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. ArtPlace is funding it, as well as Creative Citymaking, pairing artists with city planners to improve their community-engagement processes.

The groups are just beginning their work, but Gülgün Kayim, the city's director of arts, culture and creative economy, offered an example from last summer of how artists can contribute. Instead of holding a public meeting, visiting artist Candy Chang suggested putting up giant chalkboards with the words "What would you like to see here?" to encourage input.

Corralling local talent

The Arts on Chicago project came out of a desire to keep the local talent local.

The low-income neighborhood is rich in artist residents, many of whom work elsewhere. Now these painters, sculptors and writers are involved in creating artsy bike racks, wheeling a "poetry mobile" around and creating an urban nature walk.

"It's about anchoring assets that already exist in communities, as opposed to developing new places to attract artists from the outside," said Noël Raymond, co-artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre at Chicago Avenue S. and 35th Street.

Young — who is paid by the private nonprofit Public Arts St. Paul, not tax dollars — sees part of his job as applying the ethereal to the practical.

"If artists aren't brought into the picture last-minute or sideways, but as far upstream as possible, we can make a difference. I see every day how hard city employees work to fix the infrastructure, … But a city is more than hard surfaces."

Early in his residency, he recalls telling Mayor Coleman that he felt like "a virus floating around, attaching myself to different organs of the city that I want to impact."

Coleman replied, "A virus in the right dose is an inoculation."

In January, the city upped that dosage, taking on two more artists-in-residence, also paid for by Public Arts St. Paul. Next up? Finding a way to commemorate trees marked for takedown by those garish rings of bright spray paint.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046