Behind the scenes of Northern Spark

  • Behind the scenes of Northern Spark

    The largest all-night art festival in the region is not built in a night

    POSTED June 5, 2015

    Michael Murnane, Under Ice, Northern Spark 2012. Photo: Patrick Kelley.

    <p>Michael Murnane, Under Ice, Northern Spark 2012. Photo: Patrick Kelley.</p>

Something special happens in Minnesota each summer. For one night, on the second Saturday of June, a patchwork of art installations takes over entire parts of Twin Cities, with galleries, museums and venues opening their doors from dusk to dawn to wandering visitors. And this year, Northern Spark, a multi-disciplinary, citywide celebration of all things art, will take over the streets for the fifth time on June 13th.

But for its organizers, the anniversary also heralds something they worked towards for half a decade: stability.

“This year, we’ve done it enough times that there’s this breath of relief of what comes next,” says Sarah Peters, the festival’s associate director and director of public engagement for Northern, a nonprofit which produces Northern Spark.

Since its inception, Northern Spark has been a logistical puzzle. Initially held in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, it moved between the two cities twice before finally settling in Minneapolis last year. By rooting down in one place, the organizers hope to grow the festival’s reputation and make production more efficient.

“At the outset of the festival we were kind of in love with the idea of being nomadic – that we could move between cities … and practically, that’s very, very difficult, especially as we’re building the brand of the festival, and the capacity for it, and the recourses,” says Peters. “It was too complicated to establish all those relationships fresh each year with different government bodies.”

A large portion of Northern Spark’s projects requires the use of public land - whether projecting images over the Gold Medal Flour silos, or burning a full-scale replica of a house outside of St. Paul’s Union Depot. Last year, for example, the festival helped the local artist HOTTEA install a yarn-supported slatted bridge under the Third Avenue Bridge at West River Parkway, which required permission from Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

The organizers also have to plan for crown control. In its first year, despite spanning two cities, the festival was expected to have a low turnout. Instead, 20,000 people showed up. For a public event with an almost non-existent marketing budget – most of the promotional work is done through media coverage, social media and efforts of partnering organizations – Northern Spark still draws tens of thousands visitors annually. Last year’s attendance was the lowest since 2011, due to severe weather, and still reached 25,000 people. The biggest year was in 2013, when some 45,000 attendees packed into about a dozen blocks in St. Paul’s Lowertown district.

This year, the festival is also scaling down. While Peters says the organizers still want to see large crowds, they’re cutting back to 70 projects and 24 partners. The idea is to give more resources and attention to each individual project and create a better visitor experience overall.

“We’ve heard from audience members for years now that they love Northern Spark,” says Peters. “But it’s impossible to see everything. And when you go on the website that has this listing of a hundred and twenty projects, it can just be kind of daunting.”

But even with fewer projects, the festival takes an entire year to plan. The staff plans the largest projects, often personally curated by Steve Dietz, Northern Lights’ president and artistic director, years in advance. The call for other projects goes out in late fall. In between, Northern Spark reaches out to potential sponsors, organizes its partners, begins lining up resources and building up its staff for the year (in the past about 15 people with some changeover over the years).

“By January we’re in the thick of it,” says Peters. “We’re doing site visits, and we are determining where everybody’s project is going to go, which is this gigantic puzzle that can be very frustrating. One thing can shift everything that has to do with sponsorships, and permission issues, permits, whether or not we can get the street lights turned off in this one place for this projects – all these kind of nitty-gritty details that our production team works on.”

By mid-spring, all logistics need to be resolved so the team can focus on production. Peters says Northern Spark has worked on creating a kind of playbook – a manual on how the festival is put together. After five years, the organizers can finally predict timelines and the workload, which makes the night run smoother, where it hasn’t in the past. One of the earliest lessons learned was transportation. In its first year the festival provided shuttle busses, but running them on time turned out unfeasible and “was just more hassle than it was worth,” says Peters. Since then, the festival promoted biking as the main way to get around.

Another change this year – fundraising. Northern Spark operates through a mix of grants, sponsors and crowd funding, with a successful $20,000 Kicktarter campaign making up a significant portion of last year’s budget. But this year, the campaign was moved to Indiegogo and kicked off in late fall, 2014.

“We did that primarily because it’s very difficult to be running a crown-funding campaign while you’re trying to put all of the production pieces in place. We have some decisions to make about whether or not we’ll shift that timing back,” says Peters.

She says the staff is also working to cultivate more corporate sponsorship and on-site individual donations on the night of the festival.

To help establish Northern Spark as a staple of Minneapolis art-scene, Northern Lights partnered with the Minneapolis Convention Center (MCC) and the Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy Program of the City of Minneapolis to establish the Creative City Challenge: a competition for Minnesota-resident artists and designers to create an interactive artwork installed at the Convention Center plaza and opened to the public on the night of the festival.

The city wanted to make sure MCC became a key part of Northern Spark and so they contracted Northern Lights to curate and set up the program, says Gülgün Kayim, director of arts, culture and creative economy for the city. This year’s winner mini_polis – a scale model of Minneapolis built in collaboration with community members through a series of workshops – will be presented part of the festival’s opening ceremony and will remain on the plaza throughout the summer.

“It’s really important for us as a convention center to be connected with the community, and this gives us an opportunity to activate and engage our plaza,” says Jeff Johnson, MCC’s executive director.

Both Kayim and Johnson say Northern Spark has a lot of potential to help attract more visitors to Minneapolis. Peters says the organizers hope to eventually gain national attention.

“That’s our vision, having this festival that puts the Twin Cities on the map as the really creative city that it is,” says Peters.

Northern Spark by the Numbers:

Projects: 70
Partners: 24
Official sponsors: 10
Staff: 13
Interns: 3
Nigh-of festival volunteers: [projected] 125

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