Minnesota’s Artists Built an Online Community before Facebook Existed—and It’s Still Thriving
In 2001, facing the vastly uncharted territory of the internet, Minnesota artists asked for a place to take root online. So began Mn Artists, a website where any kind of artist, at any career stage, could create an online profile for free.
“The web was the new thing,” Mn Artists program manager Emily Gastineau says. “It was much more difficult then for artists to have a web presence.”
We’re speaking in the sleek cafe of the Walker Art Center, the world-class contemporary art museum and sculpture garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is also the home of Mn Artists. In front of us on the table, my smartphone records our conversation and embodies how much things have changed since the Walker, in partnership with the McKnight Foundation, founded Mn Artists as a digital directory of local artists. That 2001 world was without Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Nearly a quarter of Snapchat’s current users weren’t born yet.
In its early years, the site quickly expanded beyond artist profiles to include a user-generated events calendar, discussion forum (since discontinued “because it’s not how people are communicating online anymore”), and a listings board for arts organizations and job opportunities. It eventually grew to include an in-depth editorial section, with “meaty essays, state of the field pieces, and a lot of first-person writing by artists and artists as critics,” says Gastineau.
Now, with individual artist websites nearly ubiquitous, and a social media presence equally de rigueur, Mn Artists has evolved to serve the new world of working artists.
The initiative has ventured into live programming, including outreach programs throughout the state and public-facing events that draw substantial crowds, like the successful Internet Cat Video Festival, and a perennially popular artist-designed mini golf course on the Walker grounds.
The program’s evolution continued this year. Beginning in 2017, it introduced “Mn Artists Presents...” an event series inviting local artists to propose a topic or central question, curate an installation, performance, or discussion, and present at one of the Walker’s free-admission nights.
“The intention of that was to bring the digital network into a live space,” says Gastineau, nodding to the way the artist-curator can directly take connections from their MnArtists.org network and bring them into the gallery. In return, the guest curator gains experience in producing a large event in a museum setting.
In that same democratic vein, in October, the Mn Artists website began to place artists in a rotating editor position. Every three months, an artist takes over the editorial direction of the site and commissions writing from other artists.
“Artists are the experts,” says Gastineau. “I think there’s a school of thought that believes the artist, curator, and critic roles are separate but I don’t find that that’s actually how artists are working in Minnesota right now.”
As of this year, MnArtists.org claims 286,000 users, and over 4,700 artist profiles, which are still largely the “bread and butter” of the program, Gastineau notes. The hope is that additional programming that adapts to artists’ needs will only bring more people into the fold.
“There’s a real sense of ownership about the platform because people have used different aspects of it at different points in their careers,” says Gastineau. “When they’re coming in, maybe job opportunities and the profile is really important. Once they get more mid-career having their work featured in a really thoughtful editorial piece, and then maybe become the guest editor or guest curator or find ways to have more visibility.
“I hear people who say, ‘I’ve had a profile right from the beginning.’ They feel like it’s their platform.”