Story by Anitra Budd
When Minnesota’s COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders were announced, ArtStart, a St. Paul organization focused on arts education, faced a key question: How could they continue their hands-on programming in the midst of quarantines and social distancing?
Founded in 1988, the organization has a long history with MRAC. “The first grant we ever got back in ’89 or ’90 was from MRAC,” recalls executive director Carol Sirrine. “Once you get a validated funder, you want to keep coming back and doing the best you can, so we’ve been MRAC regulars ever since.”
But that warm relationship didn’t mean the organization got special treatment when it came to grant guidelines. “We received an Arts Learning grant last year. It was for a series of artist residencies in three St. Paul schools on the art and science of birds of the Mississippi River Flyway” says Sirrine. “I asked if we could have an extension and the answer I got—and this is not a negative, because it turned out very positively—was ‘no, you have to abide by your grant deadline.’* But the schools were closed, so what were we supposed to do?”
Bolstered by Sirrine’s experience in education—“I was the fine arts coordinator in the Hopkins school district for many years, so my whole background is in curriculum development”—the organization sprang into action. First, they contacted the artists who were named in the grant and asked if they’d be interested in creating a virtual version of the program. After hearing a resounding affirmative, ArtStart staff quickly got up to speed on Zoom and reached out to their partners at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. “They created a presentation that introduces the residency, and a final presentation to cap it off,” says Sirrine. “Then the artists created a series of videos with related art projects. So all together, we built a week’s worth of educational activities all on the subject of birds.”
Once the videos were finished (“Our marketing consultant Amy Danielson made this project come to life via editing and recording”), it was time to start putting together boxes of supplies to go with them. “We put together 75 boxes for students at Mississippi Creative Arts Magnet, our pilot school. To accomplish this, Brittany Reif Wenner, an ArtStart artist educator, and Rebecca Olsen, manager of ArtStart’s storefront, ArtScraps, transformed the space into a production line. “As you can imagine, building 75 boxes with art materials for seven projects, each one in its own envelope, was a major production,” says Sirrine. Using home addresses provided by the district, ArtStart artists then hand delivered the boxes to children’s’ homes on a Friday. The following Monday, their classroom teachers sent them a link to the online video material, which was stored on a private YouTube channel.
The virtual program was a big success. According to Sirrine, kids loved the kits, and so did their guardians, so much so that Jan Spencer de Gutierrez, the arts coordinator for the Saint Paul school district, wrote a successful grant application to fund the program for more schools. “Basically, we’ve repackaged the videos,” says Sirrine. “A school like Eastern Heights, for example, is creating bird poems, drawing backyard birds, creating a bird headpiece, then closing with the science of birds. So it’s just the smaller package.” The program has also inspired ArtStart to create dozens of themed “creativity kits” and make them available for sale on their website. The themes of the kits, which are available for children as young as 2, include geometry, the works of Henri Matisse, solar art, and much more.
Though the kits were initially a contingency effort, Sirrine says they’re here to stay, not just because of their popularity but because in many ways, they represent a return to ArtStart’s early days. “When we first opened ArtScraps in 1993, somebody in marketing wanted us to do kits,” Sirrine says. “But back then we didn’t have time to think about how to make kits with educational integrity, especially using donated materials, which can be unpredictable in terms of amount and quality. These new kits have a rigor to them that makes them hugely valuable.”
Sirrine’s advice to others grappling with how to adapt to the new arts landscape? First, gather a strong team together. “Melissa Ehlers, the arts integration coach at Mississippi Creative Arts, was our conduit to the school. None of this would have gone as smoothly as it did without her. Also our contacts at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge—Suzanne Trapp, Nicole Menard, Oscar Hernandez, and Thia Xiong—were a dream to work with.”
Second, and perhaps most important, take lessons from other organizations whenever possible. “I’ve learned so much in the MRAC webinars,” she notes. “On the last one MRAC hosted with Minnesota Citizens for the Arts [and other organizations across the state], there were something like four hundred artists and arts organizations that attended. I got great ideas not only from hearing other people’s concerns but also learning how they planned to solve those issues. I truly believe that the more we can work together, the better we’re going to be in the long run.”
To learn more about ArtStart, including information about getting your own art kits, visit their website at https://www.artstart.org/.
*Funded MRAC grants that need changes and modifications due to COVID-19 or any other reason should visit https://mrac.org/grants/project-changes/ and reach out to your program director.
Anitra Budd is a freelance copywriter and editor for a variety of clients, including independent authors, the Loft Literary Center, FedEx, Thrivent Financial, Wise Ink, Red Line Editorial, and 3M. In her past job as editor at Coffee House Press she worked with a number of authors, including Kirsten Kaschock, T. Geronimo Johnson, Kate Bernheimer, Ron Padgett, Lincoln Michel, Christopher Merkner, and many others. In addition to her writing and editorial work, she’s an editor mentor in the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College (Incline Village, Nevada) and has taught courses at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College.