Minneapolis Arts and Business Leaders to Share Insights on Creating a Thriving Literary Community

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The Winter Institute featured talk “Partnering to Create a Dynamic City” will bring together four panelists from Minneapolis’ arts and business communities that have successfully partnered to create a robust and sustainable artistic community in the city. Minneapolis’ literary community is anchored by Open Book, a cultural and artistic center dedicated to the book, which opened in three renovated 100-year-old buildings in downtown Minneapolis in 2000.

Establishing Open Book to give a greater visibility and stature to literature in the city was a collaborative effort of three literary organizations, each with distinctive missions and programming: the Loft Literary Center, publisher Milkweed Editions, and the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts.

“The stars were in alignment,” said former American Booksellers Association president Gail See, who was integral to the founding of Open Book. While a number of arts and literary organizations had met to discuss how to create a literary center, “these three organizations emerged as having both a need for space and an open imagination about the future,” she said.

See is the former owner of The Bookcase in Wayzata, Minnesota; a former board member for the Loft Literary Center; and a founding member of Minnesota Center for the Book Arts. She will be speaking about Open Book’s creation along with panelists Joe Skifter, the general manager of Open Book; John (Jay) Cowles, the president of Unity Avenue Associates and a former board chair for Minnesota Center for the Book Arts; and Chris LaVictoire Mahai, a managing partner of business consulting firm Aveus LLC and a former board chair of the Loft Literary Center.

When the groups began meeting in the mid-1990s, Washington Avenue, where Open Book is located, was a particularly derelict part of town — a factor that contributed to the building’s affordability. “It was an opportune time,” said See. “We had the financial advantage that this particular part of downtown really hadn’t had attention, and the people owning [the buildings] had a sense of purpose.”

Together, the groups created a case statement and drafted plans for financing the institution, governing it, and staffing it; Cowles and Mahai were selected to co-chair the capital campaign, and a real estate developer was hired to evaluate properties. The process was difficult, but the end result has brought together the literary community of Minneapolis and given it a visibility it did not previously have, said See.

Since Open Book’s launch in 2000, Washington Avenue has come to life and is now home to the Guthrie Theater and the renovated Railroad Depot. The renovations made for Open Book’s launch created a tranquil, light-filled space that features brick-and-wood architecture and original elements from the historic buildings. Artwork by local visual artists is showcased in the space, and a café serves coffee and snacks to visitors. Earlier this year, Milkweed Editions opened a bookstore, Milkweed Books. “It’s not a very large store, but it’s a bookstore presence,” said See.

Open Book’s model was unique at the time, said See, but there are more models now cropping up around the country. “Bringing together organizations that were all literary or book-related in some way was an unusual and novel experience. It took some imagination that they could all work together. It’s a model of collaboration that is something that other communities could learn from,” she said.

See and her colleagues are eager to share with booksellers at Winter Institute their model for how to develop a literary presence such as Open Book. “I always felt when I was a bookseller that we’re part of a larger community. There are so many ways that booksellers already connect with their communities, and this is why those of us who were involved in Open Book had a sense this was going to be something important,” she said. “You have to have people with imagination, creativity, and resources. That all came together.”

ABA will present the featured talk Minneapolis Arts and Business Leaders, “Partnering to Create a Dynamic City,” on Monday, January 30, from 3:05 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the Regency Room at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis. See the full Winter Institute 12 schedule here.