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Artists on Main Street Noelle Lawton: Mankato

As Artists on Main Street ends its first year, the participating communities are already starting to see the ripple effects from the increased investment in small-scale creative placemaking. Community members have been inspired by the ethos of Artists on Main Street and have decided to implement their own projects, independent of the original grant.

Noelle Lawton, Director of the Twin Rivers Council for the Arts, heard about Artists on Main Street through Mankato’s Main Street Director, Megan Flanagan. Twin Rivers didn’t take a lead role, but they helped connect their artists to the funding opportunities provided by the initiative. Lawton was nonetheless taken by the notion that you don’t need to identify as an artist to make art—or an impact. “You could just be a concerned citizen who sees a need and asks, ‘how can I apply a creative solution to this need?"

"You could just be a concerned citizen who sees a need and asks, 'how can I apply a creative solution to this need?"

Every day she came to work, she encountered a group of low-income and homeless individuals smoking in the parking lot Twin Rivers shared with a church. Artists on Main Street caused her to consider how she could make them feel more welcome using creative placemaking. She decided a parklet would activate the underutilized space and achieve her goal. When a few members from a local business called asking if Twin Rivers had a project they could volunteer for, she knew she had a few extra hands to help.

Before Noelle Lawton and her team transformed the space.

At first, they were skeptical by her ambition and lack of budget. But Lawton, determined to make the vision a reality, convinced them that they’d manage. She started engaging the people who used the parking lot to figure out what their needs and interests were for this space, ensuring that their input directly informed the idea. Then she put out a call for items and reached out to the church’s board of trustees to let them know about her plans. The board was so enthusiastic about the idea that they paid for the entire thing.

Then came the work of putting the idea together. They arranged some mulch and flowers, set up lighting, and created a table with checkers and chess for people to use. All told, it only took about half a day to complete.

Afterwards, Bellissimo, a local paint company, donated paint and mapped out a vision for a mural on the pavement. “Who knew it would be such a story?," Lawton remarked. Others in the community have certainly noticed. They’ve been written up in the news and are expecting to receive an award from the chamber.

But the impact has meant more than just making a place more beautiful and usable. Lawton noted that she and her staff used to have an awkward relationship with the population who used the parking lot—lots of brief acknowledgments and diverting eyes. The process built relationships and created a feeling of belonging that extends well beyond the parklet itself.

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