Will Fifer and Todd Thyberg
Once a seed-packing plant, now the workspace for hundreds of Northeast Minneapolis artists, the Northrup-King Building is a hub of creativity in a highly creative neighborhood. In the early 1990s, Debbie Woodward, the owner of the building, helped facilitate its transition into a place where glassmakers, screen-printers, painters, photographers and more could comfortably and stably practice their craft.
The transformation of the Northrup-King Building might be said to parallel that of Northeast as a whole—from a gritty, rugged, DIY sort of place, to one that still embodies those characteristics, but in a more structured, organized sort of way. Gone are the days of squatters occupying abandoned rooms and heavy metal bands using them as impromptu practice spaces.
Artists here still have creative license over designing their spaces to fit their needs. Will Fifer, who runs Blue Sky Galleries, a custom furniture and upholstery gallery which also offers classes, came to the Northrup-King Building in 2005 when space became available. Will described the space when he first arrived as “very raw,” a sentiment many early tenants share. Debbie handled the electric, he tackled sanding the floors and painting. As he’s transitioned from a carpentry studio to more of a gallery and class space, he’s appreciated the flexibility to adapt his space. He can change the exterior of his studio, put up a wall, paint it however he likes—the building owners don’t mind people taking ownership over their space.
Before moving to the Northrup-King Building, Will had been operating a showroom in Golden Valley which hadn’t been generating enough traffic. Because the building is open the public and contains such a high-density of artists, he now sees plenty of curious wanderers like me poking their heads into his studio. Occasionally, he’ll meet old factory workers who used to work here as seed vendors. The history felt in the bricks and people and the continuum of use add meaning to the place. The public’s access to it facilitates these connections.
Both Will and Todd Thyberg, another artist who owns Angel Bomb, a design and letterpress studio, value the community that exists outside the building. The lack of chain stores, density of immigrant businesses like Chimborazo and Maya Cuisine on Central Avenue and other small businesses give the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District a community-oriented feel. Community members support each other’s businesses and art, and build goodwill—and wealth—which stays in the community and builds upon itself.
The affordability of Northeast has supported the existence of the artists and immigrant businesses, but they both wonder about the long-term sustainability of that. Will has experienced one rent-increase since 2005. He says that you need an affordable space to make a go of it; if there’s no more affordable space, many artists will be unable to participate in the Northeast artist community, and that community will suffer. What happens if landlords along Central Ave. raise their prices to prohibitively high levels? How does the present community fit into Northeast’s future?
Changes are inevitable here, and at this point, most have more questions than answers. For Will, Todd, and many artists, the emphasis remains the same: figuring out a way to balance the growth with the people and characteristics which made that growth possible.