Climate change: The arts can help tell the story of our time and provoke us to act

By Dawn Bentley
February 21, 2019

From 2014–2017, I served as executive director of Art Shanty Projects, a creative placemaking festival that took place in the middle of winter on a frozen surface of a Minnesota lake. Our mission was to expand the notion of art and artist by creating an artist-driven temporary community. On a frozen lake. During the middle of a Minnesota winter. Which I have known to always be pretty reliably cold and snowy. Until 2016.

This organization, like all those to which I have felt the deepest connection, values artists, art in all communities, and the importance of interaction between the two. As a celebration of the arts and community, the Shanties came to White Bear Lake in 2014 with a purpose. The year before, lake levels were at a historic low after a decade of steady decline from unsustainable groundwater being utilized by neighboring communities.

Once a metro area summer recreational destination, the city was beginning to suffer economic hardship and was turning to the arts to attract business and residential interest. Art Shanty Projects could bring 10,000 city-dwelling tourists to the area, help establish the lake as an alternative winter venue, and stress the importance of it inspiring conversations in beloved places — like a Minnesota lake.

Immersion in a scene that comes alive

Art Shanty Projects invites artists to build artistically designed structures and program them with an interactive component to invite visitors to immerse themselves in a scene that comes alive because they are a part of the art. After walking 1,000 feet onto the frozen lake surface, you could be greeted by someone in a park ranger uniform and invited to enter the Shanty National Park, where you listen to park sounds and observe the naturally carpeted flora and fauna while you watch a stream flow gently by. The ranger would say something like, “Do you know that climate change could mean this National Park — the smallest of all the National Parks — could be under water in less than three months? If you would like to write your congressperson about that, please be sure to stop by the Justice Shanty to make your voice heard.”

While the joke was all about being on a frozen lake, it was eerily predictive of what was about to happen.

he mystery of what was causing White Bear Lake to deplete wasn’t the only environmental issue encountered during my tenure. In 2016 and 2017, the entire festival had to be removed from the lake surface. A late winter start and unusually warm temperatures, coupled with shallower waters and increased vegetation, created a situation where the ice was simply too thin to feel safe supporting 20 structures and thousands of people. The last thing we wanted was for someone to fall through the ice or to pollute the lake with a sunken shanty.
The festival encompasses about an acre of space and it was an enormous effort to pull them off the lake mid-festival. We had to communicate an impromptu plan with all our stakeholders: artists, DNR, sheriff, Parks Department, Water Conservation, the city — and the public. Funding for this nonprofit is already precarious, but having to have a fiscal failsafe for creating an improvised second festival location is not realistic.

No such thing as a typical Minnesota winter

The first year helped shape a better back-up plan for the second year, but the expectation of continued warmer winters with shorter duration puts the entire project into question. There is no such thing as a typical Minnesota winter anymore.

The uncertain future of Art Shanty Projects would not simply be the loss of art, or place, but the loss of something greater. It is important to incorporate art into our daily lives to think non-linearly, to express, to appreciate, and to show our emotion. To think creatively about complex problems and to invite participation from others to solve those quandaries together.
The data on climate change can be overwhelming. I am a scientist by trade. I understand the science behind climate change and the scientific process. I am aware that Minnesota winters are warming faster than any other state in this nation. I am also cognizant that now we are in a time where people are dismissive of scientific facts.

Art is tangible. It gives people an avenue to have conversations about topics that are difficult to discuss. Art prompts questions and ideas, it gets people thinking and feeling. You get to decide how you interact with art and to interpret meaning for yourself.

Art can help propel bold changes

Perhaps if the scientific community sought the help of artists — creative thinkers and problems solvers, translators — new ideas would be provoked through storytelling, music, performance, and emotion. When individuals take what is sparked and live it, these actions add up, and collectively I believe they can propel the bold changes in politics and social justice that are needed to address climate change.

The arts are telling us a story about this particular time — one that we must listen to. Climate change is not something in the future. It is now, and we need everyone. Science should look to the arts to help tell the story of this particular time, to prompt a personal relevance and provoke us to act. Historically, the arts have given a voice to the voiceless. They have also helped me find my voice, and I am fortunate to be able to do work that gives me a platform where I can lift up the voices of others across the entire artistic spectrum.

Dawn Bentley is the executive director of Minnesota Fringe and former executive director of Art Shanty Projects. This story was originally shared at the Climate Conversation: Silverwood Park in partnership with Climate Generation and Three Rivers Park District. Bentley holds a dual degree Master’s in nonprofit management and business administration from Hamline University. Her undergraduate degree in microbiology from Hamline was applied to a previous career of scientific research for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and at the University of Minnesota.

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