Art Shanty Projects | Ice Fishing Houses Inspire New Form of Art Festival

When most men see ice houses, they think fishing. Peter Thompson and David Pitman are not those guys. As Minneapolis-based artists, they saw creative potential in the enclosures and launched the Art Shanty Projects, an annual winter village on ice with attendance as high as 19,000 people.

It all began in 2004, when Thompson and Pitman built an ice shanty in a friend’s backyard, put it out on the frozen surface of Medicine Lake, and invited friends to visit for various activities. The following year, the duo partnered with the Soap Factory, a Minneapolis art gallery for lesser-known visual and performing artists, and put out a call for artists to design their own shanties. On opening day, “people started showing up in mass droves,” Haakon Thompson recalls. “That’s when we had the first inkling that there was an audience for this.”

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Shanties run the gamut from playful to educational to odd, like a miniature “town hall” where people could debate, make proclamations on a soapbox, and even get married to a giant enclosed bed with a monster underneath. Shanties dedicated to drawing, storytelling, letterpress, mailing postcards, board games, dancing, and karaoke are just some that have popped up in the event’s decade-plus legacy. Visitors have also enjoyed a shanty of misfit toys (insulated with stuffed animals), a shanty in the shape of a giant robot, a blanket fort shanty, a sauna shanty, a haunted attic shanty, and a polar bear bicycle shanty.

ASP-Image09-INTERIORBut it’s not a free-for-all. Artists must submit proposals and a juried process decides which shanties will appear. In the selection process, artistic vision is an important factor, but design is also crucial. Shanties must have four walls, reflective surfaces (to prevent being run over by cars or snowmobiles traveling on the lake at night), and be able to withstand harsh winter weather. Chosen artists are paid a small stipend to make their shanty designs reality.

By 2012, the Art Shanty Projects boasted 20 shanties and ten performances. “A lot of that growth was organic, with the help of media just sharing this crazy and unique idea,” says Dawn Bentley, executive director of the Art Shanty Projects. “It brought a new artistic use to public space that had never been explored before.”

Following the 2012 exhibition, Thompson and Pitman, who had participated as artists in the Art Shanty Projects up until that point, realized the shanties had become a power player on the arts scene. They stepped back, a board of directors was assembled, and the application process for 501(c)(3) corporation status began. “We didn’t start it because we wanted to be non-profit administrators,” explains Thompson about the duo’s departure. “It was time for this project to have more structure around it.”

In 2014, the IRS granted the Art Shanty Projects non-profit status and hired Bentley as the organization’s first executive director. One of her first duties was to expand funding. She applied at ArtPlace America, the largest philanthropic group dedicated to creative place-making, and the Art Shanty Projects received a $100,000 grant as a result.

2012-GG09-INTERIORThe event was invited to move to White Bear Lake in 2014 as part of that city’s plan to become an arts hub in the northeast suburbs of Minneapolis. “It was such a great benefit for us and for the city. We decided to stay there and hunker down and see what kinds of relationships we can build in the city,” Bentley says. The move hasn’t hindered attendance much—over 11,300 people showed up in 2014, despite it being the coldest winter in 35 years. “It was wicked cold,” Bentley recalls. “But Minnesotans are pretty hearty.”

Thompson says many visitors at the Art Shanty Projects have never been on a frozen lake before; the novelty of that is a motivator to attend. “Minnesotans like to be adventurous. They like an excuse to be outside in the winter,” he says. “There’s a badge of courage for attending because there’s a certain amount of nature you have to battle to experience it. I think people are drawn to that kind of challenge.”

While Minnesota winters are anything but predictable, the Art Shanty Projects have never been called off because of weather. “In the case of cold, we just lower our expectations for visitors,” Bentley says. “In the case of warmth, we will be up on the beach.”

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The status and funding changes mean the Art Shanty Projects are now being referred to as the “On-Ice Program” for 2016 and 2017. “Our mission is to transform an unregulated public space into an artist-driven community, so we don’t want to lock ourselves into only being on ice,” Bentley explains. “We want to explore the ideas for future programming that might be more of a year-round calendar.”

So far, no programs similar in scope to the Art Shanty Projects have emerged elsewhere in the state or country, but there have been asks from other cities to expand the program. “We would like that, too,” Bentley says. “At this time, we’re not able to do that, but I think the idea is certainly blossoming.”

What makes the Art Shanty Projects unique from other art forms is the way it breaks down barriers between artists and attendees. It also whittles away that seasonal shyness that strikes many after too much winter isolation. “What makes the shanties so cool is part of the requirement is interactivity,” Bentley says. “We aren’t just putting a gallery out on the ice for people to observe but rather creating this artist-driven community that we encourage people to participate in. The scene is not complete until people show up and get involved.”

The 2016 On-Ice Program will take place on White Bear Lake every weekend during February 2016. The program is free and open to the public Saturdays and Sundays, 10am-4pm.