Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the organization that operates the overall Minnesota Main Street program, which is now Rethos: Places Reimagined. The name was changed a few months ago.

WILLMAR — The Artists on Main Street program in Willmar wasn't just about creating art to beautify downtown Willmar. Its larger goal was to create community in downtown Willmar, to bring people of all backgrounds and ages together.

"It was really cool to see the variety and the diversity that we had throughout the program," said Sarah Swedburg, Willmar city planner and coordinator of the Artists on Main Street Willmar.

Artists on Main Street, part of the overall Minnesota Main Street program and run by Rethos: Places Reimagined in partnership with Springboard for the Arts and funded by the Bush Foundation, provides funding and resources to member cities for the creation of art-based physical, economic and social solutions for downtowns.

During its first year in the program, Willmar received $20,000 to fund a highly diverse group of artistic projects, ranging from a mask-making workshop and a photography exhibit to two outdoor sitting areas and the creation of several murals that will eventually be hung throughout downtown. There was also a sewing group called Sewing Together formed, as well as a porch sing-along and community picnic to celebrate the In Common composer in residence program with Kashimana Ahua. In total, 13 projects were funded.

"We had a really successful year," Swedburg said. "We had quite a diversity of projects."

The direction Willmar took with its program was to fund a large number of smaller projects, rather than funding a few higher-cost endeavors. This spread over downtown the impact of the program projects.

"The impact that 'small and many' had was so well-received," said Swedburg. "Not only for the artists, but the people participating had the space to get to know their community a little bit better as well."

Next year Swedburg wants to continue what was started this year. She has a vision of using artists to help reach out to residents and to increase participation in other city issues, like the upcoming revision of the city's comprehensive plan.

"It is huge to see artists as one of those people at the table. They are one of those groups that have a lot to offer and creativity to think outside the box," Swedburg said.

The city staff and elected officials could learn from these art gatherings, projects and events and use the information when forming city plans and ordinances, as a way to make sure they work for as many people as possible.

"We are able to have a better feel, a better pulse, on what it is actually like to live in Willmar and what that actually means, what that experience actually is, which is huge," Swedburg said.

Not only can artists, whose background is a varied as the whole city, reach different communities of people, the art in and of itself might be able to make complicated issues better understood. It could also help city participation grow, Swedburg said.

"If we can build off of what we did last year and create these places where more people feel comfortable having a discussion about the community and what they envision, I think we could see some very interesting impacts from that," Swedburg said.

The program is open to anyone who wants to share their artistic talents, whether it be photography, painting, dancing, singing, sewing or cooking. Next year Swedburg again plans to hold workshops for interested artists, to help them through the process.

"It will be completely open again. You don't have to be a capital A, professional artist" to apply and take part, Swedburg said.

An open house celebrating the first year's successes will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Willmar City Auditorium. This will also be a sort of kickoff for Artist on Main Street 2020.

"It will give you a taste of what everything was and have space for conversation around 2020," Swedburg said.

One of the impacts of Artists on Main Street that Swedburg really enjoyed, and hopes to continue growing, is putting the spotlight on downtown throughout the year. People were able to see what downtown had to offer as a place to meet friends and take part in the community during the art events. For many people, the only time they spend downtown might be for Willmar Fests or Holidaze. Swedburg hopes Artists on Main Street will help change that.

"We want to see those in between days be just as impactful and community driven as those big events as well," Swedburg said. "I'm excited for 2020."

Artists on Main Street Willmar 2019 projects

  • Faces of Willmar by Nikki Bettcher-Erickson
  • Downtown Mural Medallion by Kristin Allen and PFF
  • TRACE by Andrew Nordin and Lisa Bergh
  • "Living Decay" by Jessalyn Canavan and the Willmar High School Art Club
  • Willmar ... What Comes to Mind?? by John Salgado Maldonado
  • Pop Up Art Shop by Tammie Knick and DREAM Technical Academy
  • Heritage Day featuring Los Lobos Nortenos
  • Welcome Bubble Station by Monica Villars
  • Mother's Day Mural by Robert Villarreal and Andres Cabrera
  • Willmar Youth Experience by Fardowsa Ibrahim
  • Sewing Together by Doris Cogelow, Diann Anderson and Betty Knutson
  • In Common Porch Sing-along and Community Picnic by Kashimana Ahua
  • Litchfield Flowers Spaces by Ben Larson and Kevin Tuttle