ST. PAUL, Minn. — “Find Your Voice” reads the tag line on the Independent Filmmakers Project Minnesota (IFP MN) logo, a 1950s-tinged, lipstick-red bit of celluloid imprinted with the lowercase white letters “ifp.” With chapters in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Phoenix, IFP works to promote quality independent filmmaking in the United States and abroad. The IFP MN chapter, formed in 1987, publicly launched its new Saint Paul facility on the weekend of August 21, drawing some 500 attendees on opening night. The following evening, a ticketed gala drew another 250. Moving from underperforming quarters nearby, IFP MN’s new 5,500-square-foot facility is an impressive addition to the Twin Cities’ roster of nonprofit arts spaces, bolstering the appreciation and practice of media arts.
“IFP Minnesota is more than a place for rarified people to make films,” its executive director, Andrew Peterson — a native of Minnesota with an MFA in film from NYU — told Hyperallergic. IFP MN’s executive director since August 2012, Peterson has worked in the independent film world for over 25 years. For him, IFP’s strength is its expanding reach and accessibility not only to the Twin Cities creative community, but also to the surrounding culturally and economically diverse neighborhoods and businesses. IFP MN has over 400 active members and serves over 6,000 people through classes, exhibitions, screenings, master classes, youth outreach, an annual conference, and collaborations with other organizations including the Walker Art Center. A working space, IFP can now provide the media arts expertise, tools, and training that virtually every artist, student, or entrepreneur needs nowadays.
Indeed, IFP MN is sui generis amid the Twin Cities’ constellation of alternative arts spaces. Among media arts facilities, the Mpls Photo Center is largely an education-driven organization that offers loads of photo classes and organizes invitational shows in their gallery, while the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul, which was founded in 1962 as the U Film Society at the University of Minnesota, is primarily a film exhibition programming organization. The Society screens international and independent films at the St. Anthony Main Theatre and hosts the annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival each April. For more than 40 years the Walker Art Center’s film programming and Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection has been a force in the community. They screen contemporary and historic films and bring in contemporary directors from Joel and Ethan Coen and Steve McQueen to Isabella Rossellini and Milos Forman to what is one of the most sophisticated cinema spaces in the country. Within this ecology, IFP MN has found its niche.
“We want to develop a space where creative people find each other, whether they are from the worlds of film, fashion, art, spoken word, theatre, or dance,” Peterson said. “Every artist in the 21st century needs media tools, whether it is how to make a video trailer, write a script, film a performance, or submit a fellowship or job application. We can help them with software and technology.”
IFP MN’s new home is Vandalia Tower, part of an eight-building complex that once housed the King Koil mattress manufacturing company. Twin Cities developer Peter Remes, founder and president of the real estate company First & First, LLC, saw beauty in the historic but degrading warehouse site where everyone else, save a few artists who maintain studios there, saw ruin.
“I was intrigued by the complexities of the project. Eight buildings on 5.5 acres, dead center in no-man’s-land in the Midway industrial corridor,” Remes wrote over email. “Nobody goes there for any reason other than to pass through to somewhere else. I loved the weirdness of the location, coupled with the great bones of the buildings. That said, the condition was deplorable and the large and complex renovation has been long and difficult work.”
IFP MN’s new space in Vandalia Tower boasts 16-foot ceilings, polished concrete floors, and banks of windows that let natural light pour in. The facility includes four screening rooms outfitted with digital projectors and surround sound, the largest of which can seat 50 people. The Common Space, a communal workspace with a huge wood table and an adjacent kitchen, is flanked on one side by administrative offices. The spacious entrance area doubles as the Marsden/Gustafson Gallery, named for the two deceased but beloved Twin Cities media artists, Ann Marsden (1956–2012) and Gerald “Gus” Gustafson (1949–2003), who are the subjects of its inaugural exhibition. Separating IFP from the next brick building over, which will soon be home to Lake Monster Brewing, is a narrow passage that once sported railroad tracks so that mattress could be loaded directly onto passing train cars. That space has been transformed into a courtyard that will serve as an outdoor screening room and a patio for the brewery’s taproom.
Vandalia Tower and the rest of the King Koil complex is situated on an industrial stretch of land wedged between I-94 and University Avenue, a four-lane, 11-mile roadway connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul that was initially conceived to be the Champs-Élysées of the Twin Cities. Historically an area of warehouses and manufacturing buildings with all manner of businesses and shops lining University Avenue, from car dealerships to hardware stores, the area began to change as manufacturing and small businesses moved out or disappeared in the 1980s. In addition to its African American base in some neighborhoods, the area has been increasingly home to the Twin Cities’ Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Somalian communities since the ’80s. The opening of the LRT Green Line in 2014 has accelerated the area’s plodding gentrification.
Education is especially close to Peterson’s heart, particularly for those kids with little access to media arts and technology. Over 70% of IFP MN students are children of color, many of whom are Hmong, Native Americans, and Somalians, with an equal mix of boys and girls.
“Making films teaches kids how to be critical thinkers. They have to make decisions,” Peterson said. “This space raises IFP’s visibility in the community and lets an 11-year old make a movie and cut it on the computer. These kids will learn how to tell their own stories, how to make a documentary of their own community or family or travels.”
Along with established artists and filmmakers, Peterson sees IFP MN students as uniquely qualified to tell their own stories, stories that the rest of the world will want to see. “They need to get their stories out — there is an audience,” he said. “I’d love IFP to be known for the true diversity of its projects and makers and that, when our students get older, they will continue to make their films and other projects here.”