Minnesota Department of Transportation Artist-in-Residence

The Land Acknowledgement Room at MNDOT.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation hired their inaugural artist-in-residence who challenged the state agency’s status quo through thoughtful discussions and transformation of their meeting place.  

The challenge

Marcus Young performing on a sidewalk
Photo of Marcus Young by Ryan Stopera

After conducting a competitive statewide search for their inaugural artist-in-residence, MnDOT selected behavioral artist Marcus Young 楊墨. Having served as a City Artist with Saint Paul for nine years, Young was an experienced artist-in-residence but had never worked within a state agency. Young began his residency with rotations through MnDOT’s different divisions, discussing with hundreds of MnDOT staff members their thoughts about their work, their relationship to the communities they serve, and the idea of working with an artist. These staff members acknowledged that some of their challenges might benefit from an artist’s creative energy, as illustrated by these comments:

  • We are “bound by technical process.” We offer “technical solutions to deal with spiritual land.” 
  • “We spend a lot of our resources being predictable. ”
  • “We build roads. We know numbers and facts. We don’t know what to do with emotions. MnDOT is not the only agency with this problem. I wonder if that’s where art fits in. ”
  • “We are part of the community. We’re not just a road going through it. ”

The project

The Confluence Room (pictured at the top of this page) features a gallery of transportation-themed art; a diversity and inclusion library; furniture, tea, and plants for relaxation and meditation; and supplies to support the creative expression and brainstorming of staff members.

Young summarized his thoughts on The Land Acknowledgment Confluence Room:

I call [The Land Acknowledgment Confluence Room] a place and a placeholder. The reason I keep calling it that is that we are looking for better ways to gather, better ways to meet each other. How do we bring together people to have creative and meaningful conversations, where we can take risks in how we talk to one another? Conversations can evaporate, but they can condense too. As easily as they go away, they can come back when practiced properly. To make it have some lasting effect I wanted to create a place so that we can be reminded that these are the conversations we want to have.

Marcus Young

Like so many projects produced in 2020, the Confluence Room was a work in progress as the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the world and forced MnDOT’s employees to work from home, leaving the headquarters building empty. Once it’s safe to return to the office, the Confluence Room will be ready to fulfill its purpose.

The results

Reflecting on his inaugural year as MnDOT’s artist-in-residence, Young offered the following advice for artists considering artist-in-residence positions and for transportation agency staff considering hosting an embedded artist:

  • Acknowledge that working with the land is a spiritual, not just a technical, endeavor.
  • Use art to make culture change irresistible.
  • Opening the topic of land is a powerful approach to address equity, belonging, wholeness, identity, and history. Land acknowledgment is a good place to start.
  • Statements that address past wrongs matter. Changing the names of things matters.
  • The artist may be an object maker, but an [artist-in-residence] may be better suited if they are a relationship builder, facilitator, ideator, and curator.

This text is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in FORWARD Issue #2: Transportation, and has been reposted here with permission from Forecast Public Art.