A brick building sits sedately along a quiet street in Saint Paul. Along the side of the building, plants are growing in small garden beds. Lawn chairs rest on the patio and there is a table with flowers on it. And inside this building at 213 Front Ave. art is being created, stories are being told and community is being shared.
This is In Progress, a nonprofit arts group that began in 1996 as a resource for new voices in digital media.
Kristine Sorensen, one of the founders, reflected on how the group started. “An artist friend of mine, Bienvenida Matias, asked me to join her to do a workshop in Crookston,” said Sorensen, an artist who specializes in video. “When we finished, the participants asked when we could come back. We thought this was great, and we did some brainstorming and came up with the idea of a place for artists. Sai Thao also was instrumental in starting In-Progress.”
Sorensen said the building has a music studio in the basement, a studio for podcasts, a room for equipment and a space for photo shoots. The Artists Quarters are meeting rooms, and there is an apartment available for visiting artists to stay.
“It is all about telling the story,” Sorensen continued. “We reach out to people whose story is not often heard.”
Services provided are free. Sorensen said if space is provided for a baby shower that needs to be cleaned up after its use, there is a fee charged. But for other services, there is no cost.
“It usually begins with a brief application, and our Artist Services Coordinator AAaliyah McQueen sitting down and interviewing the person. She talks with the person about their goals and then connects them to services for free. We don’t talk about the money, but about what the person wants to do.”
In Progress puts on workshops and exhibits, offers mentoring and equipment that artists can check out, such as cameras and video equipment.
“We have an exhibit at Rice Street Library, and one at a medical center on Rice Street,” Sorensen said. “We currently have an exhibit in our building of transgender family portraits.”
“We also have classes, and people of any age can come and learn,” Sorensen said. “There may be someone teaching a photography class who is being mentored by someone teaching a music class.”
One of the artists at In Progress is Azomali Obisakin, who made her first film about love at the age of seven. She was nine when she made her second film about racism. Her films have received national recognition, and one played in a New York film festival. “She is 10 now, and we will work with her,” Sorensen said.
Sorensen noted a couple of other artists participating at In Progress. “Angelo Bush has photographed the Rondo neighborhood, and Robin Perez has been photographing Payne Avenue.”
Sorensen said In Progress has about 30 part-time staff, including interns. The group has two locations, one in Crookston and the one in Saint Paul.
“The Crookston space is about 1/3 the size of the Saint Paul building,” Sorensen said. “It serves people from Crookston, East Grand Forks and Grand Forks. In Saint Paul, we serve the neighborhood and people from across the Twin Cities.
“We started out in Lower Town, but we outgrew that space and moved to Front Avenue in 2011. In 2014, I purchased the building.”
She said the building is open for use from 7 a.m. until midnight. Occasionally someone may need to use it overnight.
Some of their participants are on a career path in digital media. Others may be creating something for themselves. Two young women came in with their aunt, wanting to make a video in honor of their mom, who died during COVID-19.
Sorensen emphasized that no one is really in charge of InProgress. “We all work together, keep a schedule and have a lot of trust.”
Looking back over the years, Sorensen said many of the people who were there at the beginning are still connected with In-Progress. Matias is coming in from New York to teach some classes in Crookston. She will also be discussing the film she is making about Puerto Rico. In Progress is her fiscal sponsor for the film.
Thao and her husband are working on an art project reflecting Hmong culture.
The early days of the artists group were challenging, according to Sorensen. She said the 90s had a lot of youth-led organizations, and they had to learn about that. Also, they didn’t have the funding to purchase very much equipment.
But In Progress has steadily grown over the years. Like other nonprofits, the group struggled during COVID-19. “We couldn’t go out in the communities and do workshops,” Sorensen said. “I love going to small towns and giving workshops.”
But that has changed, and In Progress held a potluck feast on June 10, with a sound healing before the meal.
“We have laughed together, and we have mourned together,” Sorensen said. “We want this to be a place of community, where people feel welcome to share their stories.