University of Minnesota Alumni Association


A Creative Force

Alumna Gülgün Kayim helps propel those who are part of the “creative economy” in Minneapolis

Photo credit: Susannah Ireland

Gülgün Kayim will never forget the first time she saw a play. It changed her life.

She was 15 and a high school student in North London, where her family had lived ever since they were forced to leave Cyprus in 1968 because of violence between the island’s Greek and Turkish communities. Kayim (M.F.A. ’93) was only 5 when her family fled their home, and her childhood in England had been marked by the economic and emotional stresses that often follow such an abrupt displacement.

“My parents were Muslim and were uneducated refugees,” she says, her British accent still intact after over three decades in Minnesota. “They weren’t thinking about theater or music or anything like that. [The arts] weren’t a part of my upbringing at all.”

The play—Kayim remembers it was a musical—was in a magnificent old theater in London’s West End. She was seated high in the balcony, but even from so far away, she was transfixed by the performance. “I was gobsmacked,” she says. Soon after, she started participating in plays, mostly behind the scenes so she wouldn’t embarrass her mother, who didn’t think it was proper for a Muslim girl to appear onstage.

“The reason theater and art in general was really important to me was that it was healing,” says Kayim. “It offered me an opportunity to deal with the stress of who I was and how I was brought up.”

Today, that insight is hardwired into Kayim’s work as the founding director of arts, culture, and the creative economy for the city of Minneapolis, where she develops programs to support artistic entrepreneurs, creative businesses, and arts and cultural nonprofits. “Creativity is really critical to [a community’s] mental health,” she says, pointing to the artistic outpouring that took place in Minneapolis at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue after George Floyd was murdered. “It creates a sense of connectedness, a sense of belonging, a sense of wellbeing. … It’s an outlet and a way for people to connect and process what’s going on in their lives.”

Kayim completed her undergraduate studies at Middlesex University London in 1987, majoring in theater with an emphasis on directing. Unfortunately, she couldn’t secure financial support for graduate studies in the United Kingdom. However, at an arts summer camp in New Jersey, she fell in love with a fellow intern named David Yanko, an American. He told her about teaching assistantships at American universities, which provide tuition and an income in exchange for teaching. After Kayim investigated a number of opportunities, the University of Minnesota offered a financial package that allowed her to complete an M.F.A. in theater arts and still be relatively close to Yanko, who was getting a master’s degree in arts administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She moved to Minnesota in 1989. She and Yanko have been married since 1993 and have three adult children.

While at the U of M, Kayim interned at the Guthrie Theater, completing a directing internship with thenartistic director Garland Wright. She also worked at the Weisman Museum as its first public art coordinator, a job she continued after she graduated. The idea of visual art being commissioned for specific settings appealed to her. What would happen, she wondered, if she applied that concept to the performing arts? Could she create plays that weren’t performed in theaters but instead were intimately tied to their unique settings?

Kayim answered those questions together with fellow students Sean Kelley-Pegg (M.F.A. ’95) and Charles Campbell (M.A. ’93, Ph.D. ’97). In 1996, they founded Skewed Visions, a multidisciplinary collective that created site-specific performances, including The Car, a trilogy where the audience was driven around Minneapolis in the back seats of cars while the actors, including Campbell, drove and acted from the front seat. Both Kayim and Kelley-Pegg directed. The play premiered at the 2000 MN Fringe Festival and was as much theater as placemaking, where the city’s skyline and storefronts interacted with the human stories unfolding before the audience. Another piece created by Kayim took place over 24 hours in a room at Southwest High School in Minneapolis and depicted “rubber rooms,” which are reassignment centers that New York City schools used to house teachers who were accused of misconduct.

Despite Skewed Visions’ influence—the company was named “Artists of the Year” by the alternative weekly paper City Pages in 2004—and Kayim’s prestigious lineup of grants, awards, and fellowships, (including a Creative Capital Foundation Grant and a Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship) she found that she wasn’t able to make enough to raise a family from her work alone.

That dilemma motivated her to apply for a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant to investigate how to make a living in the arts. (The program ran from 1986 to 2018 and allowed artists to explore their cultural and artistic roots, work with mentors, and attend training programs to develop new skills.) 

In 2006, Kayim traveled home to London to do research. “I walked away firmly believing that government is really important in supporting this kind of [artistic] work,” she says.

Which led to her current job for the city of Minneapolis, which she started in 2011. Her initial title was director of arts. After she was hired and learned more about the role, she pitched to expand that title to include arts, culture, and the creative economy to better reflect the full scope of the work. Today, she assists other artists in building their careers with the government’s help.

Starting in 2013, Kayim’s team has produced the Minneapolis Creative Index: a biannual report that examines the impact of the city’s arts and cultural offerings. It looks at demographic trends and compares Minneapolis to other regions across the country.

“We know that while we are in a city where there is a lot of funding for arts and culture, it’s not filtering down to everyone,” she says of the data. “And we know that while women are quite present in the creative economy as employees, they are not being paid at the level of their male peers, and [we see] which occupations tend to be more white, and which are more diverse.” The report also shows that a full 50 percent of creative professions are in just five occupations—photography, music/singing, writing, graphic design, and public relations.

“That tells you those fields are heavily, heavily competitive,” she says. “That’s why people feel the stress of not being able to make a living. ...This information is really important to people who are training artists, people who are paying artists.”

Due to the pandemic, the index was not updated in 2020; the plan is to release a new one this fall. But, Kayim says the creative sector—especially the performing arts—was especially hard hit by the economic fallout of Covid-19.

Bringing the creative economy back, she says, is a key component to reviving Minneapolis as a thriving whole. Not just because the arts give communities an opportunity to process and heal, but because they provide solid economic benefits. The 2018 index reported that creative sales pumped nearly $5 billion into the Minneapolis economy, which is over nine times the size of the city’s sports sector revenues.

“When someone goes to see a show, they [also] go to restaurants and park their cars,” she says. “There’s ancillary spending.”

To that end, Kayim’s office funds artists to support their communities (see below). She and her colleagues also fund artists to work directly with city departments on initiatives that include the census, housing inspections, and how to help more people use the Midtown Greenway.

“Integrating the arts into the city, supporting artists in community, and then doing research on policy and planning for the city is what my office is grounded in doing,” she says.-EFL

Art for All

In Minneapolis, the Creative Response Fund is an initiative of the Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy. The fund supports artists involved in placemaking and using art to support community healing in the wake of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Two recent projects that provided assistance to U of M affiliated artists include:

A Budget is a Moral Document

Designer and U of M adjunct instructor Samuel Ero-Phillips (B.S. ’06) and muralist Jordan M. Hamilton created a work on an exterior wall of The Hub Bike Co-op on Minnehaha Avenue and Lake Street—two blocks from the Third Precinct and at the center of the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder.

Using pie charts (see mockup at far left), the work A Budget is a Moral Document hopes to be a public conversation starter about how government funding operates and the decisions the city of Minneapolis has made when it comes to funding the police department. (In the fall of 2020, Ero-Phillips also created Haircuts for Change, a pop-up barbershop and altar [shown at left] at the intersection of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, which explored and promoted Black healing and self-care in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.)

As part of the engagement process that took place before creating the new artwork, Ero-Phillips asked students in his U of M Art of Ethical Engagement and Equitable Design class, which he teaches every other year, in the Urban Studies department, to create a ‘zine exploring issues surrounding the topic.

The mural was completed in May.

“Art + Nature”

Another program funded by the city of Minneapolis is Art + Nature, a series of free outdoor community workshops held this spring at Riverside Park in the Cedar Riverside Neighborhood. These site-specific events were created by artist organizers Chavonn Williams Shen, JG Everest (B.A. ’99, at left) and Nimo Farah. They included poetry readings, nature walks, visual arts workshops, and The Riverside Park Sound Garden, a free, self-guided event with a sound installation of more than 50 wireless speakers, distributed throughout the park.

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