"Lisa Bergh: Topography" installation at Mia.

Lisa Bergh on life as a rural artist and arts advocate

By Laura Silver //

Lisa Bergh, whose colorful, abstract sculptures and assemblages are now on view at Mia (“Topography”) as part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, never intended to be a rural artist. But for close to 20 years, she has made a life, and a living, as a working artist and arts advocate in tiny New London, Minnesota, 100 miles or so west of Minneapolis. A passionate and committed ambassador for her community, Bergh is the co-founder and co-curator of the Traveling Museum, a mobile art space that bringscontemporary art to greater Minnesota. She and her husband, artist Andrew Nordin, collaborate on public art projects under the moniker Rural Aesthetic Initiative.

She may be the daughter of farmers, but Bergh was a city kid. She grew up in Iowa’s Quad Cities, went to college in Tucson, and then attended grad school in the Bay Area, where she met Nordin, a painter. The two moved to Milwaukee and lived there for five years. But soon after their first child was born, they realized their needs had changed. They considered different cities—or no city at all. Nordin had been offered a sabbatical replacement position at Ridgewater College, in Hutchinson, and in 2005 the couple moved to New London, expecting to stay a year at most. “I thought, oh, we’ll flip this little house. And then you have kids and jobs, and we’ve been here ever since. It’s just sort of where we landed.”

And if she’d landed in some notoriously unaffordable artist’s utopia, like Brooklyn? “I wouldn’t be making art if I lived in Brooklyn,” she says, with a laugh. “That would be it.”

But, she admits, living in a big city would put her in closer proximity to other artists. Her desire to build community for herself in New London—to find other artists and make friends—is what led to the creation of her earliest rural arts initiatives. Her very first project was called ARThouse, a series of pop-up one-night exhibitions held in her living room. “ARThouse was about responding to the space and creating an artwork experience designed for our community,” she says. “And we had quite the list of powerhouse artists. Jonathan Gomez Whitney made a helium balloon chandelier that [was suspended] above our house, as a way to talk about the spectacle of public art and domesticity. ARThouse put us into this realm of rural art making and placemaking. When you live out here, it doesn’t mean that people are less interested in art.”

About five years later, Bergh and Nordin came up with the idea for the Traveling Museum, a museum on wheels. And because this is Minnesota, it’s also a functioning fish house—albeit one with a Bauhaus-inspired design. Since 2013, with some help from a Legacy Amendment Grant, the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council,  and the McKnight Foundation, the little fish shanty has gone all over the Midwest, bringing contemporary art to unlikely places. “It’s been a residency, we’ve taken it to street fairs, it’s worked with museums, it’s worked with individual artists. When I think about myself as a rural advocate, I just want people to have an entry point or an access to art,” Bergh says. In 2015, the Traveling Museum was recognized by Americans for the Arts as one of the best public art projects of that year.

Working artists typically wear many hats, and that’s especially true of rural artists. “I think that’s the spirit of a smaller community,” she says. “We all have to do different things to make it go.” Bergh currently teaches at Ridgewater College and is a grant review panelist for the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council. Before that she was the executive director for the Hutchinson Center for the Arts.

As a teacher, Bergh says she feels like she’s advocating for the arts every day, to encourage her students’ lifelong interest and curiosity. And her grant review work is a way to give back. “My career in Minnesota has been built through my rural regional arts council. Every time I get a grant, the work gets bigger and better and more refined, and new opportunities open up. It’s the wisdom of the legislators that are funding these programs and creating working artists.” She adds: “I always joke that Minnesota’s so great with arts funding because it’s so unbearably cold; they have to do it to keep us here.”

Topography is on view through February 15, 2024, in the U.S. Bank Gallery at Mia. Admission is free.