The Whittier neighborhood has been looking a little differently-fewer unkempt storefronts, and more, well, mannequins covered in full-body glass mosaics. It’s all part of Joan Vorderbruggen’s Artists in Storefronts project, which began April 27 and ends in early June. Commissioning local artists of all kinds, Vorderbruggen has turned vacant or under-used storefronts in the Whittier neighborhood into vibrant, engaging spaces showcasing original work by Twin Cities artists. Check out the slideshow below for a before/after of some of the storefronts, and read on for a Q and A with the project’s mastermind.

MNO: How did you get the idea for Artists in Storefronts?

Joan Vorderbruggen: I’m a freelance storefront designer. And I was inspired by Wing Young Huie‘s University Ave project. Last fall I thought I’d do storefront design on an entire city block. I thought I’d do it in a declining business area, to increase foot traffic. I pitched that around and it didn’t really grab anyone’s attention. So I started doing more research and I found storefront projects on either coast-really long-standing projects. I realized it would make so much more sense to approach it like a group show-to create a sort of urban walking gallery….When I created a proposal and pitched it to the Whittier Alliance, Marian Biehn, the executive director, her jaw hit the floor- they had just created a database of all of their vacant storefronts on the Eat Street corridor.

MNO: What’s the goal of the project?

JV: It’s a benefit-all strategy on every level. First, it acts as a free staging service for all those commercial property owners. We took tired, sad, dirty, properties with broken blinds and plastered with for-rent signs, and by cleaning then up, we beautified them. So people are looking at that instead of something that looks like it needs a lot of work. That inspires ideas for potential creative entrepreneurs and potential retailers. Also, some of these artists have exhibition histories, some don’t- so this offers an incredible amount of exposure for an artist, to a demographic that doesn’t always get into museums or galleries.

MNO: How did you get permission to use the storefronts?

JV: That part was very difficult. There are quite a number of commercial properties that are in the process of foreclosure, and in that instance there’s no ownership to peg down. Somebody who’s losing their property wouldn’t be vested in making it more appealing for a bank to swallow up. I’m hoping real estate agents will see this as an incredible benefit to them, in terms of how to deal with foreclosed properties. According to Storefronts Seattle project, businesses with art in their storefronts lease 50 percent faster.

And we did have a way to include the properties that didn’t respond or responded with a no. We’re doing the “I Wish This Was” sticker project with artist Candy Chang. The stickers look like “Hello My Name Is” stickers-they’re vinyl, and there’s no residue. People can stop and look at the storefront, and think about what they would want to go there.

MNO: What have you been surprised by?

JV: I’ve been a little disappointed in my moss mural [on the north side of Rainbow Chinese Restaurant], but  I’m going to keep at it. We put it up a little too soon, but then suddenly May was chilly, so it hasn’t been thriving or growing. I’m going to go after it again. I had a local journalist and friend of mine write a bunch of things we could use for the moss graffiti and she came up with “Everyone Together Different.” It’s a beautiful message. We’re very different from each other but we’re all spinning on the same rock. So I’m going to get that sucker to grow. I have to water it every day with a sprayer of buttermilk and water. It’s either going to be a $200 fail or a million dollar win.

MNO: What unexpected challenges have there been?

JV: I do most of my storefront installations pretty independently, so I thought “Oh I can do this, it won’t be too challenging,” but that was not the case. There is no way this would have been pulled off without my husband’s assistance-he’s an art handler. There is a science to hanging things properly. There literally is an equation. I mean, it’s Math. I hadn’t planned on relying on him so much.

MNO: What’s next with the project?

JV: Well, we weren’t able to really support the artists this time, aside from installation assistance and hardware and lighting. I’d like to be able to offer stipends for artists to participate-beautification stipends. Also, I’ve launched a Kickstarter project to expand the project to include Lyndale and points on Franklin.