MCBA History

MCBA celebrates a proud history and a bright future.

In 1983, a group of book arts practitioners and enthusiasts in the Twin Cities began plans to create an institution, a true book arts center, where artists could create, students could build skills, fine art could be exhibited, and a generally under-acknowledged artistic discipline could be elevated into the public eye and take its proper place in the Minnesota arts community. Two years later, in October 1985, this dedicated group opened the doors of the brand new Minnesota Center for Book Arts. MCBA’s first public home was in the McKesson Building, on North Third Street in the not-yet-gentrified Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis.

The organization thrived in that space, but after fifteen years, it was clear that they had outgrown their home. In the spring of 2000, after more than two years of research and planning, Minnesota Center for Book Arts joined with The Loft Literary Center and Milkweed Editions to become a founding tenant of Open Book, the first comprehensive literary and book arts facility in the nation. The renovated and reinvigorated century-old building was the first cultural landmark of the Minneapolis downtown riverfront, which is now also home to the Guthrie Theatre, Mill City Museum, MacPhail Center for Music and Gold Medal Park. Open Book creates a lively destination for a diverse public interested in books, book arts and literary endeavors of all kinds.

MCBA serves upwards of 82,000 patrons (including some 13,000 K-12 students) every year, working with groups in our studios as well as in school classrooms, libraries and community events across the state. MCBA is also home to a vibrant working artist community, from college students to retired lifelong learners and everyone in between, at every skill level. Our artistic and community programs include: exhibitions that are always free to the public; year-round free public programming on engaging topics in the arts and beyond; artmaking workshops for families; and a dedication to the support of working artists. MCBA offers people at every age and every walk of life the opportunity to explore and expand their understanding of contemporary art and book arts.

Minnesota Center for Book Arts 30th Anniversary Oral History Project

Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ 2015 Oral History Project commemorates its 30th anniversary in interviews with the artists, civic leaders and supporters who embraced its founding vision and carried MCBA forward into a thriving reality. Founding Executive Director Jim Sitter conceived of a book arts center in the late 1970s while running Bookslinger, a book distribution service based in Saint Paul. Over the following four years Sitter inspired local leaders from Minnesota’s book, art, and civic worlds — including former Governor Elmer L. Andersen — to embrace his vision of a comprehensive book arts center dedicated to nurturing artists engaged in creative expression through the book form. Those efforts resulted in MCBA’s first home in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis. Located in the McKesson Building, MCBA’s 8,600 square feet consisted of artist studios as well as a gallery, library and shop. Over the ensuing thirty years MCBA weathered challenges and celebrated successes, highlighted by its partnering with two other leading non-profits — the Loft Literary Center and Milkweed Editions — to create the shared space of Open Book in Minneapolis’ Downtown East neighborhood, which opened in 2000. Today MCBA serves 70,000 visitors annually and is respected internationally for its leadership in artistic excellence.

This oral history project focuses on three periods: MCBA’s planning and start-up from the late 1970s to 1990; a transition period in the late 1990s that deepened MCBA’s engagement with its artist community, and culminated with its move in 2000 to Open Book; and, reflections on today’s book arts field, including future directions. The interviews explore the inner workings of an arts organization in its leadership, its civic and cultural collaborations, as well as in the hard work and creativity that enliven its space. The interviews also encompass larger contexts of MCBA’s story, including how efforts by Sitter and others helped to shift philanthropy to recognize the literary and book arts as endeavors deserving support, and how Minnesota’s commitment to nurturing creative capital has facilitated broad cultural repercussions which include widespread arts participation.

View interview clips and read transcripts below; access to complete video footage and other documentary materials is available upon request, or by visiting MCBA’s James and Marilynn Alcott Library and Archives.

This project was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.