Arts Roots in Saint Paul: The Seventies!

By Peg Guilfoyle and Molly Laberge Taylor

We remember it as a time of great energy and excitement in the city, when it seemed that anything could be accomplished, and everyone was ready to pitch in. It was, after all, the seventies, which came right after the sixties! It was a time of aspiration and belief, and a perfect time to put artists of all disciplines in the neighborhoods, parks, and schools of Saint Paul.

Molly: At that time, as now, Saint Paul had wonderful arts organizations. But there was a fever in the air, and a strong feeling that funds being raised weren’t serving the ordinary people and the neighborhoods of the city, but serving people who got dressed up and came to events. We needed a whole new agency, and they hired me to run it. What we had was an idea, and a charge, and this tremendous energy, to take arts programs out into the city and connect people directly with artists.

Peg: Molly had been running the Poets in the Schools program, which put writers to work in classrooms, and had developed a fine roster of writers and poets. Many of them are now familiar names . . . Patricia Hampl, Jim Moore, Deborah Keenan, Margaret Hasse, Michael Dennis Browne, James L. White, John Caddy, David Mura, Robert Bly, Carol Bly. Garrison Keillor said in later years that his work for Molly was the first time he’d ever been paid as a writer.
Molly brought young me in to take that program over while she exploded into neighborhood arts, senior centers, parks and rec centers, murals—all over the city, with all kinds of artists. It was a tremendous education for a young administrator. We were paying artists, and that was not universal at the time. Also we were getting to know each other, and our staff retreats held the beginnings of lifelong friendships and a lot of laughter. The ­COMPAS artists became a kind of cohort for the arts in Saint Paul.

Molly: In our very first year, we had a summer program in every single park in Saint Paul; Hakim Ali made all that happen. Over the years, we were able to provide work for many young artists . . . Seitu Jones, Ta-coumba Aiken, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, Frank Big Bear, Michael Robins. And just as importantly, people all over the city had the opportunity for direct contact with their creativity and ingenuity. People made art, wrote and performed plays, helped with community murals, and much more.
Peg: We had great downtown offices in what was then called the Old Federal Courts Building, now Landmark Center. Molly had a big space and a big desk, and I had a turret! Our meetings were often in the then-unrenovated courtrooms, and I remember laying out pages for our publications in the hallways over the cortile, sprawled out, placing poems on the pages. And we were a woman-run agency.

Molly: One of the best things was being able to help those young artists who’ve gone on to do such great things, individually and together. The History Theatre idea started with us, with a weekend of living history vignettes in the Alexander Ramsey House, and continued with a play presented in one of the courtrooms. Film in the Cities started with us, too; both became strong projects in their own right. And that’s not even mentioning the thousands of Saint Paulites who participated in classes, saw plays and dance programs, and heard music all over the city.
East Side, West Side, all around our town. Artists went to where the people were, and we could see the power of the arts right there.

Molly’s agency is the present-day COMPAS (Community Programs in the Arts and Sciences), still doing arts programs across Saint Paul: “I chose the name because a compass can mean the center, from which many things can radiate.” Molly and Peg have remained friends for more than forty years. 

COMPAS arts people, 1975. Peg Guilfoyle at upper left, Molly LaBerge Taylor at lower right. 
Courtesy COMPAS