One woman’s seven-year journey to make Minneapolis ‘shine purple’

Rae Mackenzie Group (l-r) Joan Vorderbruggen, City Council President Andrea Jenkins and Sharon Smith-Akinsanya

Conclusion of a two-part story

‘Be bold!’

As the entire world mourned the death of Prince, so did Sharon Smith-Akinsanya. She also lamented the fact that he’d never get the chance to see Minneapolis “shine purple.” But through all the tears and sorrow, she remembered something Prince often told her: “Keep moving forward. Never lose your momentum. Be bold!”

Even prior to Prince’s passing, Smith-Akinsanya had started to work closely with Joan Vorderbruggen, who at the time was director of Hennepin Theater District Engagement. She was also the principal facilitator who helped make the Bob Dylan mural a reality.

“Vorderbruggen is the public art expert in the Twin Cities,” beamed Smith-Akinsanya. “She was my partner in crime through all of this and knows everything about the intersection of public spaces and city politics.” 

Smith-Akinsanya and Vorderbruggen both agreed that, indeed, a mural was the best way to honor Prince. Vorderbruggen emphasized that it must be in a public space where the world would see it, even if it were just an aerial view on television during a ballgame or other downtown event. 

Related Story: Why not Prince? One woman’s seven-year journey to make Minneapolis ‘shine purple’

Smith-Akinsanya testified before the Minnesota State Legislature, asking them to contribute $250,000 to the project. Initially, it seemed as though things would work out. “After all,” Smith-Akinsanya figured, “how could they not want to crown our Prince?”

 When considering the artist, Smith-Akinsanya and Vorderbruggen immediately thought of the legendary Eduardo Kobra, who in addition to the Bob Dylan mural has painted hundreds of murals on five continents. He submitted a design that both Smith-Akinsanya and Vorderbruggen loved.

Next, they had to find a location and approached Art Space, which designs and manages more than 50 arts properties in the United States, including 21 in Minnesota. Among those locations is the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. You could see it from both Hennepin and First Avenues. It was close to the Dylan mural. 

She invited Prince’s sister Tyka and her son President to visit the space, both of whom really seemed to like it. Smith-Akinsanya was excited. “Something was really happening. We’d found our spot.”

However, things soon started to unravel. Doors that had previously opened quickly seemed to close. Lobbyist agendas at the State Capitol started to get in the way as well, so there would be no money from the legislature. 

There were other stumbling blocks, including timing issues with the artist. And then, Smith-Akinsanya and Vorderbruggen began to contemplate another important issue. The space adjacent to the location they’d settled on was a parking lot, which was not owned by the Cowles Center. Thus, if the current proprietor sold it, there was nothing to keep a new owner from putting a building there, obstructing the Prince mural and creating a PR nightmare.

Rae Mackenzie Group (l-r) Joan Vorderbruggen, Tyka Nelson (Prince’s sister), Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, Norrine Nelson (Prince’s sister), and Walter “Q Bear” Banks (in the background).

‘Why would I ever follow Dylan?’

With all these things now gnawing at Smith-Akinsanya, she began to wonder if Prince wasn’t talking to her. She and Vorderbruggen decided that the Cowles Center was not the location, although they still had Kobra’s design based on those dimensions. When they shared the design with family members, some loved it but others hated it.

“Everyone had to agree,” said Smith-Akinsanya. Moreover, she started to ponder what Prince would think if he showed her this design. “Why would I ever follow Dylan?” she could hear him say. 

So here they were again, Smith-Akinsanya and Vorderbruggen, without a location and without an artist. Still, the duo remained undeterred. But no sooner did they begin to regroup and COVID happened.

Smith-Akinsanya thought the pandemic might be the time to start raising money again. “Most people were home,” she reasoned. “Maybe it would be easier to get their attention.” She and Vorderbruggen put a budget together, guessing they’d probably need around $500,000 to get this done. 

At that point, only the Pohlad family had given to the cause, contributing a five-figure donation directly to Hennepin Theatre Trust after the legislature said no. No one else besides the Minnesota Twins stepped up to the plate with any money. “Not a cent,” Smith-Akinsanya revealed, 

“I couldn’t understand. I’ve raised millions and millions of dollars in this town for a variety of causes, multiple ventures. Why does this city not want to say ‘thank you’ to Prince?”

Determined, Smith-Akinsanya and Vorderbruggen decided on a public space and approached the City of Minneapolis, which had been considering ways to make some of its downtown infrastructure “a little more vibrant, less of an eyesore.” 

Shortly thereafter, the City agreed to donate space on Ramp A at First Avenue and 9th Street. After sharing the good news with Prince’s family and his estate, the two of them still had a lot of red tape to cut through. 

Then, right on the heels of this newfound momentum, George Floyd was murdered just a few blocks from where Prince attended both junior high and high school. The city was reeling. 

The revolution begins in Minneapolis

 Minneapolis was now the center of the world for all the wrong reasons. And yet, despite all the pain and despair felt by so many, a citywide movement started to build, gain traction, and bring people together in the call for justice. 

People started to ponder what Prince might say or do were he still here to see what was happening in his hometown. Plenty of social media posts made declarations such as, “Only Prince knew the revolution would begin in Minneapolis.” 

Smith-Akinsanya began to wonder if the mural might be part of such a process, “something for all of us to get behind, something to look forward to.” As she started seeing a spike in phone calls from CEOs and owners requesting her DEI consulting services, she knew now was the time to do right by one of the greatest musical icons of our times who was also a Black man.

So, Smith-Akinsanya took the mural idea to U.S. Bank, who said yes with a six-figure donation. Ultimately Target, Best Buy, the McKnight Foundation and Thrivent followed suit, and, with the Twins already on board, Smith-Akinsanya now had the major sponsors she’d sought for years. 

Additional contributors and collaborators would come aboard, including community and media partners. Nonetheless, for some reason, there were entities that seemed like a natural fit, yet didn’t contribute a dime.

“This was the hardest money I ever had to raise,” she revealed. “No disrespect to Bob Dylan, whose impact is indelible, but he’s not from Minneapolis. And, aside from a couple semesters at the University, he didn’t live here. Yet his mural was commissioned and completed in a matter of weeks—with a single donor.”

She continued, “I wish we could account for the financial impact that Prince had on this city over 40 years… In a state this rich, you’d think millions of dollars would have poured in for something like this. It’s difficult for me to take the time to analyze it all, because it still hurts. It still makes me angry.”

Even though Smith-Akinsanya had the donors she needed, she still hadn’t reached the mountaintop. She had to scale the budget down by 20% and donate tons of hours to the project. “It’s worth it though,” she admitted. “Anything hard is worth it. This was my baby. It has been for seven years. I had to see it over the finish line.”

A unanimous selection

Now that Smith-Akinsanya and Vorderbruggen had money and a location, they still needed an artist. And having come this far, the destination had to yield a world-class mural from a world-class muralist.

They put together what they called the Prince Selection Committee, made up of family members, the estate, childhood friends, musical collaborators, and people who worked for him. Out of 60 artists, it came down to three finalists. 

“We gave each of them a stipend,” recalled Smith-Akinsanya, “and they all went back home to create their visions.” When the designs came back, the choice of the Prince Selection Committee was unanimous: Hiero Veiga. 

“His story is powerful all by itself,” added Smith-Akinsanya. “But he also possessed a profound understanding of how important this particular undertaking would be.”

‘He chose us!’ 

As the unveiling of Prince’s mural on June 2 inched closer and closer to fruition, Smith-Akinsanya gushed about just how perfect a location Ramp A has proven to be. “It’s like he’s looking out over his royal kingdom, you know. There are so many spaces down there that he’s inextricably linked to: First Avenue, Target Center, The Fine Line, Bunkers, The Dakota, and the Glam Slam building, the place I first met him that fateful night.”

And, while they were at it, Smith-Akinsanya and Vorderbruggen decided they might as well get the street named after Prince too. Thus, on June 7 Prince’s 64th birthday, the stretch of First Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets was fittingly renamed “Prince Rogers Nelson Way.”

 “We chose his birthday for this,” Smith-Akinsanya explained, “so that it was not lost during the mural dedication. We were able to give it its own air, its own oxygen. Something both of these events deserved. What Prince deserved.” 

That thought still reminds her how challenging this seven-year quest has been. “I still have some lingering concerns,” admitted Smith-Akinsanya. “There’s no question that collectively, this town, this state took Prince for granted. We didn’t always treat him as we should have.” 

For example, save for KMOJ’s Walter “Q-Bear” Banks and maybe one or two others, there were not many that stood up for Prince when the Star Tribune’s C.J. constantly ridiculed him. “At least no one else I remember,” added Smith-Akinsanya.

Yet there was always that insular community that loved and adored him. Or, as Smith-Akinsanya noted, “The people that waited in line for hours and hours at Paisley Park.” The same people that just had to see him perform every single time he graced a Twin Cities stage. 

“The message I think we must take from all of this,” said Smith-Akinsanya, “is the cavalry is not coming. We have to have one another’s back, take care of each other. We have to save ourselves.” 

She concluded, “This is not just the simple story of a hometown boy makes good. Prince was a Black man that was born in Minneapolis, lived in Minneapolis, and died in Minneapolis. Prince could have lived anywhere he wanted to in this world. He chose us!”