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Promoting awareness and respect through artistic collaboration

Eighteen months ago, MSU art professor Bill Harbort received an unexpected phone call from the North Dakota Museum of Art. NDMOA was applying for a grant through the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and was assembling an artistic "dream team" to participate in the Foundation's Artistic Innovation and Collaboration grant program.

"The museum's intent was to create a diverse team where none of us on the grant does what any other person does," Harbort recalled. "The grant's genesis and Rauschenberg's work is often about collaboration. It's interesting and experimental to put six people into a situation where collaboration becomes a large part of the delivery of the message of the art."

After a competitive application process, in 2011 NDMOA received $150,000 over three years to support the commissioning of artists to create art exploring life on the multicultural Spirit Lake Nation Reservation. The project will include collaboration amongst the Rauschenberg Grant artists and tandem-work with the Spirit Lake people. In addition to Harbort's collage art, the team includes a photographer, print maker, sculptor, video artist and painter.

As a commercial artist at Revlon in the early 90s, Harbort participated in design teams where art directors, illustrators, photographers and graphic designers contributed to creating the final product. The difference was that the client determined the message. NDMOA art team has met twice to learn about each other and explore and discover more about the traditions and culture of Spirit Lake, with no particular ending in mind.

"We've spent time at the Spirit Lake Reservation studying and learning about the people of the Spirit Lake Reservation - the native and nonnative population," Harbort said. "We've spent time looking around, taking photographs and acquainting ourselves with the landscape and the history. I've had really wonderful conversations with all the artists."

Although the Rauschenberg Grant is a three-year endeavor, the team's first mission is a group show in June 2013 at the Rauschenberg Gallery in Manhattan. Presently, Harbort is exchanging materials and ideas with other artists. For example, he will send painter Tim Schouten two unfinished collages, on top of which Schouten will add his creative touch. They will continue this innovative interchange until both artists feel the work conveys their message.

"The project is filled with serendipity and without manifest intent, so it's okay if the work moves in a direction we're unaware of. There have been many discussions regarding the best situations to prompt an interesting message. So far, we are working that out," he said.

"Whatever the result, the intent is clear: underscoring the entire exhibit is promoting understanding, awareness and respect for the Spirit Lake people, and appreciation for each other as artists."