From Northern Spark Festival. Jim Woodring. Photo by Scott Stulen

The state of the arts is strong

Criticism

There was a small sign that hung on the living room wall of my childhood home, next to the door to the kitchen. It said, in fancy lettering, “THESE are the good old days.”

It also happened to be a line from Carly Simon’s song Anticipation, one of my dad’s favorites. Still my dad didn’t like the sign. To him it was really saying, “This is as good as it’s going to get,” and frankly he thought he—and the world—could do better.

When I first started reporting on the arts for MPR in 2000, I heard a lot of reminiscing about “the good old days.”

For theaters, it was the mid-to-late 1970s when new stages were popping up all over the Twin Cities. Park Square opened in 1975, the same year The Moppet Players became The Children’s Theatre Company. Mixed Blood and Penumbra got their start in 1976; History Theatre opened its doors in 1978.

For the gallery scene it was the 1980s, a time when the downtown Minneapolis warehouses were still packed with studios and NEA funding had yet be reined in by conservative politicians.

For dancers, it was when Star Tribune critic Mike Steele was alive, writing both thoughtfully and beautifully about their work.

Well, at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, might I suggest that we are once again living in “the good old days?”

Yes, the economy is in a tailspin and yes, the level of criticism in this town could be better, but let’s step back and take a broader look at what’s happened in the last few years.

In a historic move, Minnesotans voted to dedicate a portion of their sales tax to funding the arts. With the passage of the Legacy Amendment, the Minnesota State Arts Board’s grant monies instantly tripled, and an infusion of cash was made available to artists and arts organizations across the state.

Funding from the Legacy Amendment created a new show on TPT – MNOriginal, which features artists of all stripes talking about their work for a half hour each week. No longer was TV coverage of the arts limited to over-simplified one minute featurettes on local evening news.

Libraries and other cultural institutions suddenly had new money with which to both commission local artists, and invite nationally and internationally known guests to town to speak before local audiences (yes, there have been a few bumps in the road—i.e. Neil Gaiman’s speaking fee—but let’s attribute that to an initial learning curve around grant management).

Oh, and then there was the inaugural year of Northern Spark, in which people stayed up all night to see their city transformed into an artistic playground.

In short, Minnesotans are enjoying an incredibly rich and varied cultural life, and the profile of the arts in the community has risen dramatically.

All this at a time when other states are drastically cutting, or even eliminating, their funding for the arts.

Did I mention this Legacy Amendment guarantees dedicated arts funding for 25 years?

Funding aside, there are other reasons to rejoice. Social media is dramatically changing how we get information. This means artists have more control over promoting what they do (for free!), and reporters have to work harder to distinguish themselves from other less-traditional media outlets (that’s bad news for me, but good news for you).

While the Southern Theater has been reduced to a rental facility (temporarily, one hopes), the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts is creating a much more prominent space for dance on Hennepin Avenue.

I also see a great new generation of leaders stepping up to take the place of the old guard. They are smart, savvy and wonderfully creative.

The art itself

And then there is the art itself.

Thanks to my job, I am constantly exposed to art of all kinds. Earlier this week I read a poem by Ed Bok Lee that elegantly explored the circumstances surrounding immigrant Chai Vang shooting a group of hunters in Northern Wisconsin. Then, thanks to a story my colleague Chris Roberts was working on, I listened to a song by the rap duo Villa Rosa that raged over the dangerously unhealthy diets of poor people.

Now I am not a critic, I’m an arts reporter, so don’t ask me whether the art is good or not. Frankly, to my mind, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if a dancer nails a pirouette or an opera star hits every note perfectly. What matters is that we are surrounded by artists who are wrestling with the issues of the day, and that makes life better for all of us.

We live in a place where homeless people are treated to Shakespeare, where Wing Young Huie photographs people who feel invisible, and blows up their portraits ten feet high, where Marcus Young has made it possible for us to literally stumble across a poem on the sidewalk.

We live in a place where operettas are performed in community gardens, puppetry plays out in driveways, hair salons host art exhibits and actors take to the stage in your neighbor’s garage.

We are home to the May Day Parade and the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

We are home to some of the best writers, artists, musicians, choreographers and performers in the country.

Amidst all of this good news, I have only two concerns.

  1. I hope artists will take full advantage of the opportunities they have now to create challenging new work. I think audiences are ready for some powerfully cathartic and transformative experiences.
  2. I hope we all appreciate this time as fully as we can, in the moment, rather than rush forward, only to look back and reminisce about “the good old days.”

I’ve always felt lucky to be an arts reporter in Minnesota, but right now I feel especially privileged to bear witness to such a thriving, energetic cultural community.

My mom still has that sign, by the way, hanging over the inside of her front door. And she still believes the sentiment, even as a 74 year-old widower. My dad died decades ago, never getting to live those imagined good old days he hoped would come. If only he had known they were already here.

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