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Why is Minnesota such a hotbed of creativity? Artists take a crack at it

Videographer Chuck Olsen: "Nobody else in the room was from Fridley. I was there to represent this exotic suburban culture."
Photo by Lori Erickson
Videographer Chuck Olsen: “Nobody else in the room was from Fridley. I was there to represent this exotic suburban culture.”

Why here?

Why does the Minneapolis/St. Paul arts scene remain such a fertile hotbed of creativity?

Over the years, artists have cited all sorts of contributing factors, from the weather to the confluence of colleges and universities to the abundance of free-thinkers butting up against the general persnickety nature of stoic Midwesterners. But at the public salon “Minnesota’s Identity and the Arts” Tuesday at Intermedia Arts, videographer Chuck Olsen might have nailed it when he suggested that the mad milieu revolves around something called “The Munson Constant,” in which we are all connected via bassist/singer John Munson’s myriad musical projects.

It was an as-good-as-anything, lighthearted, but not really, hypothesis: “Community” was the most oft-buzzed word of the evening’s discussion, though that concept may remain anathema to the artist whose core work comes not from collaboration but through a singular impulse, away from the numbers. But the main takeaway is that on a frigid November night, a couple hundred people from every walk of local art and music life gathered in a gallery to talk about how this all happened and what makes us tick.

Maybe there’s your answer: There are an awfully lot of curious people in these burgs who like talking about the curiosities of these burgs.

(Watch the salon in its entirety here.)

The salon was presented by the Minneapolis Arts Commission and Works Progress, whose spokesman Tim Gihring was on hand to say that the inspiration for the evening came directly from lame duck Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s slashing of the state arts budget, which led to Gihring’s spot-on and necessary rebuttal column.

Then emcee Andy Sturdevant got things rolling by quoting a 1985 Art Paper review, penned by a visiting Chicago journalist who described the Twin Cities art scene thusly:

“It is a peculiar blend of Scandinavian modesty, social conscience, and power of collective action.”

Adam Levy
Adam Levy

One by one, the panel (musician Adam Levy, photographer Wing Young Huie, dancer/choreographer Ananya Chatterjea, Olsen and Sturdevant) went on to shoot holes in the concepts of what, exactly, is “Minnesotan,” “Scandinavian” and “modesty” (“I disclaim the `modesty,’ ” said Chatterjea; “I have seen some of the most wacky, flamboyant performances in the Twin Cities”) while wholly embracing the “social conscience and power of collective action” bits.

This is how Huie, a Duluth native whose family emigrated from China and who has chronicled the growth of Lake Street and various other urban areas in all their decidedly non-Scandinavian roots, put it: “Lake Street is a microcosm of who we are, and where we’re going.”

Olsen, hailing from Fridley and representing her well, made a case for fans as the new artists and media makers, referring to the whole lot as a bunch of “smarty pants.” Olsen’s presentation was especially evocative, with slides of the Legendary Jim Ruiz, Atmosphere, and Radio K melding with Facebook fan pages and groups like “Keep Minneapolis Weird.” Olsen suggested that a local arts state be formed, with a flag flying the pink cheetah created by visual/musical artists Broken Crow.

Chatterjea began her presentation by recounting the night of one of her local dance premieres, which found competition from several other underground and overground stages across the metro area. “There were audiences for all of them — not all full houses — but I think we should celebrate that richness,” she said.

“I was in New York in the ‘80s and ‘multi-cultural’ was the buzz, but it was a rhetoric. I kept thinking, ‘How can all these artists of different colors and ethnicities meet and collaborate?,’ because it wasn’t happening. Fast-forward to now. I’ve been here for 10 years, and I have a company of women artists of color. I was allowed to do it in Minnesota, and I thank Minnesota, and part of it [the creativity] comes from thinking about it all as I walk the lakes and rivers of Minnesota.”

Levy gave a crash-course in the small but impactful ‘80s music scene that spawned Prince, the Time, Husker Du, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Trip Shakespeare, the Honeydogs, Run Westy Run, and many more. “I mean, what’s the historical precedent for Prince?” said Levy. “It was away from the coasts, and there was a sense of newness in this little town on the prairie. At that time, the two camps (funk and garage rock) didn’t really cross paths, but now there are so many bands crossing genres, it’s such an exciting time to be in town.”

To wit: The other day The Current’s Mary Lucia back-announced a song by one of her favorite bands and went right into the weather, peppering both with real warmth. For the first time, it occurred to me how much around these parts, as Tom Waits put it, “everyone, everywhere they go, they talk about the weather.” 

So much so that it’s not much of a leap to surmise that if “we” (include yourself if you’ve read this far) are conversant in the swings of the seasons and our moods, we’d be pretty good at articulating and expressing the mystical abstractions that weather, art, and music share.

The poet Robert Bly once told KFAI-FM’s Lynette Reini-Grandell that he attributes all this freak flag-flying to a “progressive collectivism” that was brought to Minnesota by the first Swedish immigrants, outcasts from the homeland who brought socialism and communism with them and created the template for the nonprofit community that now thrives under a very large umbrella by the Mississippi River.

Then again, maybe analysis is paralysis, and there’s something more primal at work. As Curtiss A said here:

“The biggest thing about rock, it doesn’t have to be perfect music. It’s more about exuberance. And the cool thing about Minneapolis is the total exuberance. People say `The Minneapolis Sound.’ To somebody that means Prince, to somebody that means Husker Du, to somebody that means Soul Asylum. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but most of it is exuberance. I don’t know what it is, if it’s the magical lakes or what, but we’ve got a lot of smart people here.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/02/2010 - 10:32 am.

    No offense to the local creative types but I doubt the Twin Cities is any more of a “hotbed of creativity” than any other comparably-sized metropolitan area in the US. As far as “Minneapolis sound” goes it seems to be whatever artist currently has some national exposure. We’ve had Prince, a genius who coincidentally was born here, there was a good 80s punk/alt scene that still reverberates, but what about Willie Murphy or Lamont? They were my “Minneapolis Sound”. What about Red House? The “historical precedence” for Prince is that people are born where they are born, luck of the draw, why build it up more than it is.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/02/2010 - 10:56 am.

    Bill, I’d venture to guess we’re doing a little better than average. Here’s our nearest neighbors by population:

    46 Colorado Springs
    47 Tulsa
    48 Minneapolis
    49 Arlington
    50 Honolulu
    51 Wichita

    I think Minneapolis occupies a place as having relatively high culture/capita ratio for middle-sized cities along with Portland, Austin, etc. It’s easy to forget there are many cities of that size which are, well, forgettable.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/02/2010 - 10:57 am.

    Well, here’s the thing. Our “creative types” are no more talented than anywhere else but the cultural phenomenon here known as Minnesota Nice prevents us from telling these people that their art is lame and so that only encourages them to keep doing it.

  4. Submitted by Jennifer Tuder on 12/02/2010 - 12:56 pm.

    Respectfully, I must disagree with Mr. Tester and Mr.Schletzer. I was born in Kansas City, raised in Iowa, and have lived in Phoenix, Southern Illinois, Athens, GA, and now the Twin Cities. I’ve also spent considerable time in cultural hotbeds like New York and Chicago as well as less interesting places like Atlanta and St. Louis. Believe me when I say that the Minnesota arts scene is one of the most vibrant in the country. Phoenix and Atlanta certainly don’t compare. And, regarding our “lame” art, we have some of the most nationally and internationally recognized artists working here, Grammys to Tonys. So to those who would say, “Bah! Humbug!” to the Minnesota arts scene, I would reply, “Come, then, what right have you to be dismal? What reason do you have to be morose? You’re rich enough.” — if only you could recognize it.

  5. Submitted by Kim Matthews on 12/02/2010 - 05:33 pm.

    Not to be too “sour grapes” about your nice article, but pieces like this really chafe me. Most of the time when someone writes about the “arts scene,” what they’re really talking about is performance: music, mostly, and maybe theater. It seems silly to include visual art at all because it’s almost always treated like an afterthought. Maybe it’s because it’s a “hotbed of creativity” for people making art, and not so hot for those of us who are trying to earn a living with it.

    There are all sorts of reasons why folks here will go to a restaurant or concert and spend a couple hundred bucks in a night but wouldn’t dream of buying a piece of original art from an artists or gallery, and I won’t get into that. I just wanted to bring this up so that the next time a piece like this is published, maybe the writer can offer real-life examples of ordinary people supporting fine artists in their community and enriching their lives by daring to live with original art and not just hitting Art-a-Whirl for free box wine.

  6. Submitted by Shanai Matteson on 12/02/2010 - 11:58 pm.

    Kim, I totally share your concern that enthusiasm for the the art scene in Minnesota doesn’t naturally translate to people paying artists fairly for their work, or buying original visual artwork.

    But I also think there are some inspiring and very creative examples of artists and communities working to change this. I think some of these efforts actually do translate to direct support for art and artists from the people who enjoy and benefit from the work.

    A couple of local examples:

    There are probably many more.

    Another interesting thing, I think, is that these efforts (at least the ones I link to here) seem to stem from agricultural models, and Minnesota has a really interesting and progressive ag community. Another way that Minnesota’s identity and the arts intersect?

  7. Submitted by John Hallquist on 12/03/2010 - 07:05 am.

    “lame duck governor” because he slashed the arts budget? I would say that him slashing the arts budget makes him the opposite of a lame duck governor – he is DOING something to make this a better place to live. Not doing something and sitting by and watching would have made him lame duck..

  8. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/03/2010 - 01:40 pm.

    Uh, Mr Hallquist, a lame duck is a politician who is serving out his or her term after their successor has been elected.

    Regarding your point that “he is DOING something to make this a better place to live,” it depends on how you define ‘better,’ doesn’t it?

  9. Submitted by Jodie Ahern on 12/03/2010 - 03:40 pm.

    Another reason the Twin Cities arts scene is so vibrant is that we have a generous community of philanthropists with a long tradition of supporting the arts. So many of our arts institutions have benefited from their largess.

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