With all that’s happened in 2019, it’s easy to feel like the year has lasted, well, several years.
And with the end of 2019, also comes the end of the decade. In the past year alone, Southern Minnesota’s arts organizations have seen growth that they only expect to continue through 2020 and beyond — growth in sheer numbers, as well as in scope of programs and activities. Art certainly isn’t going anywhere in the next decade.
Coming out of the woodwork
Throughout 2019, several of the region’s community theaters and arts nonprofits reported increases in both the numbers of people getting involved and in the ways people brought their creativity to the table.
At Mankato’s Twin Rivers Council for the Arts, Executive Director Noelle Lawton described a “snowball effect” of community members “coming out of the woodwork” and pooling resources to create new programs and works of art. For example, multiple organizations worked to commission international artist Guido Van Helten to paint a mural on the town’s 135-foot silos in early 2020, and others have created smaller murals throughout the old town district.
“People are willing to give of their time and share their resources, and it’s just awesome to see what the community has done together on a very small budget. People are inspired and want to see more happen,” said Lawton.
Farther north, the Lakeville Area Arts Center has seen its own expansion. The center’s annual arts festival broke its own attendance records this year, according to Manager Joe Masiarchin. In 2019, the center worked with ever-increasing numbers of community theater organizations and others in the arts and entertainment business. More than 100 events graced the stage this year—and some popular 2018 performances, like the “Mini-Nutcracker” ballet, sold out twice as many show dates in 2019.
Though Lakeville is a quickly growing city, Masiarchin noted that this artistic expansion isn’t an isolated trend.
“A lot of organizations are seeing similar patterns to what we are. There’s a general awareness of arts in the area that’s continuing to grow,” he said.
Accessible on all spectrums
As attendance grows, arts organizers have paid extra attention throughout 2019 to ensuring that programs are open to all who are interested, regardless of ability or income. Katie Schaumann, community engagement coordinator for Faribault’s Paradise Center for the Arts, noted that the organization has recently made a few programming adjustments to make performances accessible to those with disabilities.
To accommodate the deaf and blind communities in Faribault, the Paradise has increased their offerings of ASL-interpreted performances over the past year, and is working to bring audio description to even more performances.
The theater has also recently begun hosting “sensory-friendly” performances, said Schaumann, for those on the autism spectrum. For these performances, the house lights will be up, performers will eliminate all loud bangs and noises, noise-cancelling headphones will be provided, and audiences will have access to wiggle seats and other fidget-friendly devices. Audience members will also have the opportunity to step outside into a nearby quiet room without any shame or shushing. The idea, said Schaumann, is to encourage populations that may otherwise avoid plays or musicals due to challenges with bright lights, loud sounds or sitting still.
“We want to make sure that people can experience the arts on all levels of our community,” said Schaumann.
Another facet to the mission of inclusivity is ensuring accessibility for audiences of all economic demographics, even those who lack the disposable income of the traditional wealthy theater patron. To meet this need, the Paradise has offered free or low-cost events like family film nights. Other organizations, like the Northfield Arts Guild, have offered pay-as-you-wish ticket pricing at certain events to ensure that cost isn’t a barrier to attendance.
Some of these programs, said Schaumann, are helped along by grants from groups like the Minnesota State Arts Board.
“The arts can be rather expensive, so what can we do as an art community so it can be accessible on all spectrums?” said Schaumann. “The grants have been allowing us to really grow and stretch ourselves as a community, growing the friends and family we see coming into our doors.”
Art as healing
From a difficult winter to an increasingly divisive political landscape, it was difficult to escape the stress of 2019’s headlines. For many throughout southern Minnesota, theater, music and art were a means of escape and healing.
“The arts give voice and meaning to those experiences,” said Lawton. “When you don’t have the words, or you’re really confused or it’s overwhelming, the arts play a role in crafting words and meaning around those things, bringing a sense of peace and calm and unity.”
With projects like Mankato’s silo murals, the arts are a gateway to larger conversations about the changing identities of the town, or the region as a whole. The collaborative nature of a large-scale public art project can be a powerful tool for bringing people together, especially people that might not normally interact, establishing a sense of unity and connection.
And no matter what’s going on in the world, the arts provide a miniature getaway without needing to leave Minnesota.
“It’s an opportunity to enjoy something positive,” said Masiarchin. “We bring light and color and the fun aspects in a lot of these productions, especially when dealing with the youth productions.”
Though the new decade is just beginning, southern Minnesota’s arts organizations are already looking forward to a busy slate of events in 2020; in some cases, like in Lakeville, venues are looking forward to their busiest year yet. From art classes to community theater performances to gallery shows, there’s bound to be something to choose from every week of the new year. And if the packed 2020 schedules are anything to go by, we may be entering a new Roaring Twenties in southern Minnesota arts.
By Anne Kopas