Baby Please Don't Go

Former Minnesotans Say the Twin Cities Cultural Scene Is Insular. Insecure. Unprofitable. Out of Touch. What Does It Mean to Live in an Artists' Paradise If Everyone Wants to Leave?

of reflex to extol, in a Manchurian Candidate-like monotone, how "vibrant" and "diverse" the arts are in Minnesota. But what does it mean to have a "vibrant" art scene if it's not a place that artists want to stay?

Here's where the other version of reality for local arts clouds the picture. From the point of view of arts lifers, the scene is more a place of struggle than any kind of paradise. This disconnect raises questions. If we really do have such a great art scene in Minnesota, why the constant artistic seepage? Isn't the net effect of annually losing many of the best and brightest a bit of a downer--akin to pulling the gifted and talented students out of the classroom every fall? And how does the artist's experience here really compare to the life in other places, anyway? What happens to people when they leave? Do they find things are better in other places? And if not, do they end up coming back?

According to Julie Dalgleish, program director of artist fellowships for the Bush Foundation, of the 323 different artists who have received fellowships since the program began in 1976, 20 percent no longer live in the region. In a broader sense, it's impossible to find statistics in this exodus, but every artist in town knows at least a handful of peers who have headed to greener pastures. (Whether those pastures are actually more fertile than our own is up for debate.)

If the daily papers are any measure, the average Minnesotan loves to hear about heroes who have gone off to strike it big, as if this is indicative of our greater collective glory. We are much like the average Canadian in this regard, living vicariously through Jason Priestley and Celine Dion. We pay homage to these missing folk, erecting shrines or monuments (real or imagined) in Sauk Centre, at the Sinclair Lewis birthplace; in Grand Rapids, where Judy Garland began her tortured trip down life's yellow brick road; on Summit Avenue, at the Fitzgerald home; in Hibbing and Duluth, in the houses of Bob Dylan's childhood; at the corner of Snelling and Selby, where Schulz père plied a barber's trade. And we don't care whether these artists ever come back to teach or mentor here or otherwise further the cause of culture in Minnesota--in fact, they seldom even returned. They struck it rich and left town (or vice versa), and heck, ain't that something?

In later days, this penchant for basking in the reflection of far-off success can be seen in the local habit of pointing out celebrities with any kind of Minnesota connection at all. The sheer number of articles on the Minnesota roots of Craig Kilborn, Rachael Leigh Cook, Josh Hartnett, Louie Anderson, Winona Ryder, Seann Williams Scott, Steve Zahn, and their ilk, would be enough to convince most that leaving Minnesota is a good thing to do. And still these much-hyped figures are but a fraction of Minnesota's yearly apostates. Most Minnesota defectors would be strangers to the public--and yet the absence of all of these people, whether glorified or not, is a hole in the middle of the Cities.

A brief survey of some of the artists who were once here and now are not suggests the size and significance of this hole. Many now reside and work in New York. There's conceptual performance artist (and former Red Eye media curator) Matt Bakkom; painter Lee Anne Swanson; mock-folk artist Aaron Spangler; painter and public artist Ted Kersten; painter/illustrator Kathleen Volp; writer-performer Aaron Lightman; actor/ musician Todd Griffin; film producer Esther Robinson; songstress Tulip Sweet; punker Craig Finn (formerly of Lifter Puller); and music producer Jon Jon Scott. Will Hermes, former arts editor of City Pages, edited for Spin and now provides commentaries for NPR. Arts organizer Boo Froebel lives in Brooklyn and curates with such competence that she was recently called a "superhip Svengali" by Time Out New York.

Some artists make California their place of refuge. Experimental video artist Steven Matheson now lives in Oakland and teaches at Mills College, and Suzanne Lacy is dean of fine arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Rain Man) Barry Morrow lives in Los Angeles, as does photographic artist Dorit Cypis, screenwriter Jeff Vlaming, and Jungle Theater collaborator Craig Wright, who moved just a few weeks ago to begin writing for the HBO series Six Feet Under. Two independent film producers and writers, Brian Netto and Adam Schindler, plan to move to L.A. in October (after their film Rotten Applespremieres locally in late September, likely at the Heights Theater). No less a local music mainstay than St. Paul Pioneer Press critic Jim Walsh is departing town at present, though he vows his yearlong fellowship at Stanford will be just that. (Wager, anyone?)

And still others live elsewhere. Painter and underground publisher Stu Mead lives in Berlin now; painter Alvaro Cardona-Hine, an early Bush fellow from 1978, is in New Mexico. Installation artist Robert Lawrence lives in Tampa, Florida. Santiago Cucullo, whose local swan-song exhibition opens this month at Franklin Art Works, is already living in Houston. Writer Cathy Day, who left only a few weeks after she received her Bush fellowship, now lives in Pennsylvania. Bush-winning Cambodian poet and playwright U Sam Oeur lives in Dallas, and poet Clare Rossini lives in Connecticut. Composer Henry Gwiazda lives in Cincinnati....

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