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?



Artists give numerous reasons for leaving Minnesota, or wanting to leave. In fact, except in the odd cases--where family and other cultural ties preclude moving--almost all Minnesota artists at least consider departing the place at some point in their careers. Some, I am told, consider it almost every day.

Perhaps primary among motives for the artistic exodus are the perennial economic concerns. Talk to a few dozen artists from any decade, and you'll get an earful about the challenges of finding art buyers or attracting an audience here during a recession (or even during good economic times). About the thin pay offered to perform or teach their craft and the increasing expense of supplies, a studio, a performing or rehearsal space. Indeed, there are signs that very few thrive in the arts here. But then few artists have ever thrived in Minnesota. Any of the survivors of this battle--longtimers like Bill Wormley, Frank Gaard, Mary Esch, and Dick Brewer--will cite the same complaints about the visual-art market here: There just ain't enough selling going on.

"We left because we found it hard to make a living," says artist Kathleen Volp, referring to an earlier generation of artists who abandoned the Cities in the early 1980s--a group that included such artists as Steven Coursen, Steven Magnone, Astri Klievdahl, James Casebeer, Glenn Wolff, and Pat Flynn. "There weren't a whole lot of galleries. It was difficult to show work and to make a living."

"People leave because they feel they have no choice," says photographer Paul Shambroom, who was the last Minnesotan to appear in the prestigious Whitney Biennial, in 2000. He is one of a small group of locals who have tried to make a successful career while remaining in town, though it hasn't been without a struggle. Though they typically work longer hours than their peers, very few artists, he explains, make a living by producing artwork and selling it. "It's very difficult, if not impossible."

Informally, gallery owners and arts funders will tell you that there seem to be two types of collectors around the Twin Cities: high-end collectors who tend to buy outside the state (read: in New York); and low-end collectors who buy locally but seldom spend more than $1,000 on a work of art. Shambroom seems to be one of the few who is accomplishing the amazing feat of tapping into a collector base. He achieves this--as do a few other artists like painter Todd Norsten, installation and video artist Chris Larsen, and printmaker David Rathman--by traveling to New York whenever possible, and, most important, by having gallery representation in that city.

Asked if there is much difference between selling art in New York as compared with Minneapolis, Carolyn Glasoe minces no words: "It's only about 5,000 percent easier!" She continues: "There are a lot of people who know about art, and a lot of money. A lot of people come from Europe to collect here, and Asia. A lot of people are constantly coming through."

The economic hegemony of large markets like New York or Los Angeles becomes perpetual and self-reinforcing. To the extent that artists, writers, and musicians need these places for economic sustenance, it creates a kind of local cultural inferiority complex about everyplace else. "There's an idea in the performing-arts community," says Leah Cooper, the director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, "that you have to go get your credentials in New York in order to get jobs in mainstream theaters here. That no one at the Guthrie is going to look at you unless you have New York credits on your résumé." Theater people move around so much in the search for work that the list of those who have left town is impossibly large. Most theater people shrug when asked to recall friends who've left--as if to say, "Who hasn't left?"--and use the word gypsy to describe their life.

"The theater is not a real living community for most people," says Bain Boehlke, director of the Jungle Theater for the past 11 years.

The film economy is, if anything, even worse. Though the local community can support a few scrappy independent features, the only place to go if you want to have a hand in making commercial films is Los Angeles.

"L.A.'s the place to be if you want to make it big," says 24-year-old film producer and writer Adam Schindler, whose digital production Rotten Apples was locally created with collaborator Brian Netto for $3,000. And while it was a great experience, according to Netto, the two have been planning their exodus to L.A. since before that project was in the can. "Film is so expensive. It's harder to find money for films we want to make. We want to find people who can back what we want to do....Here the pool of such people is that much smaller."

"It's a problem that people like us leave," says Netto. "If everyone like us stayed, imagine the community you'd have. It's a self-sustaining thing. People leave because so many people are leaving. People leave because there aren't the resources here, and there aren't the resources here because people are leaving."

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