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?

 

The only bright spot about the local art economy is in some ways a dark one. While the volume of foundation funding and grants available to artists in Minnesota is generous, this munificence can skew the capitalist side of the system. As the McKnight Foundation reported back in 1996: "The most salient feature of the new arts economy is that nonprofit and governmental funding agencies have become, practically speaking, the only serious arts patrons."

In an odd way, the very cultural wealth of Minnesota, and the top-heavy arts boosterism that results from this wealth, may discourage audiences from paying for art. Such large and established organizations as the Guthrie Theater, the Minnesota Opera, and Walker Art Center offer top-shelf culture at heavily subsidized prices. The small gallery, the experimental theater, and the performance-art festival, by contrast, need your dollars at the door in order to survive, yet they can hardly charge as much as their luxury competitors.

Even the lucky few who receive, say, $20,000 from one of the established local foundations are living on borrowed time. According to a recent National Endowment for the Arts study, the vast majority of artists, craftspeople, actors, and the like earn less than $20,000 a year. And nearly three-fourths of these earn less than $7,000 annually on their work.

Artists like Paul Shambroom, himself the recipient of local grants, say foundation and government funding of artists is not the answer. "People have to find a way to make a living," he says. "We live in a capitalist society; it's not a matter of asking for handouts."

"I personally think a market-driven [arts economy] is healthier than a fellowship-driven one," says local painter Frank Gaard, who has managed to remain a figure in the arts here since the late 1960s despite often dire personal economic circumstances. "I don't think they [fellowships] are sustainable. There's a five-year wait between them."

Though many young creative types are drawn to the Cities in part because of its reputation for nonprofit generosity, this optimism isn't always accompanied by a clear understanding of the difficulty of establishing a viable career here. It turns out that writing grants is distracting--and the community-outreach programs that artists often propose to win support are highly time-consuming.

"It's easier to be an emerging artist here than it is to be a mid-career established artist here," says movement artist Kari Margolis of the highly regarded Minneapolis-based troupe Margolis-Brown. Margolis brought her career here from New York at least in part for the grant opportunities; she and partner/collaborator Tony Brown have won numerous fellowships since they arrived in 1995. Still, her intensive mimelike style can mean long development times for shows, and she's had trouble keeping a paid company together. In recent seasons, she's taken to teaching at the University of Minnesota and recruiting actors from this pool. "There's an artistic youth culture, and there's not so much infrastructure to financially support higher-end artists to stay," she says.

Ultimately, despite the relative wealth of grant money here, the lack of a year-in-year-out support system for artists in Minnesota inevitably drives people away. "The Twin Cities are better than anywhere else, with the comparative generosity of its arts giving," says video artist Steven Matheson, who left the area a few years ago to work in Oakland, California. "But it's still hard to make a life."

 

Money is not the only factor that forces artists to leave Minnesota. Places like New York or Los Angeles offer excitement and dynamism, a sense of being where things are happening. They also provide more opportunities to achieve national, even international success. And no amount of wishful thinking will make fly-over country enough of a cultural hotspot to compete with the coasts. Many artists, as they grow in their careers, find our city amid the plains a conventional, provincial, even stultifying place.

"In a larger city, there are a lot of ideas and people, and you're forced to change what you see and think at an alarming rate," says 34-year-old filmmaker Esther Robinson. At age 24, she worked at KTCA as a producer of a national public-television show, Alive TV (formerly called Live From Off Center). After four years, she moved to New York. "It can be exhausting...but making work here in New York itself is rewarding. In a way, in Minnesota, I was always apologizing for my enthusiasm....I have always been a person who asks for what I want. I think it was threatening to people."

Todd Griffin, who worked with Margolis-Brown before relocating to New York with Robinson, thinks there are obstacles that keep young local creative folks from having an impact in their field. "I think people in Minneapolis have an interesting relationship with success in a certain way. There's a Scandinavian desire to keep people down.... They're not tolerant of naked ambition."

Robinson talks about resentment she felt from much older television producers in Minnesota who thought she was brash, about her peers who were tight-lipped about sharing opportunities, about the rarity of opportunities for truly choice jobs. "People are threatened," she says. "Scared. There aren't many opportunities."

Craig Finn, the lead singer for Lifter Puller, skipped town for New York two years ago, after deciding his locally celebrated punk band had reached a plateau. "It was just sort of an overall exhaustion," says Finn of breaking up that band (which reunited briefly for a benefit show on August 1). "Just an overall feeling that what was ahead may not have been much better, just more of the same....We never felt it could go to the next level."

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