By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"I wasn't going to move here," says 34-year-old artist Shannon Kennedy, late of St. Paul, now of midtown Manhattan. It is early May, and Kennedy is toiling away at a few tasks in the office space of the Montgomery/Glasoe Gallery in Chelsea. She looks much the same now as when she left two years ago, with loose hair gathered and pinned up at the crown of her head. At the same time, she seems somewhat more careworn now than when she lived in the Cities; a darkness has crept in around the eyes. "It wasn't in my plan at all. I had an easy lifestyle, a nice car, a nice apartment. I didn't want to move here, but Carolyn and Elizabeth [Glasoe and Dee, of the eponymous gallery] told me, 'You have to be here. If we're going to put this much energy into your career, you have to do the same'....I'm glad I did it, but I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't had the push."
Just two years before, Kennedy was as celebrated in Minnesota as a local artist could be. She had shown her work at the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. She had received numerous local fellowships and awards, including three grants from the Jerome Foundation, two from the McKnight Foundation, and two from the Minnesota State Arts Board. And in 1999 she received a large national prize called the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award. Then, like so many Minnesota artists who seem to be hitting their stride, she suddenly took her race elsewhere.
Kennedy and I set up to talk in a corner of the office, keeping out of the way of photographers and of Carolyn Glasoe, who haggles constantly on the phone over arrangements for moving art here and there. We look at some of Kennedy's work: eerie close-up films of running and sliding insects backed by pulsing electronic music. It is not vastly different from work she did in Minnesota, which straddled the line between the documentary and horror-movie genres.
"Things are going well in New York," Kennedy says. "Moving here just changed a lot of things. New York makes you more visible. For instance, you're constantly meeting people who are showing at the Guggenheim or at MOMA. The level of intensity, everything, is upped 100 percent when you're here."
Carolyn Glasoe concurs with this assessment, once she finds time to sit down and talk. "You cannot compare being here [in New York] to anything," she says. "I've been to a lot of places, but it's been a phenomenal experience for me in a lot of ways....It's a phenomenal place for meeting collectors, making friends, being exposed to great artists and great art."
Glasoe herself, like Kennedy, is from Minnesota. At age 36, she looks deeply Minnesotan, with straight blond hair, a round face, and ice-blue eyes, though she speaks in a very un-Minnesotan way. Imagine a fast-talking, fuhgeddaboutit-spewing, Upper East Side Norwegian shiksa: an impossible cultural contradiction.
For ten years Glasoe co-owned a downtown Minneapolis gallery--Montgomery/ Glasoe. "I have a total affinity for Minnesotans," she says. "They're great and awesome and fabulous." In fact, of the 12 artists represented by Dee/Glasoe, three are Minnesotan.
"I have an affinity for people from a place where there is no information," Glasoe says with a wry smile--then quickly hedges by saying something positive about the Walker Art Center. "If you want to be successful and have an international following for your work, if you want your work to go down in the history books, you need to move to a major art center."
If only Carolyn Glasoe had known how close she came to hitting the mark with her dart. The truth is, all manner of artists and actors and writers and musicians of every age, background, and medium leave Minnesota every year. Some, like Kennedy and Glasoe, are looking for better opportunities for themselves. Others are looking to escape what they hate about the state. No less a Prairie Home booster than Garrison Keillor tried to leave for good. As he wrote:
Minnesota was a repressive place to grow up in and there's a lot I'd change, even as I think about sunny bygone days in Lake Wobegon. The fear of being different paralyzed every kid I knew, and there was so little room for affection, so much space for cruelty. People didn't have enough fun. Above all we learned to repress the urge to achieve and be recognized, because the punishment for being different was so heavy.
In truth, there are two realities concerning the arts in the Twin Cities. Conventional wisdom says we have as fine a lineup of offerings as you will find in a metro area of this size. After all, we've got two orchestras, an opera, an endless variety of dance offerings, a strong writers' (and readers') market, an excellent art museum or two, a few edgy galleries, nonprofit grassroots arts organizations of every stripe, a lively music scene, a nationally prominent regional theater and a thriving small-theater community, and a whole bundle of corporate and foundation money to support all this stuff. Still, these facts are so often repeated that it has become a sort
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....
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."
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."
Another problem that artists in Minnesota grapple with is their sense of being removed from national trends. "In the Twin Cities, you can be huge," says Finn, "but it can be a little bit isolated."
Local gallery director John Ballinger, of Midway Contemporary Art, seconds that theory and believes those feelings drive artists away. "Maybe it's because Minnesota people aren't seeing enough elsewhere to know where things are at now," he says. "To understand what's going on in the scene and make work that is current, you need to go to New York, see a lot of shows, and see new work."
"The fact that Minneapolis is not the center of the universe makes it great in one way, in terms of basic economics," says Oakland's Steven Matheson. "But the arts scene can be very provincial and can be very small....If I go to openings, I see the same people always....You go to a few openings and you've kind of done the circuit."
In the end, though, despite the strong points of its art market, Minnesota just can't keep certain upward-minded arts people satisfied. As Carolyn Glasoe says, echoing the sentiments of many former Minnesotan artists: "I will never live in Minnesota again, for a number of different reasons. I have a lot of friends there, but my lifestyle won't let me. For what I do and what I'm interested in, there's just not enough of it there."
Whatever the reasons for artists to migrate, the effect of this endless exodus is keenly felt by the community that remains behind. "It's such a transient world," says Julie Dalgleish of the local scene. "I think the shock waves are more personal than professional."
When the best artists leave, the region loses national prestige and local confidence. It's a brain drain that drags down the overall quality of what goes on here.
"Yeah, it's a loss," says Tim Peterson, director of Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis. "It'd be nice to see artists be able to have an art career here, and have a sense of history that goes back in time....But it's too much of a lure for artists, for filmmakers, for any number of people in different areas." (Peterson's brother Andrew, a filmmaker, moved to New York some five years ago.)
"If it were my preference," says local video artist Jenny Lion, "it would be for the community to stay as full and keep as many experienced people here as possible." Lion is the partner of Steven Matheson, who now makes his home in Oakland. They are separated for most of the year, though she says she wants to stay in town. "I understand that people need different levels of stimulus or have different needs for their careers....I can understand that people have to leave."
Along with regret, the Minnesota artistic migration provokes a variety of other emotional responses. "People feel a little betrayed and left behind whenever someone leaves," says the Fringe Festival's Leah Cooper. "There's also a sense of jealousy and wondering if maybe it's time to look at leaving too. You can't help but think that--'maybe I'm not following my career like I should.' ...I also think that Minnesotans begin to think that maybe they're not as good as other places. The idea that people are leaving seems to confirm that, whether or not it's true. It's a shame."
Other people take a more accepting--or perhaps resigned--view. "My policy is always an open door," says the Jungle's Bain Boehlke of the collaborators who flock elsewhere. "Follow your guiding light. If you want to go [other places], it's fine with me....On the contrary, I'd regret it if some sort of loyalty factor kept you from following the work."
Still, it is easy to feel emotional when talking about a broken community, severed ties, and clipped relationships. This is true even of critics, who, though they exist on the edge of the art community, still are members of it. One of the more melancholic aspects of writing about arts in a place like the Twin Cities is dealing with the comings and goings. Critics generally relish following the careers of artists they admire, seeing how their expressive skills ripen over the course of time. And we take delight in seeing the artists gain success, even feeling a small sense of vicarious ownership of that success. When such an artist moves on, there is a letdown.
Some members of the artistic community who stay in Minnesota over the long term never get over wondering about what could have been. "A lot of people are always leaving town," says local painter Nancy Robinson, who got her start as an artist back in the late 1970s, just as a large group of young people were getting set to leave. "I remember them trying to talk me into going. They all said, 'We're going to New York. Come on!' I didn't go because I was a scared bunny at that point....But we read back then about famous artists [being] like rock stars. They had tons of money. So everyone thought, 'I'll go out there and see what happens to me'...My question is, Did they go on to have other lives? Are they famous and I just don't know about it?"
Robinson goes on to mention a particular curiosity about one artist--a sculptor at the time--who left with the rest. Robinson met her on their daily bus commute through Minneapolis. "We discovered we were both artists, so we ended up having these incredible conversations about art," she recalls. "I miss that kind of energy."
Something about the vividness of Robinson's recollections and her curiosity, decades later, about this lost cohort led me to track her down. What were this artist's feelings about her old home, at 20 years' remove? Her name popped up online as an art instructor in Massachusetts, and a call to information turned up the right person--fortunately, she'd kept her maiden name professionally, even though she'd married in the interim. Caught at her current home in Concord, Massachusetts, that artist, Kathleen Volp Leonard, remembers Robinson after some prompting.
"Oh my god," she says, slightly breathless as she recollects the bus rides of her youthful days. "That's incredible....There was such an incredible community of artists in the 1970s, it just amazes me. It was an explosion of great artists. An eclectic atmosphere."
Volp was successful for many years after she left Minneapolis for New York, creating illustrations for such publications as the New York Times, Ms., and GQ. In time, though, she tired of New York and reverted to being a painter and teacher (as opposed to a highly paid illustrator), and she moved to more pastoral Massachusetts, where she now lives with her husband and two growing kids. In many ways she doesn't seem to have gotten over the community she left behind in Minnesota.
"I tremendously miss the Twin Cities. There was always an openness there. I know I'm guilty of idealizing here, but there's a world of difference between people there and people on the East Coast."
It's difficult to tell how representative Volp's response is. Do artists put on rose-colored glasses regarding their former lives in Minnesota? Or are artists truly better off for having gotten out of here?
"I'm not convinced artists have it easier anywhere else," says Paul Shambroom, who has lived in the Twin Cities for 28 years, having moved here from New Jersey. "You don't necessarily need to live where you sell."
"New York is a rather stressful place and kind of expensive," says Todd Norsten when asked why he does not consider moving there, despite showing and traveling there regularly. "I'm partially tempted, but I have a real community and the land here [in Minnesota]. I like fishing on the Mississippi and duck hunting. I don't see that happening in New York....I'm not into the stress of living in New York. I'm kind of tempted, especially career-wise, but I'd rather have a life than a career."
Ex-Minnesota artists often struggle to pay the rents in bigger cities, and they struggle to keep their lives under control. Craig Finn, who now resides in Brooklyn, says he is energized by the big city, but there are difficulties. "New York is very inspirational," he says. "The stimulus and hearing things constantly, overhearing people on the subway. I write tons of lyrics just sitting on the subway....Still, with New York, it's so much more of a hassle just to get up and go to work, then come home. I expend so much energy. I go on, then all of a sudden it's a year later."
Adam Schindler knows it will be challenging once he goes to Los Angeles to start his filmmaking career. "I'll start sweeping floors--I don't care. As long as I'm there and meeting people who are doing it....I just want to go and eat ramen out of a cup, if that's what it takes."
New York and Los Angeles are not the only expensive places to be an artist. A number of ex-Minnesotan artists complain about the relative expense of living outside the Midwest. Volp laments the cost of her adopted town of Concord: "You should see all the McMansions they're putting in. We can't afford to stay."
"It's hard to be an artist in the Bay Area," says Matheson, "especially after the dot-com boom. In the Twin Cities, people have more control of their time. Because it's cheaper, it leads to a whole cultural feel that's different. San Francisco has gone from Bohemia to a Bohemian theme park."
While many artists who leave Minnesota have had some success in the wider world, most manifest a nostalgia for the community at home. In fact, ex-Minnesotan artists have a tendency to gather with their like whenever possible. "It's funny," says Esther Robinson, who often entertains Minnesotan friends at her house, "I definitely have an East Coast brashness, but I also have a Midwest heart--sentimentality, loyalty. I love my friends." She quickly adds, though, that she would never consider going back.
Today Todd Griffin and Robinson have the kind of existence one imagines for two young and talented New Yorkers. They hustle jobs, rush from theater to film studio to music club. In New York, Griffin has all but given up seeking theater and acting work, saying the scene is too cutthroat and thankless for his tastes. Still, he has managed to reinvent himself as a musician over the past two years, recording two albums of moody music, Tortuga and Light in the Aisles, that were well-reviewed by--who else?--St. Paul music writer Jim Walsh.
"In Minneapolis," says Griffin, "there were maybe 25 people who do what you do. In New York it's thousands. It made me think: What do I want to do? What can I do that no one else can do? What is worth my effort? I suppose that's why I started recording music....That's the surprise of having moved here. I feel like I'm being plugged into a wall socket at times."
Some artists crave the stimulation and struggle of a bigger, harsher place over the safety and security of home. "New York is a marvelous city," says artist Matt Bakkom over coffee at a Ukrainian diner on the Lower East Side. "The cultural draws are great." But, he soon adds, "I want to create a lifestyle that allows me to move between New York and Minneapolis."
Bakkom still collaborates with local artists like Mark Wojahn on projects and recently showed his work at Minneapolis's Soap Factory. While chain-smoking compulsively, the spiky-haired artist speaks for a time about his ideas for reshaping Minneapolis into a more international city, "perhaps on the model of northern European cities such as Helsinki....If you do something locally in Minneapolis, it has to be recognized that it is in dialogue with what's going on internationally....This would make a lot of energy happen, and would help elevate Minneapolis, and lead people to know about it."
In other words, he seems to say, if only we could bring New York to Minneapolis, everything would be perfect.
¬ Since I started researching this story in the spring, more artists have left the Twin Cities than I can possibly document, and still more will be moving in the coming weeks. Some artists will evolve and find a new niche in their adopted homes, and others will not. Still others, perhaps caught up with the itch, will move again and again.
I have heard through the convoluted arts-scene grapevine that the Dee/Glasoe gallery is no more. It turns out that despite her love for the excitement of New York, and the thrill of being in the thick of things, Carolyn Glasoe has abandoned the city and given up her involvement with the gallery. Several days of calls to both Glasoe and Shannon Kennedy yield no reply. But, then, New York is known to slow down to a nearly Midwestern pace during the August vacation season.
The newly renamed Elizabeth Dee Gallery is closed for the month except by special appointment. After several tries I manage to get Pearl Elbino, the gallery manager, on the phone.
"Yes," she says, "Carolyn is living in Los Angeles now....She really loves New York, but she has a really beautiful house out there, and she wants to be with her husband who works in the movies....It's mostly a lifestyle change."
As Elbino speaks, I imagine endless caravans of creative people, stretching in zigzagging lines across the plains in their modern covered wagons, all seeking the perfect place to live and make art. Right now, artists are hitching the oxen to get out of Dallas, Detroit, Omaha, Santa Fe.
Or not. Ironically, our Twin Cities may be every bit as special as we always hoped--though not in the way we'd choose them to be. "Minneapolis-St. Paul is a unique place," says Kyle MacMillian, art critic for the Denver Post. "Very few places have the level of arts you have there." Places like Denver and Cleveland--according to a recent story by Plain Dealer arts reporter Carolyn Jack--don't have enough funding to support an arts infrastructure. Yet most talented Denver artists, MacMillian says, don't tend to dash off to New York but instead stick around to "try to get tenure-track positions at colleges." We have the paradoxical honor, it seems, of being a singularly robust export market.
There are signs that cities that have invested in arts and in creative people over the past few decades have tended to build thriving cultures of innovation and creativity. A much-discussed new book by Carnegie-Mellon University professor Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, asserts: "Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail, don't." He cites in particular success stories like Seattle, Austin (Texas), and San Francisco. The Twin Cities rank fairly high (11th out of 215 ranked markets) on Florida's scale. Still, that success comes at its own cost to the cities of Duluth and Dubuque and La Crosse and Bismarck--all the smaller places in the region that see many of their most talented college grads move here. (Superior, Wisconsin, could probably write its own version of this brain-drain story, and it would be a lot grimmer).
When I finally hear back from Shannon Kennedy, she is in Minneapolis and sounds happy. In the next year she has three upcoming shows: one in Frankfurt, Germany, at Galerie Schuster; one at the Charlottesville, Virginia, gallery of a former Minneapolitan, Leah Stoddard; and one at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery. She's in town for two local weddings and a family reunion. But she says--after the briefest of pauses--that she's eager to return to work in New York, despite the fact that the friend and mentor who coaxed her out there has moved on.
"I have to stay and try to make things work," says Kennedy. "I have to stick it out and see how far I can get."