2001 was a heady time for Duluth's underground music and arts scene. Low's new record was indie-huge, the NorShor Theater and other venues hosted frequent shows by solid local acts, and an alternative weekly, Ripsaw News, was asserting its voice and documenting the scene. Duluth's creative class was getting a lot of attention, and the city seemed primed to become a smaller version of Omaha, Austin, or Minneapolis.
Four years later, the scene still appears strong: Another new Low record is poised to explode (see review), new bands are cropping up regularly, and some venues host live music almost every night. But the Duluth underground is still mostly broke, and a series of setbacks has darkened the local scene. The NorShor and Ripsaw News are both struggling to survive. Some ventures are dying out of the gate. Suddenly the life of Duluth's alternative arts community seems quite fragile.
For starters, constant debt closed the huge, historic NorShor in October 2003, and has kept the theater's managerial revolving door spinning since it reopened in April 2004. (The theater originally reopened in 1997.)
"At the beginning of November we looked at the overall numbers and said, 'There are going to have to be some radical changes,'" says Craig Samborski, who had co-managed the theater with Duluth entrepreneur Chip Stewart since July of last year. "Eventually we called it quits."
Another blow was struck at the turn of the new year. January passed with no Ripsaw. So will February and March. Publisher Brad Nelson says the publication, which became a monthly last winter, might publish as early as May. If reorganization fails, he says, he may be too spent to continue.
"We've been around for six years, and we've always struggled," says Nelson. "January, February, and March, especially, are always slow for us, but we've always absorbed the losses. What's different about this year is that we decided to stop and see what we could do to move the Ripsaw toward being an institution that's safe from the financial winds."
And three weeks ago, the Twin Ports Music and Arts Collective (MAC) went bust after barely a year of existence. The nonprofit was organized by arts advocates in their 20s and 30s whose dream was to foster a self-sufficient arts community via performances and exhibits at a small storefront space in downtown Duluth.
Even in a community that's used to the ebb and flow of local entertainment, the trifecta of business casualties is an especially vicious setback. Duluth's art scene, says Nelson, is "vibrant, with some heavy hitters, but it's really small, and trying to support a few venues and have someone to write about what happens at those venues requires a lot of support."
And in Duluth, there's only so much support to be had. Band members often outnumbered their audiences at MAC shows, especially on nights with multiple acts. NorShor attendance is proportionally similar--the theater draws more people than the MAC did, but it's also enormous (three separate areas total some 16,000 square feet) and expensive to operate.
Nelson and Samborski agree that the same problem might always loom over Duluth's underground: In a small city with limited resources, only a finite amount of underground creativity and growth will ever be supported.
Duluth City Councilor Donny Ness sees the issue differently. "Duluth does need to do a better job of promoting its resources," he says. "But I think this cycle--a burst of energy followed by a burnout, then a new burst of energy--is a sign of a healthy arts scene. If it doesn't have a chance to become stagnant, then nothing becomes institutionalized. Turnover creates opportunity for new people."
New NorShor manager J.P. Rennquist envisions the same opportunity mentioned by Ness, but his basic plan--to make the NorShor a neighborhood gathering spot by booking lots of local artists and establishing consistent theme nights--rehashes similar ideas that have failed for multiple managers before him. One difference: Instead of booking national acts on his own, as Samborski and Stewart did, he'll allow promoters to host them (Papa Roach is planned for March, and Mason Jennings is penciled in for April).
Maybe the most significant new element is his optimism. "Beauty and community are going to be our hooks," says Rennquist, who took over last month. "I believe that if we build those, finances will come in."