Monday, December 17, 2012

Area Voices: Art Buzz in the Northland

The Twin Ports arts scene seems to be especially vibrant right now. Does it seem that way to you and how has it gotten this way? What have been the driving forces that are making this happen?

I asked these questions to several people involved in the arts here locally. Eric Dubnicka, a local artist who also works as preparator at UMD's Tweed Museum, affirmed my impressions and explained some of the reasons as he sees it. "I believe a number of factors are involved in this movement. An emphasis on the revitalization of the downtown area is key, as it focuses much of the activity. Additionally, there are more jobs for younger people, especially creative types, ebbing some of the “brain drain” that has always plagued the area. I’d also point to the increase in bars with music, such as the Brewhouse, Pizza Luce, etc. which created an incubator of sorts for young artists of all types to meet and be involved. It created a 'scene.' Additionally, there have been more opportunities for UMD and other institution’s students to get involved by volunteering and exhibiting, giving them experience and involvement in the community before graduating.

Heino's Windswept Chickadee
Photographer John Heino added this perspective. "The rich natural beauty of the area has always been a magnet for artists and other creative types. It is a source of inspiration, and it contributes in a major way to making the Twin Ports a place where people want to live. The past few years, I think, have been about a number of energetic local leaders trying to make other key factors as friendly to artists as the place itself."

Heino went on the point out that "not coincidentally, interaction and cross-pollination have been steadily increasing since the Knight Creative Community Initiative's Art Works team brought 300 arts, business and community leaders together for a focused dialog on how the arts could help drive economic activity in the region. Kat Eldred, Art Works Co-chair, is now the executive director of the Duluth Art Institute. Countless spinoffs from the Art Works conference continue to this day, producing tangible results such as the Phantom Galleries project in Superior."

"In roughly the same time frame as Art Works," Heino added, "formal and informal leaders emerged in the Twin Ports who are promoters and advocates of the arts. Mayor Ness and several city councilors have supported the arts to a much greater degree than many of their predecessors. As a modest but important example, local art is now rotated through the City Council Chambers."

Klefstad's Waters
Artist/author/critic Ann Klefstad's comments were also affirmative, passing along some of her own acknowledgments as to why this is so. "Yes, it does seem more vibrant. People are finally filling up the Sheraton and casino parking ramps in the evening. That never happened before this year, in my memory. And there are more galleries: Ochre Ghost, Prove, the potential Nordic Center, along with the established Washington Center, Lizzards, DAI, and more . . .

"What have been the driving forces that are making this happen? I think there are a lot of them. Crucial drivers have been longtime players like The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council and their use of Legacy funds to both underwrite artists and understand the needs of doing work in this area, and to provide career training and contacts for regional artists. Other key people have been the Zeppa Foundation¹s Zeitgeist spaces and the energy of the people who have worked there over the years: Tony Cuneo, Kat Eldred, Crystal Pelkey, Andy Bennett, Katie Helbakka, Tim Masset, Johnathon Olsen, lots of others---and the Duluth Art Institute and the great energy of Annie Dugan and the rest of the crew . . . The whole Homegrown crew and Jason¹s outfit at Beaners . . . . Even the growth in creative brewing that started with Dave Hoops at Fitgers and now has driven the creation of all these great creative food/booze places . . . There have been many, many people working for many years to build this critical mass. But I think now that kids coming out of UMD in the arts and in music and theatre are seeing this energy and adding to it, bringing their talents into the mix. The performance of Spring Awakening this year at Renegade, which totally knocked my socks off, used many students in the cast, and they were dazzling. So the contribution of the universities’ fine arts departments which are doing great work is also important."
Although there has been excitement about the arts in the past with waves that advance and recede, there is one thing especially different this time, which Dubnicka points out. "I’d also add that social media has played a major role, allowing exhibits or performances to reach a wider audience with a small budget, incubating viewership."

Klefstad concurs. "And of course the factor that was always missing, in a city where the social street is snowed under half the year, is communication among artists and with audiences. And so here in Duluth Facebook and its ilk have made a huge difference in everyone knowing what¹s happening and with who. Perfect Duluth Day started this web-arts thing off, and is still a great contributor, but I would definitely put social media into the mix as a driver of the current ferment."

Everyone agrees, something's happening here. What it is just hasn't been defined yet. Twin Ports Arts Align: the ball is in your court.

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