We Twin Citians are proud of our arts scene. Outsiders who ask us about it are eagerly inundated with proclamations about our greatness: There’s the internationally renowned Guthrie Theater, the contemporary arts hotshot Walker Art Center, new-works pioneer Minnesota Opera.
Ask anyone living outside the Twin Cities metro area, though, and the answer to a vibrant arts economy invariably falls along the coasts: New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco.
Minneapolis-St. Paul? Not so much.
What do artists living and working here have to say about the matter? They’ve chosen to be here, to vie for creative careers in so-called flyover country. Do Minnesota artists stay because they’ve tried and failed elsewhere? Because they were born and raised here and hesitate to pull up roots? Or could it be something more? Is there some truth to our boasts about Minnesota’s superlative arts scene?
Bloomington or Broadway?
The Twin Cities certainly has a healthy theater community, with more than 86 theater companies in the metro area and new ones popping up annually. For many actors, that makes Minnesota the ideal home base.
“I have exactly what I want here,” said Tyler Michaels, a 28-year-old Bloomington native best known as a musical-theater actor. “There’s a big enough support system to do things I want to do and take risks I want to take — to start a company or write a new show or do some weird performance-arty thing.”
Michaels has considered New York. He auditioned there several times, even landing a spot in the touring company for “Book of Mormon” in 2014. “I think young theater people get injected with this idea that New York is the end-all/be-all,” he said.
But then he compared New York with his life in Minnesota — major roles at the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre, a wife with a successful career in physical theater and dance. “I looked back and was like, I’m already a successful theater artist. I’m making a living, and on top of that I can have a family, a house, a garden,” said Michaels, who founded Twin Cities-based Trademark Theater in 2016.
“Minneapolis doesn’t get enough credit,” agreed actor Cat Brindisi. “Agencies in New York cast the Guthrie like they do Broadway. New plays are being developed here and shopped around the country.”
Brindisi, also 28, was raised in the Twin Cities theater world. Her father, Michael Brindisi, is part-owner of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. And her mother, Michelle Barber, is also an actor. Over the years, Brindisi carved her own niche in the local musical-theater scene, often performing alongside her husband, David Darrow. The pair even founded 7th House Theater with four other artists in 2013.
But Brindisi still couldn’t resist the siren call of New York. So she and Darrow moved there last month.
“I think it’s about specifying your own dream, it’s about figuring out what you want from New York,” she said. “For me and David, we’re ready to go to the bottom of the ladder again — to artistically try something new.”
Land of 30,000 artists
Composer Mary Ellen Childs moved to Minneapolis from New York City 30-plus years ago. At the time, she wanted to be closer to her sister and boyfriend. Ultimately, it was the state’s strong web of artists and creative channels that persuaded her to stay (the boyfriend didn’t last anyway).
“There are lots of collaborators and really good resources,” said Childs, who has received various fellowships from the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation, Minneapolis’ McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. According to the Arts Board, more than 30,000 professional artists like Childs live in Minnesota, with about 1,600 arts organizations based here.
That was a big draw for painter Michael Schmidt, who relocated from Toronto in 1993. “Right off the bat I met this really strong creative community,” he said. “My wife and I were struggling, but as I got more work, we felt like this was the right place to be.”
Schmidt started out doing large-scale murals — backdrops for Minnesota Opera, the lavish holiday displays that once adorned Dayton’s eighth floor in downtown Minneapolis. He now earns his living selling paintings — combinations of oils, wax and collage — while working on special commissions. The key, he said, is maintaining high visibility.
“You need to be in local galleries, art crawls and outdoor fairs,” said Schmidt. “You need to network, to talk to people.”
Finding buyers and landing commissions from outside Minnesota is equally important. “There’s a good art market,” he said, “but you can’t make a living on Minnesota alone.”
Painter and Prior Lake native Lindsy Halleckson put it another way: “The Twin Cities arts landscape is like an elongated pyramid. There are lots of entry-level opportunities. However, there are few opportunities for mid-career and established artists.”
Halleckson, 36, has been showing her work in Minnesota for more than a decade, but the lack of a high-end art market has her hanging onto her full-time job for the foreseeable future.
For some artists, living and working in a mid-size market helps rather than hinders. Brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey of the twangy band the Cactus Blossoms credit the Twin Cities’ strong music scene to its remote location and smaller size. “Minneapolis is a little out of the way for touring, so we don’t have quite the same flood of bands taking over,” said Burkum. “If you’re in a place like Austin or Nashville, you’re competing with everyone.”
But a rock club like First Avenue is still beneficial, with its ability to draw international acts. “We’ve been able to open for bigger bands,” explained Burkum, “to make ourselves better known in this town and then branch out.”
The Cactus Blossoms toured a lot over the past two years. The more places they see, the more they’re convinced Minneapolis is the place to be. “We have something really cool happening,” said Torrey. “It’s a creative city in lots of ways — music, art, theater. All that adds up to a cultural infrastructure that we owe to generations of people supporting the arts.”
And there’s one final quality that makes the Twin Cities appealing. “This is a place where cost of living is manageable,” said Childs, the composer, who has won commissions from orchestras and chamber groups around the world. “I love places like New York — I go there all the time. But I own a home with a studio on the second floor and a garden. It’s pretty special here.”
Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul.