On a recent afternoon, Andrew Maus, the executive director of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, led a visitor through the Winona museum’s contemporary gallery with its water-themed paintings and photographs by emerging artists in an exhibit called “Surfacing.”
Eventually, Maus worked his way to a back room, where paintings by Picasso, Matisse and other greats hung on the wall. He noted, in polite Midwestern reserve, that one piece on display — Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware — had once hung in the White House.
It seemed a fitting introduction to Winona’s arts and culture scene, which is a bit like the museum itself: well known, but only fully appreciated after a closer look.
The museum opened in 2006 and has become a popular destination for art seekers in the Midwest; Maus estimates that 30,000 people will visit over the next year. It also serves as a complement to several festivals — including the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the Minnesota Beethoven Festival and the Frozen River Film Festival — that have fueled a creative revival in this city of 28,000.
“Winona is a city that truly gets the arts,” said Lee Gundersheimer, who is beginning his third year as the managing director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, which is also a theater company. “And they know what it can do for a community.”
Maus and Gundersheimer, during an interview at the museum, used phrases such as “systemic arts economy” and “arts ecosystem” in explaining the popularity and growth of arts outlets here. Like sports teams, they agreed, arts can help craft a community’s identity.
“People are not just coming for a specific experience and moving on,” Maus said. They see something, shop, eat. “It’s about experiencing the nature of the place.”
Indeed, a recent report published by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and a coalition of groups that support the arts calculated the annual economic impact of the arts in Winona at $4.7 million (a figure that combines spending by arts organizations and their audiences).
More broadly, the economic impact of the arts in an 11-county region of southeastern Minnesota was calculated at $25.6 million annually. The report found that 122 nonprofit arts and culture organizations in the area provide the equivalent of 716 full-time jobs and that about 724,000 people attend arts and culture events in the region each year.
In nearby Lanesboro, a transformed farm town of 750 people, Main Street drops below the bluffs into a stretch of shops, restaurants and the Commonweal Theatre; former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny, who now runs the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation in Owatonna, referred to Lanesboro as a “five-star example of what small towns can be.”
Penny added that “cultural expression through the arts” must play a role in the economic growth of small towns, especially if they hope to attract millennials, who expect cultural richness to be a part of wherever they live.
Many communities that have developed viable arts and culture scenes also offer classes, said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. In Grand Marais on Lake Superior’s North Shore, for instance, people can learn how to carve wood or take photographs at the North House Folk School.
The Marine Art Museum hosts events as well, including a program for people with memory loss and art classes for children.
Gregg Aamot is the author of “The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees” and teaches English at Ridgewater College.