Summer in Minnesota is brief, beloved.
So we pack it full. Full of festivals and art fairs, outdoor concerts and block parties. Every second inside feels like a waste and every episode watched feels like an opportunity missed. Sweaty and smiling, we fill benches and band shells, parks and blocked-off streets, to listen and to watch.
We appreciate, more than folks in fairer climates do, the rare alchemy that a summer performance or art festival affords — the moment when a loon harmonizes with an orchestra, when the breeze blows through an open studio. But this summer, because of the pandemic, block parties, art fairs and small-town festivals are being canceled, one by one. On Friday, the festival of them all, the State Fair, was scratched.
The calendar calls this summer. But suddenly, that calendar is bare.
“It’s a big bummer,” said Nadirah McGill, drummer and vocalist for Gully Boys, a Twin Cities rock trio that was set to play some of the state’s best outdoor shows, including Rock the Garden and Memory Lanes Block Party. Instead, on a recent Friday, the band rocked a livestream from a wood-paneled basement. The audience: a camcorder.
“Playing outside — I don’t know — it hits different,” said McGill. “It feels so fresh and open.”
McGill loves performing at those shows, with the quick turnaround between acts, the spiky uncertainty of the weather, the raw energy of the audience. The drummer loves going to those shows, too, ambling down a blocked-off street and hearing music in the distance.
But this summer, to keep people safe, Memory Lanes has been called off. The Basilica Block Party and Twin Cities Jazz Festival are scotched. Soundset is off, too (although the hip-hop fest was called off in January, pre-world-shakeup).
Most art fairs, including the Loring Park Art Festival, have been canceled, too. The Stone Arch Bridge Festival shifted from June to September. The Guthrie’s summer musical? Cut. The Great River Shakespeare Festival? Not this year. Even some beaches are closed.
“We can pretty much say that summer is canceled,” said Melissa Walker, who has compiled calendar listings for the Star Tribune for two decades. “In all my 20-plus years of being queen of the calendars, I have never, ever seen anything like this.
“It’s like the entertainment industry has completely vanished.”
Since the pandemic hit, Walker’s ever-growing list of what’s canceled and what’s postponed has swelled to include dozens of festivals, from Lumberjack Days to the Lowertown Blues and Funk Festival, from Lake Minnetonka’s July 4th fireworks to Juneteenth. No Irish Fair of Minnesota, no Hmong International Freedom Festival.
“Keeping up with it has been sad and dizzying,” she said.
The cascade of cancellations might have started with Rock the Garden, the June music bash beside the Walker Art Center, called off in early April. Until then, at least, fans were holding out hope.
“I felt like, I am personally canceling summer today,” said Rachel Joyce, the Walker’s spokesperson, who had to announce the bad news. Since then, more bad news: The Walker’s mini-golf course, each hole designed by an artist, has been nixed. So has its hillside Sound for Silents concert, pairing live musicians with silent footage.
Behind each canceled event are superfans who have shown up from the start — and have dozens of T-shirts to prove it. Vendors who count on the income. Communities sustained by gathering, year after year.
Darcie Baumann remembers attending Twin Cities Pride for the first time in 1999 and “finally feeling at home.”
“We all enjoy our summers. We all enjoy our festivals,” said Baumann, who now chairs the nonprofit’s board. “But Pride is some people’s homecoming. It’s some people’s coming out.”
Sure, there are virtual versions of these things. Twin Cities Pride, which typically gathers some 350,000 people over two days, will stream a parade June 28, stitched together with video clips from would-be attendees. Art-A-Whirl, northeast Minneapolis’ music-and-beer-drenched art fest, launched online last weekend. Its capable website reflected the depth of the neighborhood’s arts community. But at 5 p.m. on a cloudless Friday, it felt a little strange to be staring at a screen.
“Everyone in Minnesota has a limited window to do things,” said Emily Foos, executive director of Red Wing Arts. In that Mississippi River town an hour south of the Twin Cities, “June’s always the busy month.”
In the past, every Wednesday evening, several hundred people would gather in Red Wing’s downtown park for a concert. They packed picnics, poured wine. Children danced in the grass. Everyone, it seemed, was there, Foos said. “Family and friends, teachers you remember from 20 years ago.”
It’s a tradition that’s spanned 50 years. But this year? Canceled.
Red Wing Arts is weighing other, safer venues. Porches? Cars? “We are looking at ways to pivot and say, how can we still connect the community?”
Looking for ‘a different way’
It’s likely no surprise that summer makes up an outsize share of Minnesota’s $16 billion tourism industry: About 37% of traveler spending falls in summer, a breakdown by Explore Minnesota shows. “That is the heart of tourism in Minnesota,” said the state agency’s director, John Edman.
This summer, Edman suspects people will stay closer to home and stick to outdoor activities. Typically, the department spends half of its budget luring nonresidents from farther-away places. Now it’s spending more of its marketing dollars in state.
Throughout Minnesota, festivals and gatherings are being called off — “a big loss,” he noted. A canceled festival ripples in the economy, and a virtual version won’t inspire the same spending on food and travel. “We’re going to have to wait and see how a lot of these things transform.”
The cancellations have highlighted the breadth of the events, including a penchant for festivals dedicated to individual ingredients — the Rhubarb Festival in Lanesboro, Wild Rice Days in McGregor, the Minnesota Garlic Festival in Hutchinson. They’re not just daylong diversions. A single festival can sustain an organization or a small city.
Ely’s three-day Blueberry/Art Festival, featuring some 290 artists, draws about 40,000 each year. Canceling it, as the Chamber of Commerce did in April after three days of discussion, was “the hardest business decision I’ve ever had to make,” said Dave Sebesta, vice president of the chamber’s board of directors, in a Facebook post. The festival is the organization’s “financial life blood,” as Sebesta put it.
But he knew well the consequences of holding it this year. Just days earlier, he lost his stepfather and stepfather’s companion to COVID-19.
“Generally stating, the chamber’s mission is the health and well-being of our business community,” he wrote. “During these unprecedented times, that can be shortened to simply ‘community.’ ”
See you next summer
At a luncheon March 5, Minnesota Orchestra President Michelle Miller Burns described to ticket holders and donors the scene they’d encounter on Peavey Plaza at the revamped, rebranded Summer at Orchestra Hall. Food trucks and pop-up markets. The orchestra’s first free outdoor concert on the plaza in more than a decade.
Weeks later, it became clear they’d have to wait another year.
“When artistic colleagues came to me to suggest that we consider postponing, I have to say I was dumbfounded,” Burns said. “How can this possibly be happening?”
By then, the orchestra had nixed its tour to Vietnam and South Korea and had discussed restructuring the rest of the season. “But I hadn’t quite gotten there with summer,” Burns said. “In the end, we didn’t want to deliver a halfhearted festival or see this exciting program dismantled piece by piece.” Looking back now, “I feel strongly it was the right choice.”
The Minnesota Orchestra is still scheduled to play outdoor concerts. In early August, it’s set to perform in Hudson, Wis., and at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Then, as it has for nearly 50 years, it will play outdoors in Plymouth.
But things change quickly, Burns noted. The orchestra is weighing guidance from government and health care professionals, plus common sense. “We will know by early July what it’s going to look like for August.”
In the meantime, its musicians are popping up on YouTube. About 30 teamed up with Dessa for a stay-home version of “Skeleton Key.” Flutist Adam Kuenzel harmonized with his pup. Cellist Tony Ross played Edvard Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song” with his mother-in-law on piano and his basset hound at his feet.
Bonnie Palmquist has tuned into this one-dimensional arts world via her laptop. But she misses live performances “terribly.”
All the things the Minneapolis resident loves about summer are canceled — or are in danger of it. Concerts at Lake Harriet Band Shell. The Midsommar Celebration at the American Swedish Institute. Guthrie shows, Minnesota Orchestra concerts. She’s mourning the little moments she’ll miss, including the girls at the Swedish Institute braiding flower wreaths for their hair.
“Summer is special,” she said. “The days are long and you don’t have coats and boots and hats and gloves. You can just put on your sandals and your shorts and go out the door.”
A few years back, Palmquist was sitting at Lake Harriet, listening to the band play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” when a plane flew overhead. She felt lucky — lucky to be outside, to be living in Minnesota.
But she still feels fortunate. Each morning, Palmquist brews coffee and, with a cup in hand, walks around her yard, seeing what flowers bloomed overnight.