WINONA, MINN. – At 2 p.m., Dave Obst was fighting a sweltering afternoon as he established a line of lawn chairs in Winona’s Lake Park.
“This is the highlight of the year for us,” said Obst, the first person to establish a viewing beachhead for the opening night concert July 6 of the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. “We get to all the concerts.”
Obst is just the kind of person Winona needs to stoke the arts festivals and destinations that are shaping a new identity for this southeast Minnesota river town. He and his wife, retired music teachers, moved here 11 years ago from Austin, Minn., and found lots of artistic flavor. The highlights, he explained, are threefold.
“First you have the Beethoven Festival. Second is the Minnesota Marine Art Museum — have you seen that? You really need to see that — and the third is the Shakespeare Festival.”
Combined, these three sell roughly 50,000 tickets a year, and have instilled an enthusiasm for the arts in the city that shows up in smaller but top-rate events such as Boats and Bluegrass, the Mid West Music Fest and the Frozen River Film Festival.
The bonhomie of these temporal occasions is the best leverage Winona can hope for as it pursues a vision of transforming this community of 27,000 into a place amenable to artists, alongside industry, retail and outdoor recreation. With two universities and a community college, the Mississippi River, incredible bluff country and a rich history, Winona wants to be a place where artists live and work.
“Winona is waking up to its potential,” said Lee Gundersheimer, the city’s arts coordinator.
He made theater in New York for 30 years before decamping to Minnesota several years ago. “We don’t have an arts economy yet, but that will be the next phase.”
A classical Wizard
While Gundersheimer tries to build infrastructure, Winona’s reputation owes to its festivals — which require less brick and mortar. Ned Kirk, working out of his home, has drawn Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Garrick Ohlsson, opera star Thomas Hampson, the Canadian Brass and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to the Beethoven Festival.
The festival’s director since its founding a decade ago, Kirk is coy when discussing his coups — almost like the Wizard of Oz, not revealing his tactics behind the curtain.
“I don’t really talk about that,” he said. “Some of that is a secret. Look, everything in life is relational.”
Indeed, it must be whom Kirk — a professor of piano at St. Mary’s University and a concert performer — knows, and whom those people know.
When the festival was in gestation, Kirk said, his first call was to Osmo Vänskä at the Minnesota Orchestra.
“It gave us instant credibility, and Joshua Bell booked before we had our first concert,” he said.
The Beethoven Festival sells about 5,000 of its 5,200-ticket capacity, a robust 95 percent.
“This is an incredibly strong arts community,” he said, ticking off the museum and the festivals. “It’s unique to have so many different things.”
Shakespeare is the thing
As Kirk watched the turbulent skies at Lake Park the other weekend, understudies at the Great River Shakespeare Festival were running through an afternoon rehearsal.
This year artistic director Doug Scholz-Carlson has programmed two Shakespeare plays, “Richard III” and “The Comedy of Errors,” and two smaller contemporary plays, “Shipwrecked: An Entertainment” and Lisa Peterson’s “The Iliad,” for the season that continues through July 30.
He has been at every one of the festivals — for years as an actor and fight choreographer, then succeeding founder Paul Barnes in 2015.
When it was launched in 2004, promoters suggested the festival might someday achieve its own venue, lengthen its season and sell more than 40,000 tickets. It hasn’t worked out that way. While the fest has nearly doubled its budget since its first year, attendance peaked at 11,295 in 2012 and dipped last year.
“We started bigger than we really were,” said Scholz-Carlson, who is as charming in real life as he appears on stage. “We spent a long time catching up to the shows we were putting on stage. We didn’t have a managing director or other infrastructure. The stock market crash of 2007-08 forced us into a lot of debt.”
The Shakespeare Festival is not alone to blame for its stasis. Winona itself has struggled to create the amenities and atmosphere that help festivalgoers do more than simply sit in a college auditorium and watch theater. The city needs higher-quality restaurants, art galleries, theater and dance spaces and roadhouses that attract tours. In addition, concrete levees keep downtown Winona separated from its greatest asset — the Mississippi River.
There’s more to be done
All these issues contributed to City Manager Steve Sarvi’s decision in February to hire Gundersheimer, who had spent a couple of years as managing director of the Shakespeare Festival but was looking for something else.
“Arts and culture are one of the three legs of the stool we need to transform Winona,” Sarvi said, “and we needed someone to spearhead that effort.”
His vision includes an arts district, anchored by a refurbished Masonic Temple that includes a 300-seat performance auditorium, rehearsal space, work studios and perhaps artist housing. Nearby, Winona State University is locating its school of art and design in a historic office building, which would include classrooms, art galleries and work spaces and spin off the energy of design students.
He muses whether the two-year Minnesota State College Southeast might initiate a culinary school, which could feed an underpowered restaurant scene. “We’re really missing that foodie-network stuff,” Sarvi said.
Gundersheimer dreams of transforming a 1,200-seat middle school auditorium into a roadhouse for performance (“it would take $10 million just to look at this”).
And a private developer is considering a plan for a boutique hotel on the riverfront, with apartments nearby, a restaurant and retail space.
Sarvi knows of what he speaks. He was administrator in Lanesboro in the 1990s, when the arts began to redefine that small southeastern Minnesota town. And in Watertown, west of Minneapolis, he led an effort to create a promenade on the Crow River.
There is more to be done, particularly with outdoor recreation, the second leg of Sarvi’s “stool.” For all its natural beauty, a visitor to Winona is not able to pull a bike off a rack, pedal a few yards to a paved trail and spend an afternoon traversing 20 to 25 miles of riverfront and islands. Yes, there are road shoulders to travel, but casual riders like bike trails.
There also should be a kayak or canoe outfitter (entrepreneurship is the third element in Sarvi’s vision). If you do find something to paddle, you’d better keep your head up for barge traffic. Industry, which is essential to Winona’s economy, is a heavy-footed partner in the river dance, giving generously to the arts. The Minnesota Marine Art Museum, for instance, has quietly assembled a blockbuster collection of water-inspired work, bankrolled by the co-founder of Fastenal, a multibillion-dollar hardware supply company headquartered near the river.
“Winona is steeped in history and has a diverse local economy of big and small, but we’re looking for more transformation,” Sarvi said. “We want young people to stay, midlife returnees, retirees who ascribe to this vision. How do we connect art to the local economy, to the schools, the people?”
Good questions. And Winona is trying to come up with answers.
Making art in a rural place
Matthew Fluharty was driving between Minneapolis and St. Louis along Hwy. 61 on a warm April afternoon a couple of years ago when he decided to check out Winona. He looked around at Ed’s No Name Bar and the Yarnology shop, a center for local crafters, and he heard about the upcoming Mid West Music Fest.
“I went up and looked at the river from the levee and I texted my wife to google Winona,” Fluharty said. He left his job at Washington University in St. Louis, packed up his family and moved to Winona.
He is the executive director of Art of the Rural, a collaborative organization that promotes rural narratives in arts. In Winona, he found willing partners to find a building in which he could work and invite other artists to work, host webinars, exhibit art and stage events such as a hot-dish tournament or an indoor Kubb (a lawn game) tourney.
“Something that gets people together and helps them survive winter,” he said.
The group’s downtown space, Outpost, features a gallery show of photographs by Jon Swanson, curator at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. Surrounded by large black and white portraits of folklorists, sculptors, potters, painters, teachers, parents, designers and retailers, it is as if the creative class of Winona is staring at you.
“My dream show would be an exhibition of WinCraft pennants,” Fluharty said, referencing the Winona company that makes sports memorabilia. “All these things that are made in Winona.”
He and Swanson often end up on Friday evenings at Ed’s No Name Bar, the nearby watering hole where artists and like-minded travelers gather.
“There are artists who eke out a living here,” Swanson said. “It’s not as visible as in the Cities, but there is a creative class. The smaller festivals have a huge constituency locally.”
‘Finest part of the Mississippi’
Storm clouds threatened as members of the Minnesota Orchestra grabbed a meal before the Beethoven Festival opener. But a burst of wind and a few sprinkles were all that resulted from the tempest, and by the time the band played the “1812 Overture,” a cool pink sunset was framed by the surrounding bluff country.
“This is one of our most appreciative audiences,” said associate conductor Roderick Cox. “It’s the only festival we play out in the open, uncovered.”
The weather kept the crowd down, but everyone seemed to have a good time — from the parents doing playground duty, to a group of prospective students visiting St. Mary’s University, to the rows of local patrons who planted their chairs for an evening of music in the park. This was an occasion, as it is every year.
“Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new,” said Mark Twain in an 1886 interview. “There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages — everything one could desire to amuse the children. Few people ever think of going there, however.”
It amused Twain that so many people had read accounts of other travelers and decided the place was not for them. Find out for yourself, Twain shouted.
Now Winona is asking people to come for themselves, to sample the experience and form their own opinions about what Twain called “the finest part of the Mississippi.”
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune arts journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.