The theater postponed its shows, then postponed them again.
But Bethany Lacktorin wanted to keep the doors of the New London Little Theatre open. So, this summer, she began opening them for one person, then another. Art by appointment, she called it.
As a performer who’s crafted shows for small audiences, the format wasn’t new to Lacktorin, the theater’s program director. But in this central Minnesota city of 1,400, it was “very unfamiliar to a lot of people,” she said. Those “brave enough to come” to the Museum of Portable Sound heard snippets of audio from across the world, collected by a man across the world. Later this month, she’ll launch another, maybe more experimental work.
“I thought, let’s try it,” Lacktorin said.
Art by appointment, art by Zoom, art by any means. Across Minnesota, mega arts institutions and individual artists alike are trying new ways of connecting with audiences despite — and because of — the pandemic and the uprising following the death of George Floyd.
They’re staging shows on patios, on porches, on a baseball field. They’re filming and screening works that illuminate injustices online, outside darkened theaters, on a screen strung between grain elevators. They’re exhibiting new work in windows, on plywood, on fences.
At a time when many are struggling financially, artists and organizations are still making work, making sure that Minnesotans can process all that’s happening in their state and their world through paintings and song, radical posters and one-on-one experiments.
Buy an artist’s screen-printed T-shirt and you might be funding a Black-owned bookstore.
“There’s a lot of beautiful mutual aid happening — artists doing it by and for other artists,” said Anniessa Antar, activation specialist at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “We don’t need these big institutions ... and I think that’s super-inspiring.”
With its Third Thursdays, which Antar plans, the museum is highlighting some of those projects, inviting folks to screen-print their own posters with the People’s Library.
Working for change
Little looks like it did a year ago. This fall, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will be playing to empty halls for virtual audiences. At the big museums, masked visitors touch no screens. Stages remain dark.
Behind the scenes, too, artists are making changes. A diverse, cross-discipline group led by artists of color is meeting weekly, brainstorming ways to make the scene more equitable. They’ve released a mission statement and a letter, calling for the Minnesota State Arts Board to rethink its grants, but much of their work will bear fruit in upcoming months.
“It’s powerful to see us come together in one space and think about: What kind of future do we want to see in the arts community of Minnesota?” said Leslie Barlow, a painter known for her portraits exploring race and family. “You really hope that the white-led arts organizations and foundations that we’re trying to push aren’t seeing this moment as a trend, but as a moment leading to lasting change.”
Weeks into the pandemic and feeling melancholic about art’s purpose, Barlow began painting small portraits of her friends as seen through Zoom. They were quick, soothing. Then came the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, just three blocks from her home. Barlow doesn’t think of herself as a muralist. But she spent her summer planning and painting vibrant pieces on plywood with a collective dubbed Creatives After Curfew. Other projects got pushed back.
“We wanted to give space for people to paint out their frustration, their anger, their sadness,” she said. “To amplify these messages of hope and solidarity and Black liberation.”
This month, Barlow and six artists in her Studio 400 incubator program opened a show — via videos, photos and a virtual artist talk — at White Bear Center for the Arts. As curator, she started writing the show’s summary, about resilience and uncertainty, late last year. But as the exhibit was pushed back, it gained urgency. So did the artists’ work, created through the pandemic and amid protests.
Barlow’s two charcoal drawings capture the making of the murals. “I was thinking a lot about ... the act of memorializing and honoring the current times in which we find ourselves.”
Creating a new future
Those times have altered the means and meaning of some long-planned works.
When it debuted in Philadelphia before the pandemic, the knotty exhibition “Designs for Different Futures” was filled with touch screens and headphones. Now it’s been reinstalled at Walker Art Center, but all the sound is projected, overlapping, adding chaos to a show that feels darker thanks to a few dim rooms and, maybe, the state of the world.
Amid news articles declaring the end of the handshake and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statement that “I don’t think we should ever shake hands again,” curators asked artist Mark Henning to update his piece “Normaal,” an analysis of the handshake. “Before, it was a more cerebral take,” said Emmet Byrne, the Walker’s design director, overcomplicating a not-so-simple gesture.
Now, on the floor, visitors can trace arrows along a complex map that might lead two people to assess the risks, meet in the center and, through a hole in some plexiglass, shake hands. Or, more likely, not.
The show, more broadly, is no utopia. Design is no savior. Artists grapple with inequities in present and future tense.
“The show was conceived before this moment,” Byrne said. “But we’re hoping people come away from it with a little more of the sense that they can create their own futures. There’s no one future that is going to happen to them. They have the agency to critique it or envision it.”
Not ready to go to a gallery? Watch the exhibit’s films online.
Online is where many arts experiences have lived lately, by necessity. This fall brings new virtual playlets and mini-operas. MSP Film Society plans to continue its series “We the People,” spurred by Floyd’s death, on a bimonthly basis.
Next up: “Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story” on Oct. 4, a documentary about a Minneapolis-rooted alto sax player who was a protégé of Charlie Parker. The next day, MSP Film Society programmer Craig Rice will interview its director and writer, plus two musicians in the film.
These screenings, paired with Rice’s thoughtful Zoom conversations, are “an extension of what we’ve been doing for years now at the Capri Theater” on Minneapolis’ North Side, said Susan Smoluchowski, the Film Society’s executive director.
The protests added urgency, and she has been trying to find ways to fund the series’ continuation. “We don’t want to let this energy go.”
Taking it outside
On a Monday in early September, a small audience — spread out and sold out — gathered at the Icehouse under trees and, eventually, darkness.
The Sound Verite residency at the south Minneapolis club has been in the works since late last year, when shows were still indoors. But the title came to Jon Jon Scott a few months ago: Things Fall Apart. It’s a reference to the Chinua Achebe book, the Roots album and the moment, with a poster featuring a protester, his fist in the air.
Icehouse has featured Monday-night jazz before. “But to me, it’s always been the white jazz night,” said Scott, who runs the local record label Sound Verite and hosts a KFAI Radio show of the same name. So on Monday nights in September, Scott is bringing together Black musicians — among them, Omar Abdulkarim, Lady Midnight and Dameun Strange — to play jazz or, just as often, “not-jazz.”
“I wanted to gather Black, avant-garde musicians and have them run amok,” he said. “What would that look like?”
Icehouse has booked these outdoor shows since early July and, so far, has announced concerts through the first weekend in October, with Kiss the Tiger and Mayda. It’s a smart setup, Scott said, but one that “can only go as long as the weather.”
Outdoor concerts on porches and pickup trucks, too, are having their last gasp before snow blankets us all. Monica LaPlante performed atop a van and is planning a rooftop gig in October. Members of the Minnesota Orchestra have popped up in parking lots and outside senior living facilities.
In August, the orchestra hosted small chamber-music concerts outside Orchestra Hall on Peavey Plaza.
Audiences felt safe, said Michelle Miller Burns, president and CEO. But “we’re aware moving indoors is a big shift.” So the orchestra decided to play for an empty hall, broadcasting Friday night concerts starting Oct. 2 on Classical MPR and Twin Cities Public Television. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which has long streamed concerts, made a similar call and will be webcasting six new Ordway concerts beginning Oct. 3.
“The artistic decisions are second, now,” said Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. “The first thing is to keep people safe.”
Vänskä spent the summer conducting the Seoul Philharmonic, which grappled with “exactly the same questions,” he said. How many players? How many audience members? The Minnesota Orchestra is requiring masks and limiting the number of musicians onstage. There are COVID-19 tests and light quarantines.
It’s not ideal, but Burns and Vänskä are embracing the possibilities. “I hope there are some people who are going to open the TV ... who are not used to coming to the concerts,” Vänskä said. “I hope we can find new friends.”
A trial run Sept. 12 started with a piece by polyglot Devonté Hynes, continuing a pledge made for the Peavey concerts to feature at least one Black composer per show. Cameras eyed the percussionists’ precise, bouncing hands. Then came Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen,” a piece for strings composed in the closing months of World War II, an aching ode to opera houses lost. For the first time in nine months, Vänskä led the players from the podium, drawing their distinct voices together.
Then, facing the empty seats, the musicians bowed.