Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett
There’s nothing subtle about a brass quintet—especially not one playing in a brewery. But before they posted up in front of Sociable Cider Werks’ fermenter tanks in February 2015, the lead brass musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra looked like any other Sociable patron: jeans and button-downs, pints of beer and cider in hand, happy to be indoors on a cold night in Northeast Minneapolis. The crowd eyed them curiously at first, unsure about the unorthodox live-music choice of French horn, tuba, trombone, and two trumpets. But the wariness dissipated as the quintet, which goes by Uptown Brass when playing outside of Orchestra Hall, started playing. By the time they took a break, they were chatting comfortably with audience members about how classical music isn’t as stuck-up a genre as so many people assume it to be.
It’s an apt example of the reality of the arts world in 2016. Where season-ticket holders and lifetime members once accounted for the majority of museum- and theater-goers, arts organizations now must appeal to the young, the cash-strapped, and the time-crunched in order to stay relevant—and open.
It’s no easy task. Relevancy is a moving target in today’s fast-paced, entertainment-saturated society. This is especially true for traditional arts establishments—places built on the assumption that if you present it, patrons will come. Where it used to be enough to put together a season and open the doors, today’s audiences want a say. They want to see themselves represented on stage and know the backstory of what they’re seeing and how it was made.
More critically, they want to know why: Why should they allocate their few expendable dollars to attend a performance or exhibit? Why should they spend their evening at an art museum instead of a taproom? Why should they expose themselves to art they might not understand and that forces them to be outside their comfort zone?
The arts play a large role in the identities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Within this 3 million–resident metro area exist more than 70 not-for-profit theater companies; dozens of performance venues, museums, galleries, and arts centers; multiple music and arts schools; and countless musicians. Organizations considered national and international leaders in their respective fields—the Minnesota Orchestra, Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), Walker Art Center, Guthrie Theater, Minnesota Opera, Children’s Theatre Company—are casually mentioned in the same sentences as start-up troupes. It’s a tight-knit, highly exposed community of art makers, curators, and appreciators, all mixed into a rapidly morphing demographic.
In Minnesota in 1960, just 1 percent of the population identified as being a race other than white. Today, 19 percent of Minnesotans identify as being a person of color. More than 125 languages and dialects are spoken in the region. By 2040, it’s predicted that populations of color will make up 40 percent of the state’s residents.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s white population—historically the key demographic of arts supporters—is aging. The median age of white Minnesotans in 2015 was 41, the oldest of the state’s 17 major cultural groups. In comparison, the median age of the next most populous groups—African Americans and Mexicans—was 24 and 23, respectively.
These shifting demographics represent an opportunity as well as a challenge for Minnesota’s arts organizations. There are thousands of individuals with unique backgrounds, interests, and stories waiting to be sought out and welcomed in. But engaging with this potential audience requires crossing language, socioeconomic, and cost barriers. Add in shifting audience expectations—regarding communication, engagement, digital accessibility, and time commitments—and you arrive at a daunting crossroads: Do you continue along the path that’s been successful for 50-plus years, or do you opt for a new route in the hopes that it will lead to success for the next 50-plus years?
“If you’re an organization and you’re out of sync with your environment, you have two choices,” says Kevin Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra. “You can change the environment or you can change yourself. And guess what you have more control over? We can’t change the environment, so we’re going to change.”
The Minnesota Orchestra isn’t the only local institution that’s adapting to the times. Mia, Walker, Guthrie, Minnesota Opera, and Children’s Theatre Company are also opting for change when faced with this question. They have invested in new staff, programming, and campaigns. They have researched, renovated, and redesigned everything from their physical spaces to their monikers. Some have already seen a return on their efforts; others are still waiting with fingers crossed.
More important than the specific changes being made is the universal belief among the organizations that change is necessary. Not just to stay profitable, but to inspire wonder, challenge preconceived notions, enrich communities, nurture artists, make diverse works accessible, and illuminate the common humanity connecting Minnesota to the world. That is the goal. Here are the paths being explored to achieve it.
Founded in 1903
Old Rep: Unapproachable. Dysfunction. Begrudging performer of pop concerts.
New Reality: Nimble. Brings classical to non-traditional spaces. Willing to play along with Harry Potter.
Kevin Smith has never run an orchestra before. He’s an opera guy, serving as president and CEO of the Minnesota Opera from 1986 to 2010. During his tenure, he grew the company’s annual budget from $1.5 million to $9 million, doubled attendance, and created the Minnesota Opera Center. Then he retired. Sort of.
In the aftermath of the Orchestra’s volatile 16-month musician lockout, it was clear that the organization needed to make some changes. So when then-president and CEO Michael Henson resigned, the orchestra approached Smith, asking him to come out of retirement, become their new president, and help lead the 113-year-old organization out of a place of brokenness back to a place of strength.
Orchestras used to be powerhouses within their communities—cultural flagships signaling that their city was a worthy arts center. The Minnesota Orchestra, founded as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1903, was that way. In 1923 it became one of the first orchestras to nationally broadcast a performance. It traveled the world and put Minnesota on the classical-music map.
But for all its accomplishments, the orchestra wasn’t immune to shifting societal trends. Attendance for classical music concerts has steadily declined over the past two decades, while the average age of patrons has increased at a rate faster than the overall population. This, coupled with the battle of staying relevant in today’s ever-changing culture, plunged the Minnesota Orchestra into a $6 million budget deficit in 2012.
The board responded by suggesting musician salary cuts of up to 30 percent. The musicians balked, and when the two sides couldn’t reach a compromise, the lockout ensued. It lasted from October 2012 to January 2014, finally ending when the musicians agreed to a 15 percent cut in pay and benefits in return for more say in artistic decision-making.
Change has happened quickly and often since. The $52 million renovation of Orchestra Hall was completed just prior to the lockout’s end. Programming was adjusted. Internally, the organization reshaped its corporate culture to focus on inclusion, communication, and big-picture brainstorming centered on getting outside its bubble and into the real world.
“We can’t just expect and ask people to come to Orchestra Hall. We need to get out into the community,” Smith says. The results of that new attitude can be seen both inside Orchestra Hall and out in the community. Collaboration concerts with local musicians—The New Standards, Okee Dokee Brothers, Dessa—are attracting new audiences. A growing relationship with St. Paul’s Hmong community promises a future of education and partnership opportunities. Multimedia concerts, like this December’s performance of the score of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone while the film is shown on a large screen, showcase the musicians’ talent in a new light. They’re talking project ideas with the Vikings, playing in breweries, hosting happy hours, and offering ticket deals to students, first-time attendees, bicyclists, and pretty much anyone else who asks.
Basically, they’re doing everything they can to overcome people’s stereotypes of orchestras being stuffy and unapproachable. “I think we’re willing to step out of the box as an organization in a much broader way than we were willing to do before,” says Smith. “We are here to serve the community rather than for the community to support us.”
Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia)
Founded in 1915
Old Rep: "Missing in action." A little cold.
New Reality: Hashtag-friendly. The people's museum.
The tweet—a photo of a sparkly gold iPhone in mid-Pokémon GO action—wouldn’t be out of place if it weren’t for the accompanying message: “Spotted: Zubats on the museum steps! #PokemonGo players welcome, please mind the art while you’re catching ’em all!” it reads, tweeted by Mia on July 12, 2016.
Mia underwent its most recent moniker change in August 2015. It was one of 52 “birthday surprises”—weekly celebrations of the institute’s 100th anniversary. It’s the museum’s second identity tweak in 10 years; the last one, switching from The Institute to M.I.A., took place in 2006.
Kristin Prestegaard, Mia’s chief engagement officer, was there for both rebrandings. “‘M.I.A.’ means ‘missing in action,’” she says. “‘Mia’ means ‘mine, my own, beloved,’ and in lots of different languages. That’s exactly who we are: Mia is mine, whether you’ve been here once or 100 times. Thinking about the future generations who we hope will enjoy Mia, we hope that’s going to resonate with them a lot more than M.I.A. or The Institute.”
Mia’s roots reach back to 1883, when a group of Minneapolis residents founded the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts. The grandiose museum, located just south of downtown Minneapolis, opened in 1915.
More than a half-million people visit Mia annually, taking advantage of the free admission (implemented in 1988), attending events, or participating in one of the many programs. Everyone from teenagers to families to book clubs is targeted, and the staff is constantly trying to reach anyone they might have overlooked. “We take seriously our role as the people’s museum,” Prestegaard says. “Being here for 100 years, being close to downtown and Uptown, having a heart in this diverse neighborhood, being a free institution: How do we continue the legacy that’s been built, that we consider the core of who we are?”
Part of continuing a legacy involves taking what exists and adjusting it accordingly. One of the ways Mia is doing this is by showcasing its galleries in new ways. One of the most successful endeavors has been the monthly Third Thursday events, featuring food and drink, live music, and special programming like Artoberfest, for which local breweries made beer inspired by artwork. Other efforts have been more subtle, like adding seating vignettes throughout the galleries and remodeling the lobby to feel more welcoming.
The success is in the numbers: Mia had its best fiscal year ever in 2015 and has had four years of record-breaking attendance. Membership is at an all-time high and endowment is up. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the fact that the average visitor age has decreased from 46 to 40—a big deal considering that the opposite is true for most arts organizations.
Using the momentum of the last few years, Mia’s next steps involve getting to know its audiences better: asking people why they come, how they like to engage, and presenting Mia’s 89,000-plus objects in approachable, “bite-sized” ways.
Much of that involves going digital. In June, Mia unveiled four initiatives designed to put what’s inside the museum into people’s hands. There’s Journeys, a mobile app that allows visitors to follow and create custom tours; Overheard, a site-specific narrative audio app; My Mia, a customizable website dashboard; and ArtStories, a storytelling platform that shares the backstories of popular objects.
The more Mia loosens up, the more people embrace its open-minded attitude. One such person is local musician Mark Mallman, who shot parts of his “It’s Good To Be Alive” SnapChat music video at Mia, going so far as to face-swap with the art. Most museums would consider that disrespectful of the work, Prestegaard says, noting that Mia might have even been in that camp five years ago. But not anymore. “We love it,” she says. “It’s exactly what we want. People are going to create, and we’re going to let you. That is engagement.”
Walker Art Center
Founded in 1927
Old Rep: Too cool. Challenging to a fault.
New Reality: Still challenging, but tempered by populist touches like mini golf.
Perched atop Lowry Hill, Walker Art Center glows, all silver and glass, open expanses and sharp angles. Right now there are also cranes, bulldozers, and dump trucks milling about, filling the space where familiar installments had stood in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden since 1988.
There’s purpose behind the chaos: The redesigned park and entrance is the key to the Walker’s upcoming reboot—the essential element through which the contemporary arts haven hopes to shed its stereotype as being the too-cool teenager of Minnesota’s arts family.
“When we reopen the Sculpture Garden next summer, that’s the moment that the public will really see all of the work that is being done to shift the perception of the Walker as a place that’s very austere and unfriendly to something that is really for everybody,” says Nisa Mackie, director and curator of education and public programs.
The Walker has existed in one form or another since 1879, when lumber baron Thomas Barlow Walker opened his home to the public to view his private galleries. That evolved into the Walker Art Galleries, built on the current Walker Art Center site in 1927. The name changed around 1940, and since the 1960s the center’s main focus has been contemporary art. It currently ranks among the five most-visited contemporary arts museums in the United States.
The Walker’s appeal to modern-art lovers doesn’t always translate to its immediate community, however. Mackie points to the increasing percentage of students of color in Minnesota as an example of a demographic she feels the Walker is currently not reaching. To remedy that, the center is launching two new programs next fall: one focusing on English Language Learner (ELL) students, of which there are just under 65,000 in Minnesota; the other involves social narrative and sensory tours geared toward people on the autism spectrum—a response to the fact that 1 in 48 children aged 7 to 9 in Minneapolis are autistic.
To better get to know the surrounding community, Walker staff members participate in events like the Somali-American Independence Day Festival and FLOW Northside Arts Crawl. They visit YMCAs, BLIND, Inc. (a blindness training center), Intermedia Arts, and Juxtaposition Arts, getting to know people and asking them what they’re looking for from the Walker. They bring what they learn back to the center and use it to direct their next steps.
Some of their transformation involves smaller-scale changes. Front-of-house staff and guards are being trained to be more welcoming. Signs are being rewritten to be more clear. Navigation in and around the center is being simplified, and even the T-shirts are being tweaked, going from black to muted gray with emoji-inspired smiley faces.
It all adds up to being more approachable to more people. It’s something the Walker has been testing out for years, with events like Rock the Garden or the now-defunct Cat Video Festival, free admission on the first Saturday of the month, and artist-designed mini-golf. And the Walker is hoping that message comes through when it launches its new entrance this November and restaurant this December, as well as the renovated Sculpture Garden next June.
“My dream for the Walker is that the community sees us as a place that’s not just for a special occasion [or] ‘art pilgrimage,’ but as a space where you can come and hang out regularly,” Mackie says. “You don’t have to build yourself up to engaging with contemporary art. You can just come to the space and the engagement will happen in the background; you won’t even realize it.”
Founded in 1963
Old Rep: Insular. Slightly highbrow.
New Reality: Focused on reaching the underserved. Cool with you popping in for an Instagram shoot.
With its yellow-tinted ninth floor and blue bridge stretching out over the Mississippi River, it’s as if the Guthrie Theater was designed for the Instagrammers constantly swarming around it. That the theater’s new location opened in 2006, four years before Instagram took over the world, doesn’t matter. Its siren call as the backdrop for like-worthy shots is just as strong.
Where outsiders are currently drawn to the theater’s architecture and color palette, Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj hopes they’ll soon come for the diversity of work and sense of belonging. “A lot of our focus here is spending time thinking about how to make the walls of this building as porous as possible,” Haj says. “About how to give this theater away to the community we are charged to serve.”
Haj became the Guthrie’s eighth artistic director following the 20-year tenure of Joe Dowling, and enters the role at a time of prosperity. The theater ended its 2014–15 fiscal year in the black, and attendance across its stages increased by 6 percent over two seasons. It’s a testament to the strong support for theater in the Twin Cities, Haj says. But it’s not the whole picture. “There are entire populations that are underserved by us. We are strategizing constantly about how we can make this theater mean more to still more people.”
One such strategy is the Level Nine Initiative. The three-year plan dedicates the ninth-floor Dowling Studio to work that “addresses present-day issues, facilitates dynamic conversation, highlights a diversity of voices, and engages underserved community members.” Much of it will be produced by local artists, and all shows will cost only $9.
This August, the theater followed through on the initiative’s mission by offering two free performances of Carlyle Brown’s solo project, Acting Black. The show riffs on “the roots of American racism and its consequences for us all” and, along with post-show discussions, is being used as a lens through which audiences can process recent local and national events.
Offstage, the Guthrie is adding a director of community engagement to seek out Minnesota’s underserved communities and find out how the Guthrie can be of use to them. In an effort to be as transparent as possible, the theater is taking cues from millennials and keeping their social media feeds buzzing with videos, behind-the-scenes photos, artist Q&As, and other insights into life à la Guthrie.
As for programming on the main stage, Haj is committed to using as diverse a creative and artistic team as possible. “We’ve become deeply interested in thinking about through whose lens we view these stories—who are the directors, designers, and lead storytellers conceptualizing, conceiving, and thinking about approach to the stories,” he says, the “stories” being classical works—largely dominated by white men—that make up roughly half of any given Guthrie season. “If we believe classic plays belong to all of us, then ensuring that we have diverse and plural voices in the artists that we’re hiring to interpret those plays is an area of real focus for us.”
It’s this diversity that will make the work the strongest it can possibly be, he says. “Artistic excellence has to be at the center of everything we do. The work has to be excellent, entertaining, thoughtful, smart, provocative—has to be all those things that we want a great theater to be,” he continues. “And we want to do it in ways that are in real service to the community. I think the most useful parlor game exercise an artistic director can play is asking oneself: What would be lost from the community if this theater were to close its doors? If the answer to that question is ‘10 well-made plays a year,’ that’s just not good enough. We have to be far more important to our community than the fact that we make nice plays.”
Founded in 1963
Old Rep: Lots of capes. For true connoisseurs only.
New Reality: Great place for dipping a toe in the genre. Staging unorthodox shows like The Shining.
“Opera is the original multimedia art form,” says Minnesota Opera president and general director Ryan Taylor. “You’ve got the supertitles at the top, you’ve got your drama, there’s dance, there’s costumes, there’s an orchestra in the pit, and there are all kinds of places for you to look, all kinds of places for your senses to be engaged.”
Taylor didn’t grow up listening to opera. In fact, he readily admits to disliking it when he was younger. But he loved singing, and when someone from his church sent a recording of him to an opera company and the company asked if he’d be in the chorus, he said yes. The rest of his life has been spent on and around the stage, including with Minnesota Opera in 2000 as a resident artist. He’s been in his current role there since May 2016.
Taylor admits the art form isn’t for everyone. But just as someone who hates one horror movie shouldn’t write off all film genres, someone who attends one opera and hates it shouldn’t dismiss all operas. “Especially with this company,” he says. “Minnesota is one of the industry leaders in the production of new work; we’re constantly creating things that are out-of-bounds for the traditional opera-goer.”
For instance, this spring, Minnesota Opera presented the world premiere of The Shining. It was the latest production developed through the company’s New Works Initiative, and it sold out more than two weeks in advance. The initiative is a defining trait of Minnesota Opera, spawning such productions as the 2011 one of Pulitzer Prize–winning Silent Night, and it has helped it grow into one of the largest, most innovative companies in America.
Another way Minnesota Opera attracts new audiences is through programs like Tempo, a $50 membership option for people ages 21 to 39 that includes discounted tickets, special events, and classes. For children, teachers, and adults not in the Tempo age range, there are camps, behind-the-scenes tours, master classes, pre-show dinners, and myriad other opportunities designed to showcase opera in a fresh way.
But Taylor wants to do more. Offering rush tickets to shows like The Shining. Or performing in smaller theaters—even bars. Maybe doing something with the Walker or Mia. “I’m super interested in the idea that when you create something worth having, everyone should be able to get in,” he says. “We have the ability to do some things that are different and unique, so that if you’re an art lover, there’s something for you outside the main-stage opportunities to connect with what we do in different ways.”
The 2017–18 season marks Minnesota Opera’s 55th anniversary. While the company will continue to pursue new ways in which to portray its art, Taylor says it’s also embracing the elements of opera that have kept it around for all these centuries. “There’s just something sort of primal about having someone stand in front of you and sing at you with no amplification,” he says. “Opera audiences are more vocal in their applause and their cheering. . . . It only goes to reason that if you’re sitting there and someone goes ‘AHHH!’ at you, you’re likely to go ‘AHHH!’ back.”