The Future of the Twin Cities Arts Scene
After a global pandemic and a racial reckoning, what does the future of the iconic Twin Cities performing arts scene look like?
The feeling of stepping back into Orchestra Hall this summer was electric. Walking into that iconic downtown Minneapolis space and watching the musicians warm up as eager audience members found their seats was surreal. Could it be that we were really returning to the arts as they were before the pandemic?
Since vaccines have become available on a mass scale in the United States, there have been celebrations, if hesitant ones. But the full comeback of the performing arts, both here in the Twin Cities and across the country, is a slow curtain rise rather than a grand entrance.
After more than a year away from the stage, Minnesota comedian Mary Mack’s first live shows were thrilling. “I could have read the most boring manuscript for a legal commercial and people would have loved it, because we were all out together,” she recalls.
When First Avenue reopened this summer, CEO Dayna Frank had a similar experience. “It’s been such an incredibly enthusiastic mood, and I hope that stays for a while,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t really appreciate something until you can’t do it anymore. The ability to gather, to hear music and to have this kind of communal experience is just an overwhelmingly positive feeling.”
The ebullient reprisal of live music paves the way for other art forms that haven’t fully returned yet. Although area theater groups and dance troupes have announced their upcoming seasons, only time will tell if the Delta variant stymies those plans. And if these venues do finally usher in a long-awaited public, will the iconic Twin Cities performing arts scene be the same — or is our community forever changed? With all that’s happened in the past year and a half, it’s hard to imagine how things could go back to the way they were. So what does the future of the Twin Cities arts scene look like?
The joyful restart of in-person entertainment comes after a period of great trauma in our community, with both a global pandemic and an international racial reckoning focused on Minneapolis. George Floyd’s murder has left the Twin Cities, and indeed the nation, permanently altered. His death and the subsequent uprising illuminated the need for great change, including within Minnesota’s arts and cultural landscape.
Pimento Jamaican Kitchen was at the center of that revolution during the unrest in the summer of 2020. The Caribbean bar, restaurant and music venue located on Minneapolis’s Eat Street acted as an aid hub during that time and today has a B Corp and nonprofit arm aimed at providing resources to those on the frontlines of economic, political and social liberation. “We recognized we needed to provide healing,” explains owner Tomme Beevas. “We’re using both food and music to help bring healing to the community.”
Healing is also vitally important to artist and activist Shá Cage, who helped found the Minnesota Artist Coalition in the wake of the pandemic. “We’re learning how to name our traumas, how to collectively heal and how to be brave,” she says. Formed to support artists who suddenly had their entire livelihoods taken away, the coalition has been a source of community, conversation, support and action.
“When we talk about refocusing state dollars to organizations and efforts that are on the ground doing the work to empower Black and Brown bodies, a lot of that work is coming from activists who are also artists,” notes Cage. “They’re also learning to be healers, and I just think that’s profound.”
The group’s critique of white-led arts institutions follows a national trend. An open letter titled “Dear White American Theater,” signed by 300+ BIPOC artists including Sterling K. Brown, Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sandra Oh, went viral last summer. It called on leaders, critics, agents and the theater industry as a whole to address racism. “We see you. We have always seen you. We have watched you pretend not to see us,” it reads. “We have watched you un-challenge your white privilege, inviting us to traffic in the very racism and patriarchy that festers in our bodies, while we protest against it on your stages.”
“We see you. We have always seen you. We have watched you pretend not to see us. We have watched you un-challenge your white privilege, inviting us to traffic in the very racism and patriarchy that festers in our bodies, while we protest against it on your stages.”
The letter pinpoints how artists of color have historically been used as tokens, slotted in siloed spots while being used to attract private and public dollars. Choreographer and artist Rosy Simas, who’s seen that firsthand, questions if we’re truly at a turning point. “I’m not so sure equity and inclusion are really happening; it could just be temporary,” she says. “If you’ve been around long enough in the arts scene, you see it shift. I’ve seen the ebbs and flows of inclusion then, ‘That’s enough; let’s go back to what we were doing.’”
This criticism is nothing new. Here in Minnesota, the Twin Cities Theatres of Color Coalition — made up of Pangea World Theater, Penumbra Theatre, New Native Theatre, Teatro del Pueblo and Theater Mu — has been pushing back against the hegemony of white-led institutions for years. The coalition is working to decolonize the theater landscape, amplify the work of BIPOC artists and offer an alternative to white colonial narratives.
“The revolution is not a destination — it’s a process,” asserts Pangea Artistic Director Dipankar Mukherjee. He’s been part of the revolution since he and his wife, Meena Natarajan, founded Pangea back in 1995. From the beginning, it has been fearlessly intersectional and socially relevant.
This fall, Pangea will present the Global Future Summit, an international multigenerational convening that will reimagine a new future for performing arts based on equity, justice, solidarity, creativity and joy. “We are consciously trying to get youth from a global representation,” Mukherjee says. “How do we sustain work standing on the foundation of equity and justice?”
We’ve had months to envision how the arts can help create a more equitable and just society. While this dreaming has been happening, there’s also been a huge financial hit, and arts institutions are now crawling back from the red. As upcoming theater seasons have been announced with a noticeable lack of bold choices, there’s been a buzz: Are venues playing it safe in response to the financial realities of COVID?
Meghan Kreidler, an actor and lead singer of the band Kiss the Tiger, was disappointed by the Guthrie Theater’s season announcement. “Having former artistic director Joe Dowling direct a Shakespeare show is probably going to bring in money, but it’s disappointing,” she explains. “That’s not what people have been asking for.”
When Kreidler was cast as the lead in As You Like It in 2019, it was only the second time in the history of the Guthrie that a woman had directed a Shakespeare play (and the first time for a woman of color). “But then the next year, they had a white dude direct the Shakespeare show,” she says. “And now, they’re having another white dude direct the Shakespeare show. It’s like, Really? After 2020, that’s still happening?”
Guthrie Managing Director James Haskins asks theatergoers not to be quick to judge and instead experience The Tempest for themselves. “It’s been more than five years since Joe Dowling has been at the Guthrie,” he says, noting that Dowling has directed the play in the past. “It’s an incredible story of healing after a period of great turmoil, and I am personally very much looking forward to his return.”
Haskins pushes back against criticism about the theater’s season selection, pointing to the “incredibly high” number of female artists featured, including BIPOC playwrights Lynn Nottage and Karen Zacarías, as well as Austene Van, who will direct the Lorraine Hansberry classic A Raisin in the Sun.
He adds that the Guthrie has revised its respect in the workplace policy to include racial discrimination in addition to sexual harassment and that the theater has also tapped a diversity, equity and inclusion expert to provide staff training. “After the murder of George Floyd, it became apparent that we needed to really dive actively into that work,” Haskins explains. “We have really gone through a great deal of learning about the role of the Guthrie. We tend to want to lead in situations, and I think we have learned that there are times when we need to listen and act as strong supporters and collaborators in moving this work forward.”
But Twin Cities actor Joy Dolo isn’t sure big institutions are ready to make serious changes. “I think they’re trying to get back to business as usual — and that’s not the answer right now,” she says. She wants the industry to take a hard look at culture. “A lot of institutions are bringing in a person of color to be the diversity and equity inclusion director, but that person is still operating in an all-white system. It really takes restructuring the whole institution.”
One model that shows promise? A cohort approach, which allows for richer conversation about how to proceed with the art you’re putting on stage, explains James Rodríguez, who was recently named part of an artistic leadership cohort at the Jungle Theater. “For so long, the model has been one person at the top making the decisions — and usually, that person is a white man,” he says. “I think the hope is that if you get a group of artists from various backgrounds, you’re going to have different perspectives.”
“A lot of institutions are bringing in a person of color to be the diversity and equity inclusion director, but that person is still operating in an all-white system. It really takes restructuring the whole institution.”
The pandemic offered a pause and with it an opportunity for arts institutions to meet the world at a moment of transformation. This includes not only featuring more diverse voices but also examining how stages — and backstages — can be safer for everyone.
Amid the #MeToo era, the Twin Cities music industry has had a reckoning of its own. Prominent local stars have been called out, booking managers have been run out of town, and venues have been pressured to include more diversity on their bills.
The shakeup has resulted in an increase in gender diversity in the scene, says bassist Krissandra Anfinson, who plays with the Von Tramps, Fuzzy Machete and other local bands. She also serves on the board for She Rock She Rock, a nonprofit that empowers girls, women, trans and nonbinary folks through music. “Just over the past few years, I’ve seen more women and nonbinary folks having platforms of leadership where they can speak to our local scene,” Anfinson says.
But there’s still work to be done. In her band Fuzzy Machete, which is all women and nonbinary people, “we are definitely mansplained to,” Anfinson adds. “Our gear is explained to us on stages that we’re booked to play.”
“We’ve seen a lot of people outed in the past year in the Twin Cities music scene,” notes singer-songwriter Faith Boblett, who moved to the Twin Cities about 12 years ago from northern Minnesota. She’s encouraged by the reckoning and hopes it creates a safer environment for women and gender minorities. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” she says. “I’m hoping we start to see vigilance and calling out behavior sooner. If you see something, do something about it.”
Creating safer stages isn’t limited to sexual harassment. There’s also the need for a healthy workplace, namely a less grueling atmosphere. In contemplating the return to theater, Joy Dolo presses institutions to think about what they ask of artists. “There are certain things I would not be OK with the second time around,” she explains, pointing to the brutal two weeks of 12-hour workdays during tech rehearsals. “How has that not been fixed for so long?”
It remains to be seen how the Twin Cities arts scene will — or won’t — be transformed in the months to come. Some are skeptical that the pandemic pause will actually result in a better, more equitable landscape. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people doing the work and pushing for change. The question now is whether these efforts ultimately lead to a systemic shift. And a key player in that equation is audiences themselves.
Audiences need to “vote with their pickets,” concludes Pimento Jamaican Kitchen’s Tomme Beevas. “It has to be audience-led and audience-driven. This is capitalism, after all. We need the audience to ensure that their community is truly reflected. And I think Minnesota is ready for it; Minnesota is hungry for it. We have the resources. We have the willpower. We have the know-how to bring us to full liberation. Let’s do it.”