Championing Northfield as an Art Town

This column ran in the July 6 edition of the Northfield News.

For the past four or five years, various groups and individuals have been working to have Northfield achieve greater recognition as an “art town.”

In fact, as many of us know, Northfield is an art town. However, we’re an art town with a little “a”. With just a little more recognition, we could put that big “A” in our title. Recently some people have suggested that we should use a substantial portion of the resources available to the arts community and create a full-time art town position, commission a city cultural plan, and pursue a marketing campaign that promotes Northfield as an art town. I don’t think it’s the way to earn that big “A”.

Creating and funding yet another position to work on shared goals is not the best use of limited resources. Let’s support existing staff and efforts instead.

I won’t finish the usual comment about “yet another plan.” I will suggest that instead of making the community’s leaders feel like they’ve done something for the arts, through the writing of a plan, we should actually do something for the community’s artists, liking investing in the arts.

The Northfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city, the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, the Northfield Arts Guild, ArtOrg, the Northfield News, the Northfield Historic Society, the public library, several churches, a number of businesses and both colleges already make sincere, if sometimes random, efforts at promoting Northfield as an Art Town. Let’s better focus these existing efforts instead of launching a new campaign.

Perhaps the best way to go from being an art town to an Art Town is to get into John Villani’s book, “The 100 Best Art Towns in America.”

The criteria Villani uses includes number of galleries, affordability, natural beauty, local support for the arts, availability of studio and rehearsal space, frequency and impact of arts festivals, cohesiveness of the local arts community, diversity of creative statements, and the infrastructure of theaters, art schools, art museums and exhibition and performance venues.

Searching for ideas, I focused on the Top Ten Towns Under 30,000. Perhaps we can learn a few things from Northampton, Mass.; Kerrville, Texas; and Traverse City, Michigan.

These geographically diverse communities have a number of things in common.

First, Art Towns celebrate and promote all art forms. There is visual art in the galleries, classes, dance and theatre in the art centers and music everywhere.

Second, they offer life-cycle art programming. There is education for developing artists, supportive infrastructure for emerging artists and professional opportunities for mid-career artists.

Third, they service both residents and visitors. Although activity increases during “the season,” the programming, education and community get-togethers continue throughout the year.

Fourth, the institutions, be they the colleges of Northampton, the foundations of Kerrville or the academies of Traverse City, are all connected to the communities. There appears to be a seamless sharing of performances and spaces between the valleys and the hills.

Finally, these Art Towns have distinctive characters. Northampton has a thriving downtown filled with galleries and clubs. Kerrville has cowboy movies, western art and a folk festival. Traverse City has weekly jazz concerts, year-round poetry readings and a nationally recognized festival that features live entertainment on an outdoor stage along the waterfront.

Heck, we’ve got all of that in Northfield. So let’s start acting like an Art Town with a big “A”.

We’ll celebrate all the art forms in our community, dance, drawing, jewelry, music, painting, sculpture, theatre and writing. And let’s recognize game programming, the culinary arts and graphic design too.

We’ll appreciate our life-cycle programming, with kidsART, ARTech and the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium. Let’s also praise the arts programming in our public schools and private colleges that favorably compares with any in the state.

We’ll present programming for residents and visitors. Recognizing venues that include the NAG’s Little Theater and Carleton’s Arena Theater, the First United Congregational Church and the Upstairs Rueb, Hogan Brothers and ArtOrg, Bridge Square and Central Park, we’ll share Shakespeare and Simon, Bach and Monk, high-school painters and middle-aged sculptors, noisy storytellers and silent movies.

We’ll promote connections between the colleges and the community, public schools and businesses and even philosophically differing arts organizations. We’ll work for a seamless sharing of performances and spaces between the valleys and the hills.

We’ll champion Northfield’s unique character. We’ll remember Ann North’s inspiring creativity and Joe Heywood’s unyielding courage. Our artistic visions will include cows and mills, rivers and canoes, colleges and cafes, bricks and mortar, contentment and commitment.

So instead of plans, positions and campaigns, let’s just get out and enjoy the arts — make that the Arts — in Northfield. Catch some music, attend a performance, visit a gallery and, perhaps most important, praise an artist. We’ll build the buzz that earns that big “A”.