Making Northfield an Art Town


Four or five years ago, a group of people gathered together in pursuit of a shared goal: to make Northfield into an Art Town. Some months later, they realized that at least two other organizations, the Northfield Arts Guild (NAG) and the NDDC, shared some of the same goals. The groups got together and have been meeting monthly for three years as the Arts, Recreation and Culture (ARC) Committee.

Three or four years ago, the Historic Middle School complex emerged as a possible site for a Community Arts Center. The vision included classrooms for young artists, live-work spaces for emerging artists, and studios for mid-career artists. For those working to have Northfield recognized as an Art Town, it was a project with great potential. For a variety of reasons, that vision wasn’t realized. (See previous blog posts on Historic Middle School.)

The ARC Committee determined to continue working towards the Art Town goal along alternate routes. They decided to refocus on programming. The group met and discussed existing activities, events and festivals as well as possible additions to the community’s portfolio of programming.

Recently some people have suggested that we should direct a substantial portion of the resources available to the arts community and use them for a marketing campaign that promotes Northfield as an Art Town. I think that if we’re going to spend money on a sales pitch, we should direct it at John Villani and invite him to be our guest in Northfield.

100bestcover.jpgJohn’s the guy that wrote the book The 100 Best Art Towns in America. The 4th Edition was published this year.

The book looks at the best Large Art Towns, with populations from 30,000 to 100,000 and the Best Small Art Towns, with populations under 30,000. The criteria includes number of galleries, affordability (regionally relative?), natural beauty (for inspiration?), local support for the arts, availability of studio and rehearsal space, frequency and impact of arts festivals, cohesiveness of the local arts community (ouch…), diversity of creative statements (?), and the infrastructure of theaters, art schools, art museums and exhibition and performance venues.

Searching for quick tips for Northfield, I focused on the Top Ten Towns Under 30,000. A few of the towns have special attributes that made me question their applicability to our situation. Naples, Florida, Provincetown, Massachusetts and Aspen, Colorado all combine incredible locations with phenomenal household wealth. But what can we learn from Northampton, Massachusetts, Kerrville, Texas and Traverse City, Michigan?

foursundays.jpegNorthampton is “a prime example of what small towns dream of when they envision re-energizing their downtowns” with galleries, ethnic restaurants, night clubs, independently owned clothing stores and locally owned bookstores. Northampton also offers “a supportive arts community and a well-developed arts infrastructure, with studio spaces priced within reach”. The five colleges in the Northamption area each have an Arts Museum with specialized programming and contribute to the local art scene. Music is an important part of the art scene’s vitality. There are several venues for a variety of music and entertainment, The Northampton Community Music Center is home to year-round music education and The Northampton Arts Council presents a calendar’s worth of dance, theatre, film and music. Finally, the community also hosts an Independent Film Festival and is home to The New Century Theatre, a resident professional stage company.

muwa_gallery.jpegKerrville is as widely known for its rodeo as it is for its art. It does, however, have three major art museums. The community has embraced its history and much of the visual arts at these facilities is painting and sculpture focused on western themes. The community also has an excellent reputation for its jewelry. The historic Arcadia Theater is home to The Western Movie Theater, which is dedicated to screening old cowboy movies. There are two facilities for the performing arts which offer year-round programming. Most intriguing to me is the Kerrville Folk Festival, two weeks surrounding Memorial Day that draw thousands of music lovers from around the country and the Kerrville Wine & Music Festival over Labor Day Weekend that has been a regional draw for over a dozen years.

baysidestage_photo.jpegTraverse City admittedly has some pretty nice beaches. The annual Cherry Festival is a nationally recognized “blow-out week of partying” and features big-name entertainers on an outdoor stage along the waterfront. The community also offers a free, weekly Jazz at Sunset concert series (which is being researched by our local newspaper’s publisher who happens to be a member of the ARC Committee). There are also weekend live-music shows and weekly poetry readings at Horizon Books all-year long which serve as gatherings for the region’s creative community. The nearby Interlochen Center for the Arts offers a year-round arts academy and a summer arts camp; its programs serve all levels of students throughout the region. The area boasts six different performance spaces and a dozen galleries. The thriving vineyard industry certainly doesn’t hurt the ambiance.

So what tips did I gather from these examples? 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 clearly increases during “the season”, the programming, education and community get-togethers continue all year long. Finally, the institutions, be they the colleges of Northampton, the foundations of Kerrville or the academy 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.

Fortified with this new knowledge, let’s get back to John Villani. We could start him at Bridge Square and, of course, take him to the Northfield Historical Society to get him quickly up to speed on the James Gang. We could then walk him down to the NAG to be impressed with the “diversity of creative statements” in the member show, continue down to ArtOrg so that he can see the high-school honors show and marvel at the arts education program in our public schools. Then to Chapati for a buffet of some of that ethnic food he apparently so enjoys. After lunch, we could visit the Carleton campus and see the Japanese Garden and then climb the hill to St. Olaf and take the sculpture tour. For dinner, how about Hogan Brothers for some local acoustic music with his hot hoagie. Then out to the new Middle School for a performance by the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra, swing into Art-On-Water for an opening, a night cap at the Contented Cow with the Nordic Jam and to the Archer House to be serenaded to sleep by the St. Olaf Choir …

…okay, we’d have to script this last event but you get the idea. We could put together a heck of an Art Town experience for Mr. Villani for the price of a plane ticket, a hotel room and a few meals. Maybe I Cantanti could sing a few tunes while he had coffee and a scone at Goodbye Blue Monday and a matinee at the Little Theater before heading off to the airport. For less than the price of a marketing campaign, we could be listed in the book.

But maybe it’s not about getting into the book and maybe it’s not about a big campaign in some glossy magazine. Maybe it’s about recognizing what you already have in place and celebrating it with anyone who will participate and promoting it to anyone who will listen. Maybe it’s about leveraging existing assets and investing in necessary assets. Maybe it’s about assembling and focusing resources so that the world can’t help but notice that Northfield is an Art Town. Maybe it’s about coming together and getting it done.