Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Jamie Robertson of New York Mills Regional Cultural Center

New York Mills, Minnesota

All photos courtesy New York Mills Regional Cultural Center

The summer puppet festival celebrates the region's Finnish heritage.

Located in west central Minnesota's lake country, the town of New York Mills has been dubbed "one of the top five culturally cool towns" by USA Today Weekend Magazine. Today, we're speaking with Jamie Robertson, executive director of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, on how the arts have helped to revitalized the community.

NEA: What's the history and mission of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center?

JAMIE ROBERTSON: The Center was founded 20 years ago when the agricultural economy in the upper Midwest was changing rapidly.  Towns like New York Mills, which depended on farming, saw the numbers of farmers (who, of course, were the business customers in town) drop precipitously. Businesses began to close on Main Street.

A coalition of the city government, businesses, and civic-minded individuals was set to do something but didn't know what exactly. Enter a young fellow from the Twin Cities named John Davis who proposed a solution: start an arts retreat and cultural center in one of the old buildings in town that was scheduled for demolition. And see if the arts could contribute to a revitalization of the small business economy that is the backbone of towns like New York Mills.

A business owner, Harold Karvonen, donated his 1883-era,two-story, brick mercantile store. A Small Cities grant to the city and many private donations resulted in the renovation of the building into a visual and performing arts center. Twenty years later, the center is going strong, and new businesses have sprung up in town. This model is now being emulated by many small towns in the region. The arts economy is growing stronger and providing quality of life opportunities important to young families who work at the Lund Boat Works in town and to retirement-age folks seeking to participate actively in the arts as audiences and as artists.

NEA: What are some of the center's signature programs?

ROBERTSON: Our 1883 brick building houses two art galleries, a dance studio, and a gift store where the work of local artists is sold. Our next exhibit in the main gallery is historic photographs of the region coupled with current photographs by local residents. This Sense of Place show tells a lot about the land and the people who live here. The center mounts exhibits of regional art each year. The community's strongest cultural influence is Finnish in this area known as the "Finnish Triangle."

Music, poetry, theater, and dance are practiced in the building all year round. The young singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell starts out our fall concert season on September 3rd. Dance classes for school-age kids make use of the studio on the second floor, learning ballet, jazz, and hip hop. Regional poets like Ellie Shoenfeld of Duluth give readings and teach writing at the center.

Artists from Minnesota and many other states take advantage of our Arts Retreat program. Artists who apply for retreats use our retreat house for stays of two to six weeks as they work on literary, visual, or the performing arts. And, we operate a sculpture park in one of the many city parks here in town.

Festivals throughout the year characterize the life of this small town and the center. February sees a winter celebration with skiing, snowshoeing, and environmental education. In April, 700 children and their parents fly kites that each child has designed and built herself. June is the month of the philosophy debate, the Great American Think-Off. August is the Puppet Pageant in front of Central Park in New York Mills with larger-than-life puppets acting out stories from the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala.  September is the Whiskey Creek Film Festival, and December brings the Longest Night Music Festival, a free community concert with many regional musicians.

New York Mills Regional Cultural Center is located at 24 North Main Avenue in New York Mills, Minnesota, about 180 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

NEA: What's the Great American Think-Off?

ROBERTSON: John Davis also came up with the idea of the Great American Think-Off, a philosophy contest for everyman and woman. Each year the center releases a new question for consideration on January 1st. This year's question was "Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor?" We solicit from all parts of the nation, and, on May 1, four finalists are selected and invited to participate in the live debate of the question. The debate happens on the second Saturday of June each year and the audience votes on the winner who reigns for one year as "America's Greatest Thinker."

The debate is lively and fun, and it truly provides an inspiration for me and many others. On a beautiful June evening an auditorium full of people comes inside to hear and evaluate arguments on significant issues of philosophy. This is strong medicine to heal the complaint of the most confirmed cynic among us about America and our future as a nation. Anyone can enter the contest and send in a letter on-line or by mail.

NEA: What's the role of the artist in the community and how does the cultural center help facilitate that role?

ROBERTSON: One of the best things about life in rural Minnesota is that everyone has a real chance to participate actively in the life of the commuity---in civic affairs, business, and in the arts. It is amazing to me to see how many people are practicing artists here. And, because artists want to engage with other people, they need a space---a place such as Ivan Ilyich would have called a convivial institution---where they can share their work with the community. The Cultural Center strives to be such a place. Like the Great American Think-Off that assumes we are all philosophers in some sense, the center assumes we are all artists, creative people making a future for our children.

NEA: Given the center's mission, how might you define "public art?"

ROBERTSON: One example of public art is our sculpture park---and not just because there are art works in the public space of a park. One of the projects at the sculpture park was to have a community "iron pour" to make castings of ears of corn that each family designed. Families put their names and images of significance to them on unique ears of corn. These ears sit atop a steel corn fence surrounding the park. Another example is the annual Puppet Pageant. Kids and adults come together to make a story and build puppets, write and play the music, choreograph the movements, and perform the story of the ancient myths of the Finnish people. The entire community is invited to become artists through this event.

NEA: What do you hope that participants in your programs and events gain from the experience?

ROBERTSON: Every arts organization has to relate to participants in a transactional way. We sell a concert ticket, and the audience attends an entertaining  event. This kind of relationship keeps arts organizations in business, but it doesn't explain the ancient desire of people to create art that still flames today. We try to recognize and honor that each of us needs art because it is the means to a transformational experience. In some mysterious way, the arts allow us to experience being human more fully. The art isn't the end but a means to an end that helps us all build stronger community.

NEA: Any thing else you'd like us to know about the center?

ROBERTSON: The Center has been around for 20 years now and it remains, happily, a work in progress.  Because it grows out of a lively and vibrant community that continues to grow and to change, the Center is always changing.  One of or newest projects is to sponsor week-long seminars about the history and ecology of this region of Minnesota and the way artists use this environment as they make their art.

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