by CHRIS ROGERS
An "arts ecosystem" — that is how the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) Executive Director Andy Maus and Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Managing Director Lee Gundersheimer have described what is happening in Winona to a Twin Cities news agency. The phrase calls to mind a town lush with a diversity of art forms and artists, as thick as leaves on the jungle floor, all sprouting up independently but feeding off each other. It is not just public relations. Winona has a lot of art. Jamie Schell carves furniture in stunning shapes, performance artist Billy X Curmano sleeps on nails and buries himself alive, Harry Mechell conducts the symphony orchestra, and Lynette Power casts life on the big river into bronze — to say nothing of the festivals, theater productions, gallery exhibits, poetry nights, concerts, and university programs that speckle Winona events calendars. What Winona has sometimes lacked is a group that got all of these creative folks together under one roof and made the most of their numbers and their imagination. The River Arts Alliance (RAA) hopes to change that.
Ibrahim Butler fired up a circular saw and let the blade rip through high-tech laminates meant for forming canoe hulls. While Butler held the piece up against the fence of homegrown communications company on the edge of Winona's downtown riverfront park, Julia Crozier took a step back and held her chin. When it was positioned just right, they secured it in place with made-in-Winona nuts and bolts.
Butler and Crozier worked last weekend toward completing the first phase of RAA's Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC) fence project, a project the late Bernadette Mahfood worked for years to organize before she suddenly passed away this winter. The project seeks to beautify the entrance to Levee Park and the fence that surrounds HBC's dish array with materials from Winona manufacturers We-no-nah Canoe, Current Designs, and Fastenal, and murals painted by Winonans at RAA's annual Family Art Day. It is perhaps the best representation of what RAA hopes to do: to promote local art, to make it more visible, and to build relationships with the city and with businesses.
The River Arts Alliance got its start back in 2006. It was an outgrowth of the city of Winona's Blue Heron Project. Since then, the group has organized Family Art Day and spearheaded a project to beautify HBC's fence at the entry to Levee Park. Late last year, the group became a full-fledged 501c3 nonprofit organization, which means RAA can do more to win grants and gather donations to fund local artwork. It aims to be the umbrella group for Winona arts, artists, and arts organizations from the universities and the festivals to individual artists and amateurs getting their start. RAA promotes members' events with email blasts and press releases. It aims to connect Winona area artists with each other and with opportunities. It also aims to strengthen partnerships between the arts community, city government, and local businesses.
"We have so much talent in this town," RAA Board Char Vicki Englich said. Arts of all kinds — visual, musical, theatrical, literary — bring visitors to Winona and bring joy to Winonans, Englich explained. "I just feel like we're having a renaissance here in Winona," she added.
Englich and her fellow RAA organizers want to cultivate more of the same, by supporting emerging artists, promoting established arts groups, and advocating for the arts.
Some Winonans have argued that Winona needs to pick from its multiple identities — college town, manufacturing town, arts town — and focus on one, that Winona cannot excel at all of them. Englich disagrees. "Yes, we are an arts town. We are a college town. We are an outdoor recreation town. We are a manufacturing town. We are a historic town … I believe we can have a unified vision incorporating all of those things. It's not a zero sum game," she said. Some business leaders have pointed to the symbiotic relationship Winona businesses have with arts organization, with businesses sponsoring events that help them attract and retain workers.
"It's all interconnected," Englich said. "There's something for everybody with the arts. It enriches our lives."
Crozier and Butler have more work to go on the HBC fence project. They hope to complete the first phase soon. Next, the RAA plans to raise funds to extend the project the length of the fence.
For more information on the River Arts Alliance — including information about its board of directors, its members, and how to become a member — visit riverartsalliance.org, call Vicki Englich at 507-454-1215, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.