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Small town. Big art. (12/04/2013)
By Sarah Squires
Winonans know what river city has to offer, from world-class Shakespeare to hometown galleries and small venues that provide music and art year-round. For the last few years, Winona has celebrated itself as a true arts destination, a place that offers more music, visual art, and theater than just about any other town its size.

But in some parts of the state and broader region, Winona's plethora of arts attractions is little more than a well-kept secret. For a community that has set the arts table for the enjoyment of visitors and residents alike, the next step is to spread the word, to market, to collaborate and create a "brand" for Winona. This week, representatives from arts organizations across Winona gathered to collaborate and share ideas about how to collectively market the city as a destination for the arts.

With six or seven annual festivals drawing thousands of visitors to town each year, combined with "anchor" organizations such as the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) and Winona County History Center offering arts experiences year-round, Great River Shakespeare (GRSF) Festival Managing Director Lee Gundersheimer said now is an opportune time for organizations to collaborate more to promote the city. "We can really say now we are a city of festivals," he said. "It's time to really start promoting it and believing it. The more that we talk about it as an important phenomenon, an important asset to the community, the more it will be true."

Rochester is on the verge of a major expansion, with the Mayo Clinic's "Destination Medical Center" project, and a projected 35,000 to 45,000 in related new jobs. The Winona region can benefit from Rochester-area growth, attendees said, but Winona arts must be aggressively marketed — now — in order to capitalize on regional growth and cement its reputation as the principal arts destination in the region. "They're interested in retaining people to work in the medical industry," said Gundersheimer. "We can be their San Francisco. We can be their Greenwich Village."

"Small town, big art," was one slogan that the group discussed as a possible new way that individual arts organizations could help "brand" the city within their own marketing materials. It's a slogan similar to what GRSF Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson said was that festival's most effective marketing slogan: "Small town. Big drama."

Visit Winona Director Pat Mutter said it was a motto her organization had used in the past, and shared the mission of Visit Winona with the group. Mutter said her annual $300,000 budget, funded with lodging taxes collected by the city of Winona, was used for a variety of marketing materials, from print and radio ads to its website and blog. As she works with other tourism promoters across the Midwest, Mutter said people are often surprised that Winona has so much to offer. "Winona is the little town that could," she explained, adding that the city might not have a reputation like Lanesboro, but that is changing.

MMAM Director Andy Maus said a grant application is in the works for funds from the National Endowment for the Arts that would help Winona's arts organizations fund a cohesive promotion effort, and local artist Bernadette Mahfood spoke about the work of the River Arts Alliance to help organize and promote all the various arts events and groups in the area.

Ensuring that travelers who stumble into Winona are made aware of all the things it offers was another topic aired during the arts organizer meeting. Winona Mayor Mark Peterson said he would study the current agreement with Winona State University for the placement of banners on Huff Street advertising the university, which replaced banners promoting the city of Winona, to see if the city could use the space to advertise the Winona arts community.

As arts organizations continue to work to gather funds and ideas for such an arts campaign, leaders in the art community are also hoping that area residents will keep the conversation going and capitalize on the energy already found across the city. "It's inspiration," said Maus of Winona. "To me, this is the most inspiring place that I've ever been to." 


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