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Top 9 Minnesota arts stories in 2013

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Without a doubt, the ongoing Minnesota Orchestra lockout and the departure of beloved music director Osmo Vänskä headlined arts news in Minnesota this year. But beyond that, our reporters found many other compelling stories that deserve another look.

1) A little Hawaii, when we needed it most

Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

It was that point in the winter when Christmas seemed like a distant memory, but you were sure spring would never arrive. Then reporter Dan Olson brought us the warm sounds of the Lau Hawaiian Collective, a five-piece band from St. Paul.

"The education for me in doing this piece was the trove of Hawaiian music tapped by the Rose Ensemble which inspired the collective's formation. And did you know Hawaii once had cowboys? Thus the cowboy ballad influence," Olson said.

2) Teaching kids how to be artists

Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Through the year, arts reporter Marianne Combs profiled "Art Heroes" -- people who've chosen to use their artistic talents to make the world a better place -- from across the Twin Cities arts community. One profile that stood out was her April story on Roger and DeAnna Cummings: 

"While most people buy into the "starving artist" stereotype, they view art as a means for getting kids out of poverty and into advertising, marketing or some other creative career. And while they have transformed their corner of north Minneapolis, as well as countless young lives, they don't waste words bragging about their work. They just keep doing it," Combs said.

• Read all of the Art Heroes profiles

3) A creative approach to ethnic pride

Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Do you ever have an urge to turn off the highway at a random small town? Reporter Nikki Tundel did in May, which helps explain her amazing knack for finding off-beat stories. She found the Czech community that is Montgomery, Minn. and its local folk hero Big Honza.

"I wasn't sure what to think when I came across a towering wood carving of the Czech legend. I loved the story even more when I learned Big Honza was a fictional character (one with a museum dedicated to him) who was created to help put the small town of Montgomery on the map. What's better than a town with a sense of humor?" Tundel said.

4) Minneapolis-St. Paul, flyover art market

Chris Roberts / MPR News

In June, reporter Chris Roberts investigated the rarely-traveled world that is the experimental contemporary art scene in the Twin Cities. As his story explains, the warehouse district in downtown Minneapolis hosted a thriving scene in the 1980s that has since shut down. 

"The piece also shed light on Minnesota's relative isolation from the national and international contemporary art market, the art buying habits of Minnesotans, and how some local patrons often resist purchasing homegrown art. This story had a pulse which kept beating after it aired, which is satisfying for a reporter," Roberts said.

5) What makes an artist professional?  

Courtesy Wing Young Huie

Venus de Mars, a long-time Twin Cities rock musician, does not have a day job. She makes about $20,000 off of her art and considers herself a professional artist. The state Department of Revenue disagrees. The result? De Mars is fighting a ruling that says she owes thousands of dollars in back taxes. 

"For me this story was like trying to describe the view while standing with my feet in two different worlds. There is the world of the Minnesota Department of Revenue and how it enforces tax law, and then there's the world of the artist who decides to stay true to his or her artistic vision, rather than just crank out what sells. 

"I'm looking forward to seeing how this story develops in 2014, as the MDR is still reviewing the case," Combs said.

6) I can haz cat videos at the State Fair?  

Nikki Tundel / MPR News

After the Walker Art Center's inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival in 2012 was a resounding success, organizers moved it to the State Fair in August 2013. The audience followed.

"Any reporter who can't have fun doing a story about cat videos should find another line of work," reporter Matt Sepic said.

"Nikki has a great eye for shooting people with their animals. This story was a breeze to edit, as so many of Matt's are. In this one, he gives a great feel for the festive atmosphere together with the new venue of the State Fair Grandstand.  And how he found a person to interview named Cinnamon is itself a wonder," his editor Nancy Lebens said.

And just for giggles, here's the #catvidfest 2013 YouTube playlist: 

7) Ordway's 'Miss Saigon' angers Asian-American artists

Courtesy of the Ordway

In the fall, the Ordway hosted a producted of "Miss Saigon," the 12th-longest running show in Broadway history. It was met with protests in the Twin Cities. 

"For me, this was the most important story of the year, exposing a whole array of issues which I will be exploring more deeply in the months to come," said reporter Marianne Combs. "While the Twin Cities theater scene is rich with diverse theater companies (Penumbra and Mu Performing Arts are just a couple of examples), they exist because of a history in the arts of ignoring any narrative that wasn't Euro-centric.

"So people like Lou Bellamy and Rick Shiomi were obliged to create their own theaters, find new plays and develop new talent so that their stories could find breath and voice on the stage. Decades later, we now live in metropolitan area that far more diverse, and people of color are demanding their stories not be ignored by major institutions. And when arts institutions do tell those stories, they need to get them right."

8) Billy Crystal, jazz aficionado

Courtesy Library of Congress

In October, Billy Crystal brought his one-man show to Minneapolis. One of the show's main topics is his family's important role in the New York City jazz scene of the 1950s and 1960s.

"I was impressed by how proud he was of this heritage and by his expertise on the history of Dixieland jazz. He really seemed to enjoy talking about the music and the characters he grew up knowing who performed that music," Morning Edition producer Jim Bickal said.

9) Osmo waves his baton goodbye

Nate Ryan / MPR News

The Minnesota Orchestra's music director Osmo Vänskä quit in October, a year after management locked out musicians. Reporter Euan Kerr reflects on that moment, and the challenging assignment that is covering the contentious lockout:

[Reporter Chris Roberts and I] have filed hundreds of stories, and fielded a tsunami of e-mail from people on both sides giving us their views on how to fix the situation, and often how wrong they believe we have got the story. Such is the lot of the modern journalist trying to tell both sides of a story.

It was against this backdrop that I attended the first of three concerts by the locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä at the Ted Mann Hall, just days after he resigned as the orchestra's music director.

The event started on a wave of euphoria as Vänskä led the musicians and pianist Emanuel Ax through the program. Standing ovation followed standing ovation. 

Vänskä was visibly moved, particularly after someone from the crowd shouted "We love you Osmo!" Vänskä, who had not spoken publicly since he had stepped down, replied, "I love you too."

After playing another piece he took the mike to speak again: "I am going to miss you very, very much, And I am going to miss this fabulous orchestra." 

The crowd had anticipated the orchestra would play Vänskä's beloved Sibelius as an encore, but the conductor surprised many by choosing  the Valse Triste. It's the story of a young woman who dreams she is dancing with a handsome young man at a party. Suddenly she realizes she is not dreaming, and then that she is not dancing with a man but death itself. 

Vänskä told the story and then turned to begin the piece, only to stop, and turn back to the audience to ask that in recognition of the situation the audience hold their applause. As the music faded, Vänskä shook the hand of concertmaster Erin Keefe, and then took her arm to walk off stage in silence. 

It was a silence that spoke more than all those meetings, rallies and press conferences combined, and left many in the audience with tears streaming down their faces.

More top news of 2013 lists:
• Top 12 stories from the Twin Cities in 2013
• Top 12 stories from Greater Minnesota in 2013
• Top 11 Minnesota health and environment stories in 2013
• Top 9 Minnesota political stories from 2013