In Red Wing, big-league arts find a small-town audience

The Sheldon Theatre
The Sheldon Theatre is the longest continuously running municipally owned theater in the nation.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

The riverside town of Red Wing is known for its shoes, historic pottery and majestic bluffs. Increasingly, it's becoming known as a home for the arts, too.

"I think there's a kind of renaissance that's happening," said Bonnie Shock, executive director of Red Wing's Sheldon Theatre. The town of 16,000 may be small, she said, but its people have wide-ranging and eclectic tastes.

A concert at the theater Saturday night is a response to those diverse interests. Nirmala Rajasekar, David Harris and others will present "Song of Wonder," an exploration of Indian-themed music blended with songs of the Sephardic Jews.

Nirmala Rajasekar and David Harris
Nirmala Rajasekar and David Harris gave an informal performance to a group of seniors at Red Wing's Village Cooperative as part of Sheldon Theatre's increasing outreach into the community.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

These concerts, Shock said, "are not intended to be blockbusters. These are specifically for audiences who are curious, audiences who are interested in something different, in something new for them, especially in a small community like this."

The arts have long been a key part of life in Red Wing, she pointed out. The Sheldon Theatre was built in 1904, and is the oldest continuously operating, municipally owned theater in the country.

"Historically we built buildings like this one, and we brought people into those buildings and we expected them to sit and behave," she said. "And the world is changing, and the ways in which we communicate with people, the ways in which we think about art in communities is shifting, and that's really changing here in Red Wing, too."

Red Wing is situated along the Mississippi River. Amtrak's Empire Builder stops twice a day at the Red Wing Depot on its way between St. Paul and Chicago. The neoclassical depot is also home to the Red Wing Arts Association, whose gallery fills half the building.

Association board president Chap Achen moved to Red Wing 40 years ago and worked for decades for the Red Wing Shoe Factory. Over the years the arts scene has had its ups and downs, he said, but the present feels like a pivotal time.

The Red Wing Depot
The Red Wing Depot is home to the Red Wing Arts Association, which hosts the Fall Festival of the Arts every October.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

"The Sheldon Theatre has a new director," Achen said. "The Anderson Center [an artist residency program] has a new director. Our association will have a new director very shortly. ... So we see this as a great opportunity to collaborate and look at new ideas to further enhance the experience in Red Wing."

Last month, the annual Fall Festival of the Arts brought around 10,000 people to Red Wing. Achen said he encourages people to continue down the river to Winona, or across the river into Wisconsin to visit Maiden Rock and Stockholm to check out the arts offerings there.

"The art scene here in Red Wing is burgeoning," agreed Chris Burawa, executive director of the Anderson Center, located on the north end of town. The Anderson Center provides residencies to writers, musicians and other artists. Since it opened in 1995 it's brought more than 700 artists to Red Wing. Each year it hosts three festivals, four art exhibitions, poetry readings and music nights.

The Anderson Center
Located on the outskirts of Red Wing, the Anderson Center is home to the largest artist residency program in the upper Midwest. Since it opened in 1995, it's hosted more than 700 artists from across the United States and 40 other countries.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

"We have a lot more people interested in what we're doing, because we're doing things in different ways," Burawa said. "We're bringing in works by new artist groups. We're doing things that are really on par with what's happening in the Twin Cities."

The Sheldon's Bonnie Schock credits the Legacy Amendment for providing small arts organizations like hers with the resources to bring new and different performers to town. She said the result is powerful.

"The opportunity for impact is much greater in a small community, because the ripple effect is almost absolute," she said. "I can bring an artist into the schools here and reach every student in Red Wing with a residency. That's extraordinary."

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