People are talking…

So I was up in the Twin Cities last weekend with a cadre of newspaper people, and I was reminded all over again how special this place we live in is.

Inevitably when I go to gatherings around the state of any sort I get the same thing – people who want to know about how Winona started rocking the arts scene. Either they heard something or read something or know someone who came here, but somehow, no matter what, Winona’s name comes up in the context of “Wow, you guys really have a lot going on down there.”

Well yes, thank you. We do.

The topic on the table last week was the Frozen River Film Festival, which was going on at the same time as the convention, and a person I’ve never met before sees my newspaper badge and says to me, “Winona…don’t you guys have some kind of mini version of the Sundance Film Festival going on down there?”

Ahhh. To me a moment like that feels like all is right in the world. We are doing it and they are talking about it, whomever “they” might be.

So I told him yes and no — Sundance was started by movie stars and has got decades and hundreds of thousands of visitors on us. Winona’s Frozen River Film Festival was started by theater gurus and is slightly more than half a decade old, but the quality films and the standing room only crowds they attract are nothing to sneeze at. Give us two more decades, I said, and we probably won’t be far off.

I believe that because I am continually amazed and heartened by this community’s willingness to keep raising the bar for how we entertain ourselves. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Van Gogh, and now films, some heady, some fun, others emotionally charged, and people are lining up to see them. The people of Winona have a propensity greater than any other town I’ve ever seen to create and nurture the arts, and they have done so with careless abandon for the reality that towns the size of Winona just don’t typically have that kind of stuff.

But you know what? It’s how every legendary arts tourism destination was ever created — Sundance, Ashland Oregon, even Galena, they all have the same common thread: The people there believed, even in the beginning when what they were doing was small, that the world would eventually take notice of how special what they were offering was. And they would come. And it would become the lifeblood of the community. And it would be cool.

Frozen River Film Festival has been expanding its reach and depth over the last six years, blossoming like a flower. Organizers have been intuitive about what film-goers want to see, and what sort of extra things they want to do when they are there. This year, in addition to a weighty lineup of films and speakers, they arranged a relaxation and reflection space complete with free massages and acupuncture. And roots from the festival have worked their way into the community, with Fringe Friday events occurring throughout the year and a concentration of music and entertainment events during the festival at area establishments.

And what was going on in Winona was cool enough that someone from Perham, which by any definition is across the state in the middle of nowhere (sorry Perham, it’s true), heard about it. That, folks, is the coolest thing of all.

I suspect we might take the spectrum and quality of art available to us here in Winona for granted, and it takes forays out into other communities for me to be reminded that what is going on in Winona is truly unique. When people ask me about it, there is always a tinge of wonderment in their voice, and perhaps envy. Why us, they wonder. I know why. It’s the people here – the believers who build things and the enthusiastic band wagon jumpers who say, “I love it. I’m in.” That kind of enthusiasm is contagious, even to the people who only visit, and it makes people talk.

I told the fellow that Winona is doing all this because the arts are becoming our lifeblood as much as the river that runs past us. We aren’t just a river town anymore – we are an arts river town. But like all good stewards of the arts, we love to share, so I told him to get in his car and come on down whenever he’s ready. We’ll be here all year.

Our snowy winter sets the perfect stage for the Frozen River Film Festival

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