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Volunteers, city debate Cottage Grove Arts Commission

More than two dozen area residents filed into the Cottage Grove City Hall last week to talk art.

Musicians, artists, thespians and art enthusiasts met with city officials during a focus group to discuss the formation of an arts commission, which was approved last month by the City Council.

With no formal direction as to how to cultivate the arts scene in south Washington County, area residents urged the city to step in. However, many key questions remain, including whether the city or volunteers will take the leadership role.

City Council member Derrick Lehrke, who first proposed the idea of holding a roundtable, said while he is a supporter of the arts he wasn’t sure the city should be involved.

“There are so many limits that the commission would put on you because you would now become an arm of the city,” he explained. “I’m encouraged for this too. But I just don’t know that it should be a seven-person city commission.”

However, Tracy Caponigri, chair and one of the founding members of Locally Grown Theatre, said she got the company off the ground two summers ago and that creating a commission could help the art presence continue to grow.

“It’s been difficult getting (the theater) moving,” she said. “And to be able to have other people to work with and to talk to would be great.”

Along with the desire to form a commission, focus group attendees said having a dedicated space to meet, perform, teach classes and showcase work without a charge was equally as important. Discussion turned to art venues in surrounding communities, such as the Eagan Art House and the Burnsville Garage, and city officials said visiting the arenas would provide more direction.

Mayor Myron Bailey suggested compiling a directory of artists and that speaking with other area arts commissions and theater groups could provide more insight.

“I think it would be a good opportunity for us to see what they have in their communities and find out how they got going,” he said, highlighting established entities such as the Metropolitan Arts Commission and the Edina Arts and Culture Commission.

Other ideas brought forward were to, if a commission were created, appoint members with differing backgrounds of arts — musicians, artists, actors, among others —to represent each facet of the arts.

City Council member Dave Thiede said he recognizes that there is an interest for an arts commission, but that continued discussion was needed.

“I’m not sure I really want to try to play by the rules as our existing commission,” Thiede said. “I’d like to see you guys bring it together, but there are some boundaries the city might have if it’s a formal commission. When people don’t necessarily stay within the lines, that’s when you get your fantastic performances.”

Thiede added that he would rather see the city be an observing entity but help guide the commission along the way and “be the rudder to help steer the ship.”

Lehrke agreed and said the arts commission could be similar to Beyond the Yellow Ribbon and Strawberry Fest, which were city-led at first but then handed over to volunteers once they were established.

With the arts community as a whole gaining momentum across the Twin Cities, Bailey said he is encourage by residents’ enthusiasm and said he is supportive of the local grassroots campaign.

The City Council plans to continue discussions regarding the formation of an arts commission and will look at drafting a mission statement and set of goals during its January meeting.

“We will digest this information and provide another opportunity to meet again,” Bailey said. “It was an amazing turnout and I’m glad to see that everyone is willing to put in the investment.”