by LaMoine MacLaughlin, Northern Lakes Center for the Arts
Nestled among the rolling hills and lakes of west-central Wisconsin, Amery is a small, rural community. The countryside is mostly beautiful farmland with relatively clean water recreation areas. The seasonal landscapes are spectacular.
Amery is considered to be in the fifth ring of urban expansion from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, which means that it is just beyond the edge of urban sprawl. The economic base centers around farming and related agribusiness, with tourism in an ever-expanding second place.
Socio-economically, the city is mostly middle-class. As with many rural areas, despite the great pride we take in our young people, the major local problems involve an ongoing migration of youth and an ever-encroaching urban shadow. Still, although everyone may not like one another, it is a place where you don't have to lock your doors. Amery is still a real community where everyone knows and respects one another. Amery is small-town, rural America.
The Northern Lakes Center for the Arts in Amery blossomed from the life experience of several individuals concerned about the arts and rural Wisconsin. The center opened its doors in July 1989, following more than a year of dreaming, designing and organizing. Before that were several years of performing by the Northern Lakes Chamber Orchestra. And before that stretched several more years of teaching private music lessons. And even further back...
I came to my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a strong music background. I took all the music courses I could, from history to composition to applied piano and strings. In my ensuing professional lives, I taught English, moved into school administration and curriculum development, became director of a rural Wisconsin Community Action Agency and went on to work for an economic development corporation.
All of this taught me about business planning, fundraising and human resource management. I learned how to relate to state and federal bureaucracies, develop strategic plans, write proposals and develop grassroots programs in rural communities. I learned how much I truly loved rural Wisconsin and knew I would spend my life living and working in rural areas. I mention all of this personal history only to show how our lives gather bits and pieces of education and experience here and there. We continue to apply those bits and pieces, perhaps leading to some surprising careers.
During this time my wife, Mary Ellen, and I were also raising three daughters. Living in rural areas, we learned firsthand the limitations of human resources and services. Once when my wife invited a friend for coffee, the friend noticed our piano. "You have a piano!" she exclaimed. "Could you teach my daughter to play?" My wife said that if the friend would watch our youngest daughter during lessons, she would be happy to teach her daughter to play piano. And so began my wife's piano teaching career.
When word spread that she was giving piano lessons, the number of her students grew very quickly. Wherever we moved, it seemed that we both put our musical skills to use, especially in local churches. And so in 1981, as we both neared 40, I was employed in an excellent executive position and my wife had developed her piano teaching to nearly 60 students.
But I was growing to hate my job. I began looking at my wife's music business and saw that the creativity and imagination that she was bringing forth in young people was truly inspiring. In contrast, the concept of a creative, imaginative bureaucracy paled as an oxymoron. I had to crawl out of the bureaucratic abyss into which I had fallen.
And my wife was beginning to have her own problems. Her nearly 60 students ranged from beginners to the very advanced. Two local public school districts had offered her their facilities to teach piano, as had a local music store. I reasoned that I could take over her advanced students, add a few guitar and vocal students, and we would live happily every after.
I developed a business plan to get us to where we needed to be financially within six months. Then, in 1982, I did an absurd thing: I left a well-paying job to teach piano with my wife in rural Wisconsin. Our friends thought I should see a psychiatrist! But we had a plan to get us to where we needed to be in six months, and we got there in three. Mary Ellen had developed a strong and positive rapport with local public school districts. When I came on the scene, we incorporated as a private music school and slid into the niche that she had already created.
Our private music school operated very successfully for the next several years, growing at one point to 150 students. Our students performed exceptionally well in state competitions and our student recitals were always major community events. But we came to realize that something was missing for our students. For the most part, they were limited to performing as soloists. There was no one to teach strings in the area and so our students were missing the opportunity to perform the great string sonata and piano trio literature. Around 1984, we contacted my former community action supervisor, Neil Rasmussen, who was also a wonderful violinist, about the possibility of his teaching violin. After some very brief initial hesitation, he began a program of strings instruction.
All of these activities proceeded so well that the next year we were able to consider even further expansion. The year 1985 marked the tricentennial of the births of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. To celebrate the lives of these great composers, we thought it appropriate to create a series of public concerts performing their music. What eventually developed were three concerts: an organ recital, an ecumenical choral performance and a chamber music concert by the newly-formed Northern Lakes Chamber Orchestra.
The orchestra and the concerts were such a success that we decided to stay together and perform in our own Northern Lakes Concert Series, which featured local musicians in monthly performances of classical music. During the next four years, there were challenges and successes. Neil Rasmussen, who had been principal violinist in the orchestra and had started the strings instruction program, was killed in an automobile accident. His position and the instruction of his students were resumed by another member of the orchestra. We continued to rehearse weekly and to perform monthly, using local churches as our performance venues.
But by 1989, the chamber orchestra needed more rehearsal and performance time and space than any of the local churches were able to provide, so we began to look at other available space within Amery, pop. 2,750. One of the available facilities was a remodeled, nearly 100-year-old church that had also been used as a Ford dealership and for other purposes. Although what we saw thoroughly disappointed us initially, we found a creative way to use the space, which had excellent acoustics.
We formed a nonprofit corporation to be the legal structure of the organization. Interested local residents formed a small board of directors. Discussions occurred with local arts groups and our board of directors was expanded to include representatives of those groups. Purchase of the building was finalized and remodeling was completed. The Northern Lakes Center for the Arts opened in July 1989 as an umbrella organization for the Northern Lakes Chamber Orchestra, the Northern Lakes Theater Guild, The Northern Lakes Writers' Guild and a series of galleries to display local visual artists' work.
Very quickly, the center developed a patterned, annual schedule of concerts, performances and exhibits. Events include the visual arts, music, the humanities and literary offerings. In 1996, Northern Lakes received the Wisconsin Governor's Award in Support of the Arts, Wisconsin's highest public award for achievement in the arts. The citation reads, "for bringing the arts to the people and the people to the arts."
Other recognition over the years includes being cited in the book "The 100 Best Small Arts Towns In America" and receiving the Rural Genius Award from the Front Porch Institute. And I could go on and on so easily. The talents and creative abilities of our students studying their various arts disciplines in the School of the Arts continue to be a source of delight, pride and amazement to all of us. The Center has regularly drawn financial support from over 100 local businesses, nearly every business in town. Audiences stay afterwards to talk with the performers and with one another. As Mayor Stower says, "The feeling of the center, of the performance space, makes it an extension of your living room."
Over the years patrons and participants have moved from the community. Some have died; others have moved in and have become involved. Sometimes there seems to be a cycle of involvement, withdrawal and reinvolvement, but there has always been a core of active dreamers and workers who have made Northern Lakes a successful community arts organization. Looking back on what we have achieved at Northern Lakes, I think rural arts pioneer Robert Gard would smile on our accomplishments in Amery. Gard's words apply so well to what we have brought to fruition:
Let art begin at home, and let it spread through the children and their parents, and through the schools and the institutions and through government. And let us start by acceptance... that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as large... according to the will of the people. Let us put firmly and permanently aside the clichÃ© that the arts are a frill. Let us accept the goodness of art where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live.
Robert Gard, "The Arts in the Small Community," 1968
Read a longer version of this story as well as an introduction by Maryo Gard Ewell and the first-hand accounts of Amery residents at Community Arts Network. PortalWisconsin.org thanks Community Arts Network for its generous permission to reprint this condensed version of an article that originally appeared in its March 2005 issue.
For more information on rural arts in Wisconsin, read this article by Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin (formerly the Wisconsin Assembly for Local Arts), which previously appeared in the spring 2004 issue of Wisconsin Academy Review.