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Commentary: art imitating risk

St. Paul, Minn. — Let's face it. We live in scary times–economically, politically and artistically. And when times are tough, there's a natural tendency to hunker down, to just get through.

Ironically, this is the very worst thing to do in the face of adversity, especially if you're an arts organization. You make the decision– consciously or unconsciously–to compress, and you find yourself spiraling in smaller and smaller circuits, eventually but inevitably circling the drain of irrelevance.

It's taken a few years, but finally we're seeing artists lifting their heads and realizing that the only way to survive is to think big and live bold. Let's put a few recent decisions under the–well, let's call it the bold-o-scope–and see how they measure up.

First, there's Prince, the relentlessly inventive Minnesota rocker who announced late last month that he's re-entering the world with an arena tour and is once again courting a major record label.

This gets a 2 on the bold-o-meter, which, for you and me, is akin to buying a gallon of milk after its expiration date. Rather than making an aesthetic stretch, the rationale for Prince's move can be summed up in two words: Ka-ching.

How about the Walker Art Center, which just buttoned up its doors to finish construction on its new wing? Believing that your fans will wait breathlessly for a year while you fix yourself up shows a kind of self-confidence that I admire.

But since the museum, like the Guthrie and the Children's Theatre, planned their expansions when the economy was still booming, we can only award the Walker a 5 on the bold-o-meter–the equivalent of para-sailing on your Caribbean vacation.

Moving along to the Minnesota Orchestra, which, in the freshman season of new conductor Osmo Vanska, undertook a European tour. Pretty gutsy, especially considering the $2 million deficit the group recorded last year.

But neither red ink nor our color-coded terror alert system prevented the Minn-Orch from trying to prove themselves one of the top American orchestras to our neighbors across the pond. Let's give them a 7 on the bold scale: That's like ordering the deadly Japanese blowfish at a restaurant with a rookie sushi chef.

To find an example of our bold-o-meter hitting the pin, we turn to Frank Theatre, a small group in Minneapolis currently undertaking a huge project. They're doing a show called "Sicilian Nights," an adaptation of European folk tales that they commissioned and are staging in two parts on alternate nights, or in one five-hour marathon on Sunday afternoons.

I didn't love the show when I saw it last weekend. But how can you not cheer the utter chutzpah of the concept? Frank doesn't have two nickels to rub together to begin with, and yet, with "Sicilian Nights," they're betting the rent money on the dark horse in the sixth race at Canterbury.

It's those kinds what-the-hell-let's-go-for-it ideas that keep the arts strong. They recreate that sense of improbable invincibility that can lead to great things. You're not obliged to love the product of such plans, which is sometimes out of grasp. But you've gotta adore the reach.

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