Whimsy in Greater Minnesota

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Nora McInerny’s My North

Everyone already seems to know that the arts scene in the Twin Cities is one of the most robust in the country, but what people don’t seem to realize is how pervasive the arts are in greater Minnesota. From a Lake Superior-sidling town with an actual artist colony, to a town in southern Minnesota with the world’s premier celebration of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, here are some greater Minnesota arts cities that are so darn charming you’ll be dreaming of moving to them after just one visit.

Grand Marais

North House Folk School
The North House Folk School in Grand Marais

Replete with a fully functioning art colony since 1947, Grand Marais, up at the tippy-top point of the state’s northeastern panhandle, is a truly unique Lake Superior harbor town. In addition to the art colony, it’s also home to North House Folk School so it’s literally teeming with working artists plying their craft. Step into a different era and surround yourself with artists painting classic lighthouse harbor scenes at Artists Point, selling their hand-wrought wares in shops in town, or playing gigs at the myriad bars and cafes like Crooked Spoon, Java Moose Espresso Cafe, or Voyageur Brewing Company.


With a population of more than 20,000 Northfield’s not quite as small town-y as the rest of the list, but that doesn’t make it any less whimsical. The home to Carleton College and St. Olaf University, Northfield is the perfect mix of college town and place where a Jesse James bank robbery went haywire (September 7, 1876; look it up!). Aside from the huge arts contributions of its two liberal arts universities, and its vibrant local bar and cafe music scene, the connective tissue of it all is the robust, multidisciplinary Northfield Arts Guild which has been a thriving visual and performing arts champion since 1959. For a cool bonus, take a side trip 25 miles west to legendary music recording studio Pachyderm Studios, which has seen bands ranging from Nirvana to PJ Harvey to Soul Asylum, situated just outside of Cannon Falls.


Commonweal Theatre Lanesboro
The Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro

Straddling the Root River about two hours southeast of the Twin Cities in the driftless bluff country that defines that region, the perfection of Lanesboro’s main street is somewhere in the stratosphere of godliness: most of the downtown buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But we’ve come to Lanesboro to talk art and by golly we will. The cast of at the Commonweal Theatre tees up their 20th annual Ibsen Fest April 21-23, the world’s premier festival celebrating famous Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. One-time silent movie house, the St. Mane Theater, is now a vital performance venue for artists and musicians, and the town even has its very own art crawl, the Lanesboro Art Trail.


Tucked into the southeastern corner of the state where US-75 and I-90 converge with the Rock River at the edge of Blue Mounds State Park, the outside world knows Luverne best as the setting for much of season two of the FX show “Fargo”, but it’s also the home to a tidy little arts scene. The town’s historic theater, The Palace, was renovated in 2007 to host films and performances (including local troupe, Green Earth Players). During nicer weather, Luverne also has “The Verne,” a good, old-fashioned drive-in movie theater. But maybe most notable to visual arts aficionados, Luverne is the birthplace of legendary nature photographer Jim Brandenburg and is home to one of Minnesota’s two Jim Brandenburg Galleries (the other is in Ely).

New York Mills

New York Mill Cultural Center
The New York Mills Arts Retreat and Regional Cultural Center

The tiny Finnish town in the middle of north central Minnesota lake country’s made its mark as the home base for the Lund Boat Company. But in 1991, realizing they needed another draw, they invested a large chunk of cash into turning a one-time mercantile building into multi-purpose arts and cultural center. It was a gamble for a rural company town, but it worked. The New York Mills Arts Retreat and Regional Cultural Center has become a major draw both for its multidisciplinary programming and educational opportunities. Oh, and, frontman of LA-based alt rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Peter Hayes, grew up there.

My North is a weekly video series created in partnership with Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and Explore Minnesota. If you missed Nora McInerny's story, view it here.

>See more My North itineraries