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Get to know the 2022 Arrowhead Arts Award recipients

Honorees are music educator Keith Swanson, arts advocate Anne Dugan, and, posthumously, curator Karissa White Isaacs.

Anne Dugan stands in front of a barn, smiling with her hand on her hip
Anne Dugan is the recipient of this year's Maddie Simons Arts Advocate Award.
Contributed / Arrowhead Regional Arts Council
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DULUTH — The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council has announced the three recipients of the 23rd annual Arrowhead Arts Awards. The honorees are music educator Keith Swanson, arts advocate Anne Dugan and, posthumously, curator Karissa White Isaacs.

In interviews with the News Tribune, Swanson and Dugan shared perspectives on their careers and the arts. Via email, Monica White discussed the legacy of her daughter, Karissa White Isaacs. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Keith Swanson: The joy of music

Keith Swanson smiles, standing in front of empty chairs and music stands in band room.
Keith Swanson is the recipient of the 2022 George Morrison Artist Award.
Contributed / Arrowhead Regional Arts Council

Keith Swanson is a music conductor and educator who retired in 2016 , after 43 years, as the director of music at Hermantown High School. He has conducted the UMD Symphony Orchestra, the Lake Superior Orchestra and other ensembles. Swanson received the George Morrison Artist Award, recognizing "an individual artist whose body of work has made a significant contribution to the arts over an extended period of time."

How would you describe the goal you've pursued in your career?

To bring music to a variety of audiences (of) different ages and different makeups. To give performances that are of high quality, whether it's with a junior high school band or community orchestra or Duluth orchestra. To strive to put on performances that I would be proud of, players would be proud of, and audiences would enjoy.

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When you think back over the decades, do you have any sense as to whether attitudes toward classical music among young people have changed?

Young people are open to any music, as long as it's good. They're very willing to try and listen to music that's not familiar to them. I found them to be extremely receptive to orchestral stuff I did with the high school band. They were great about accepting my decisions on what they were going to play and what they weren't going to play. So I don't think kids today have a bias against classical music. I just don't think they get enough exposure to it in the public schools. The right instructor can find a great enthusiasm for classical music.

If you had to pick one piece of classical music that, in your mind, epitomizes the spirit of the Northland, what would it be?

Beethoven's opera "Fidelio." He wrote only one opera, which I got to conduct with Bill Bastian in Northern Opera Theatre Experience. Without cuts, with full orchestration, it was a big thrill in my life. The music is celebratory. It has an ending, much like the Ninth Symphony, where there's joy and celebration of freedom and happiness. That piece is why I love classical music.

Do you think there's something about the spirit of this community in that music?

Yeah: the perseverance. You know, (we) fight through a lot of long winters, and the downturn in the economy with the mining and all that. I think Northlanders have shown resilience and toughness. I suppose you could say that about any area of the country, but up north here, I think there's a hardiness and a joy in the outdoors. And (for) Beethoven (nature) is a spiritual thing ... it touches anyone that's a human being.

Anne Dugan: Cultivating a rich arts landscape

Anne Dugan is a curator and educator who teaches art history at the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She's presented a series of "artistic interventions" in rural community spaces, and over 80 contemporary art exhibits in her past roles as curator and artistic director at the Duluth Art Institute. She received the Maddie Simons Arts Advocate Award, which "recognizes an arts administrator, arts educator, volunteer for a nonprofit arts organization, or artist whose involvement in a project or program has substantially contributed to the arts in the Arrowhead Region."

What does it mean, to you, to advocate for the arts?

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It means making sure that that artists have spaces to tell our stories. We can't have a just, empathetic society if we can't listen to each other. (With) so many of our issues that feel unsolvable ... there's hope if we listen to each other, and there's hope if we can engage with each other through the arts. So often we hear that art should be at the bottom of the list. I absolutely believe that we need to address homelessness and health care and really pressing issues in our society. I don't think that we can address them without having a rich arts landscape, and I really don't think that they're separate.

You wear many hats, and one of them is curator for the North Shore Bank of Commerce. What does it mean to be a curator for a bank?

Art is integral to who we are in the Twin Ports, in the Arrowhead Region. The North Shore Bank of Commerce, 50 years ago, through their leadership said, being supporters of the arts is just what you do as a business because it makes you stronger and it makes your community stronger. And so they they collected art, they supported arts organizations, and they said, you know what? We need a curator on staff.

How many pieces of art does the bank own, and where are they stored when they're not on display?

There is an "art vault" in the basement, and they have three sites. The downtown (Duluth) space has the bulk of their work, but they also have space up at their facility in Hermantown, and then one in Lakeside as well ... almost 250 works.

You've been following the local art scene for quite a while now. What's the wildest art event exhibit or installation that you can remember?

Sean Connaughty did an exhibition called "Ark of the Anthropocene." He made a 12-foot diameter concrete orb. It was supposed to float. It was hollow inside and had a skylight, and he planted it with all of these native seeds of our area. ... I had to do a small-craft advisory, because he was going to float it next to the (Great Lakes) Aquarium and have it floating during the run of his exhibition. So there was a lot of red tape to get through to get this thing to float in the harbor ... And so we got it, we woke up at 4 a.m. to get the crane to get it in. It floated for, I think, the first day, maybe. And then it just started to slowly fade.

The "Ark of the Anthropocene," a 4,000-pound, 6-foot-wide concrete sphere containing a terrarium with more than 50 plants anchored in the Duluth Harbor behind the DECC on Tuesday, has now become "The Wreck of the Anthropocene," after divers and a...

So we got some divers, we figured out how to get the crane back, we hoisted it next to the bay and rechristened it "The Wreck of the Ark of the Anthropocene," which to me, was even (a) more powerful statement. ... It was a PokéStop for a long time. Maybe that was my peak.

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Karissa White Isaacs: Leadership through curation

Karissa White Isaacs stands in doctoral robes in front of University of Minnesota maroon-and-gold banner
Karissa White Isaacs is the recipient, posthumously, of this year's Award for Transformational Art.
Contributed / Arrowhead Regional Arts Council

Karissa White Isaacs (1974-2021), a tribal member of Wisconsin's Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation, was a curator at the Tweed Museum of Art. Holder of a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Minnesota, White Isaacs was a strong advocate for Native artists and contributed to important oral history projects at the Minnesota Historical Society. She was honored with the Award for Transformational Art, which recognizes "the efforts of artists to transform their communities through their work." Her mother, Monica White, shared the following reflections after the award was announced.

In your view, what was Karissa White Isaacs' most meaningful project?

My daughter accomplished many great things in her life; it is so difficult to put one above the other. I do recall how proud she was with " Gashkibidaaganag: A Selection of Bandolier Bags. " She was able to acquire an Ojibwe bandolier bag by Melvin Losh. She was extremely honored to work with Carl Gawboy on “ A Life Well-Painted: The Art of Carl Gawboy ," and “Intersections,” a collection of 19 Minnesota artists featuring " Manifest’o " by Jonathan Thunder as well as (work by) many other Native artists. Karissa was happy that community people felt comfortable with her as a curator. One example of this was that a woman called to give her priceless photos of the (President John F. Kennedy) visits to Duluth from 1959-1963. So, Duluth was an amazing place for her to work and live with her husband, Brian, and son, Isaac (Ozhiigaabo).

Ornately embroidered bandolier bag with numerous flowers in different colors and, in lower left corner, a dragonfly.
Melvin Losh (Leech Lake Ojibwe, b. 1946): "Bandolier Bag #28," 2016. Hand-stitched beads on cloth and felt. Collection Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota-Duluth. Marguerite L. Gilmore Charitable Foundation Fund.
Contributed / Melvin Losh

Are there any young Native artists or groups of artists that she was particularly excited about?

She truly appreciated and enjoyed working with Jonathan Thunder during her “Intersections” exhibition.

Thinking about her outside of her work, what’s something that might surprise people?

Karissa was very athletic throughout her life. She loved to run and was an all-conference softball player in high school and continued this on into her college life. The camaraderie of sports was important and helped her physically, as well as believe in (a) sense of group and individual responsibility. Also, as a young girl she could fancy dance on the powwow circuit and won a few contests in our region and out west in Fort Totten, North Dakota. In my mind, Karissa truly carried out the beliefs of her clan — which was the Ajijaak-Crane clan that represents “Leadership” — throughout her life.

Related Topics: ARTMUSICDULUTH
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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