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Sweet Sounds of Summer

By Tami Vigness

Living in the upper Midwest is not for the faint of heart. We spend the majority of the year layered in long johns, sweaters, wool socks, parkas, scarves, hats, mittens, and boots. Even the hardiest of us tend to stay bundled up well into April. If we’re lucky, by May, we might be able to finally turn off the heat and crack a few windows, letting the cool spring air blissfully make its way through our homes. Cabin fever is an all-too-real thing in these parts and even the biggest homebodies among us are chomping at the bit to get outdoors and feel the sun on our faces.

Perhaps this is why we Midwesterners embrace outdoor activities with such enthusiasm when the weather finally changes and the temperature is above freezing. At 40 degrees, we can shed the knee-length, down-filled parkas in exchange for a light coat. At 50 degrees, we drive through town with our radios turned up and the windows rolled down. And by 60 degrees, the thermostat is turned off and the poor furnace finally gets a break.

When summer is in full swing, you’ll find the decks and patios of every restaurant in town full of patrons enjoying dinner or drinks. We start new outdoor projects at home or get back to the honey-do lists we never had the chance to finish last year. In the evenings, we painstakingly tend to our lawns and gardens, and on weekends we gas up our boats and pontoons before heading out on the water to fish, water ski, or just cruise the lake. And of course, you can’t forget about the outdoor music scene.

For the last 15 years, the North Dakota Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of North Dakota, has held the Summer Concerts in the Garden series on its sprawling lawn. The setting is unlike any other in town. The west side of the museum, with its red brick and tall windows, serves as the backdrop for the stage, the English coulee flows quietly behind the audience, and occasionally a train will roll by on the tracks to the south. Droves of locals and out-of-towners alike bring blankets and lawn chairs to the garden to sit amongst the garden’s sculptures and rose bushes to enjoy an evening of live music. A quick scan of the crowd reveals that the event has mass appeal. There are parents with children and babies, young couples enjoying a unique experience on date night, older folks with a deep-seated love for live music, and everyone in between. It’s an event that many look forward to and enjoy, rain or shine.

In the Beginning

It’s no small task to arrange these concerts. Matthew Wallace, newly appointed Executive Director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, has been spearheading the concert series since its inception. Prior to launching the Concerts in the Garden series, the museum hosted the Sundog Jazz Festival. In 2007, with a desire to reach a broader audience and extend live music throughout the summer rather than just a weekend, the idea for a concert series was born. When the concert series was in its infancy, the crowds were much smaller and the talent was local. With no prior booking experience, Wallace would find local musicians to bring their own equipment and perform. Recognizing what the museum was trying to bring to the community, HB, Grand Forks’ local AV company, offered to run the sound and bring a higher level of audio quality to the event. “We’d get around 50-60 people that would come to listen to local artists perform on a homemade stage,” Wallace recalled. But it wasn’t long before the little concerts gained momentum and grew. When the museum booked internationally renowned American country blues musician Charlie Parr, the crowd grew to several hundred people. This momentum has continued over the years. While each concert still features a local or regional opening act, the headliner of the evening is often a national or international recording artist with an ever-growing list of albums to their name. The community has responded well to the museum’s efforts and continuously supports the series both in attendance and with monetary contributions. Wallace is quick to note the importance of the concerts to the overall health and bottom line of the museum. The Concerts in the Garden is underwritten by a number of local businesses, as well as supported by individuals, who can sponsor an evening for a donation. In addition to being able to enjoy an evening of music, concertgoers can also skip making dinner at home and instead feast on local grass-fed hamburgers, skewers of freshly grilled vegetables, root beer floats, local craft beer, wine, and other nightly specials.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Even with a successful track record and a stage that’s no longer homemade, attracting musicians to perform during the concert series isn’t always easy. Planning and research for the series begins several months in advance, and coordinating the logistics of the event takes no small amount of effort. In the research phase, Wallace scours the internet for musicians that he thinks would be a fitting addition to the concert series. Wallace notes that radio shows and YouTube are helpful places to hear new artists and discover fresh talent.

Perhaps most important in the quest to bring artists to Grand Forks are other area music festivals and concerts. It can be difficult – and expensive – to get an artist to come specifically to Grand Forks for just one night. “I try to piggyback on other events and festivals happening in the region,” Wallace explained. “If they are already going to be in the area en route to Winnipeg or Minneapolis, it’s much easier to get an artist to make a stop in Grand Forks.” One such festival that Wallace researches, and often attends, is the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Spanning the course of four days, the festival boasts multiple stages where well over 50 artists perform each year. Often Wallace is able to get in touch with booking agents who represent artists traveling to the folk festival and get them to route through Grand Forks on their way to or from Winnipeg.

Thankfully, time and effort has paid off. With well-attended concerts, beautiful scenery, and the kind of natural hospitality the Midwest is known for, attracting talent to the museum isn’t the challenge it once was. While there’s still plenty of legwork involved, Wallace’s name has become familiar to many booking agents and promoters, and often he’s at the receiving end of the phone call asking if an artist can perform. It’s a welcome juxtaposition to the days of cold calling agents and crossing fingers that something will fall into place.

Something New

Nearly every organization, in every industry, is tasked with not only staying current, but also coming up with something new. Whether it’s a new product, a new service, or new technology, the pursuit to remain relevant is one that looms large. The music scene is no different. New artists with new sounds are constantly hitting stages around the globe. Some have a cult following and others appeal to the masses. Finding artists that will attract a broad spectrum of people is always something that’s in the back of Wallace’s brain.

The concert series tends to bring people to the museum that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise come. Not everyone is going to enjoy an art exhibition, listen to a classical violinist, participate in family art days, or enroll their kids in the summer art camps that the museum hosts. But there is something extra special about the casualness and comradery felt during the outdoor summer concerts. The kids playing and climbing the large rocks scattered throughout the garden, well-behaved dogs resting at their owner’s side, couples dancing near the stage when a particular song with just the right rhythm is played, and everyone’s feet involuntarily tapping along to the beat are just some of the things you’ll notice in an evening. And while all of these things serve to make the Concerts in the Garden the unique and special event that it is, for Wallace, introducing the audience to someone they’ve never heard before, is his favorite part. After all, isn’t the ultimate goal to provide something new for all to enjoy? G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here

PHOTOS BY Manstrom Photography and submitted by ND Museum of Art/Kristin Ellswanger

From Issue 2, 2022


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