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— In January 2002, a group of art lovers from around the city of Renville gathered together to form an organization that for the next two decades would play a huge role in the promotion of the arts in the region.
"I know people were really interested in the arts and wanted to keep them alive," said Raye McKim, a founding member of the Friends of the Arts organization.
Twenty years later, while the Friends of the Arts board has gotten smaller, the group's dedication to the arts has never wavered. The hope is the group can soon call on the next generation of artists and art fans to move Friends of the Arts into the future.
"You need new people with new ideas," said member Deanna Doerr.
Over the years, Friends of the Arts has sponsored a variety of events and programming including variety shows, bus trips to see shows and exhibits, an annual photo contest, a book club and fundraisers such as the chicken dinner. In February 2019, the group put on a Dad-Daughter Dance at the Renville Community Center, an event they hope to put on once again.
"That was really well attended. The girls and their daddies, grandfathers, uncles came and had a great time," said member Bev Raske.
Another program geared toward the children that the group wants to bring back after a coronavirus hiatus is the Prairie Fire Children's Theater. The theater group comes and gives schoolchildren the chance to put on a show, usually a fairy tale such at Peter Pan or Aladdin.
"They come with all the props and everything," Raske said. "We hope to have it next spring."
Then there are the scholarships that have helped dozens of students over the years continue their arts education, including financial assistance to attend competitions or receive additional training. Friends of the Arts has awarded more than $12,000 in scholarships in the past 20 years.
"It promotes the arts," McKim said.
Friends of the Arts was also instrumental in providing funding for improvements at the Renville County West small gym, which is also used as the main theater performance space in the community. Two grants from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council helped pay for both a mobile sound system and stage lighting.
"We don't have a theater where the seats remain there — it is in the small gym — but it is kind of a classic," said member Paul Knapper. "It takes some effort but it is worth it to have a production there."
Friends of the Arts knows the value of good lighting and sound when putting on a play. Since about 2005 the group has staged 20 productions, sometimes two shows a year.
"The performances here are very professionally done," Knapper said.
Friends of the Arts is probably best-known for its performances of the "Don't Hug Me" series of plays, which are musical comedies based in the fictional town of Bunyan Bay, Minnesota, in the North Woods.
Other plays the group has performed include a few different Christmas shows, along with "Leaving Iowa", "Cemetery Club", "Savannah Sipping Society" and "Clue." Most of the plays are comedies or musicals. In May 2022, though, the group tried their hand at a drama, "The Trip to Bountiful."
"The reputation is out there," said member Joel Bakker. He said he is always being asked when the next play will be.
The group has a dedicated number of actors who have shared their talents on stage for many different productions. Knapper, Raske and Bakker have shared the stage together many times. That closeness is one of the reasons why they keep coming back for more.
"It is a very strong and amazing ensemble," Knapper said. "Not many towns can say that."
Taking part in a stage production is both a challenge and an enjoyment. Those who have acted on stage in Friends of the Arts shows said they like the feeling of putting on a good show and enjoy the reactions they get from the audience. The talent and experience of the actors is something audience members can see.
"I've never seen a spot when someone didn't know what to do," Doerr said. "They do a good job."
Providing community members with access to the arts is one of the main missions of Friends of the Arts, and one the group takes seriously. They want members of the community to be able to experience the different types of art — and perhaps share their own talents. After all, one doesn't have to be a great painter or singer to enjoy the arts.
"It makes the community more rounded," McKim said. "There is just something about the arts."
The arts also give the community a chance to experience a performance or exhibit together.
"The key word is access," Bakker said, and to "have something else to do than sit in front of your computer and not socialize with anyone."
As Friends of the Arts enters its third decade, the dedicated group of board members that are keeping it running continue to plan for its future. Raske is already working on the holiday play, to be staged sometime in late November, and has ideas for the show in spring 2023. The group is also putting out a call for new actors and board members.
The members of Friends of the Arts are certainly proud of the work they have done and are hopeful for the future.
"We need to keep going," Raske said.