“I think we were bored,” chuckles Myrna Johnson, when asked why she and a group of enthusiastic artists began the Northfield Arts Guild in 1959. “We were mostly housewives who didn’t have jobs,” she said. It is sometimes from humble beginnings that many flourishing arts organizations are founded, but Myrna was proud to say that in the 1960s the Guild quickly became a model for community arts in the region.
“We founded it to last forever,” said Myrna. The strong mission of supporting all forms of arts in the community was a magnet for amateurs and professionals alike. The organization grew quickly, and five years after the founding they established a home in the Old Church on West Third Street, the building where the Arts Guild still stages theatre productions and the new 411 Music Series today.
The first play produced was “Ah Wilderness,” by American playwright Eugene O’Neill and directed by Ralph Haugen, a St. Olaf professor at that time. Myrna explained that many of the early activities were funded by “our own pockets.” In an historical account of the Arts Guild, Sue Shepard, the Guild’s first executive director, describes how “modest membership dues took care of printing the class schedule, the electricity and the heat. Classes were self-supporting; ticket sales (usually $5) paid for royalties, sets and miscellaneous production needs.” The two colleges were additionally a great supporting factor throughout for providing both talent and volunteers.
Volunteers & Expansion
This community of collaborative artists intuitively knew how to bootstrap and harness the power of volunteers. One of the first major activities was an outdoor arts fair that attracted visitors from all over the state for quality art work and accompanying entertainment. This event helped to sustain the organization for much of its other artistic programming throughout the year. In 1978, the Guild famously purchased the old YMCA building on the main street for $1.00 – now the Center for the Arts. Sue Shepard highlights that “it was successful because the community rallied around the project. To the majority it was seen as a good thing to have arts on the main street – a reflection of the quality of life in their town.” Myrna agrees. “There was a lot going on in the 90s” with most of the Arts Guild activities enjoying “good crowds.”
Throughout her 50-plus years of involvement, Myrna says, she reveled in directing a variety of theater productions for the Guild, stating matter-of-factly, “If you wanted to act, you had to direct.” She adds, “We had good sets and costumes with often 20-30 people working on any one production.”
The Guild also enjoyed support from the Northfield News, with local icon Maggie Lee regularly writing positive reviews. Although Myrna could not specifically select a favorite show, she had a penchant for the musicals because, she says, most of the actors could “sing better than they could act.” Myrna has long retired from directing but she still regularly attends events at the Arts Guild. “I still miss it [directing] but I wouldn’t really want to be doing it – been there, done that.” Now, as the Arts Guild enters its 55th year, Myrna affectionately shares her legacy with both the many other artists and thespians who founded the organization, and all those who have since enjoyed the ongoing benefit of that early work.