About place

Sarah Lutman, formerly of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and currently of the consulting world, shares an essential and compelling treatise on art and place, and the interplay between the two. She focuses on Minnesota Orchestra’s possible future, given its recent stormy past. But her framing is important for any arts organization.

Napa Valley

Flickr user seligmanwaite

Best for you to just read it. But essentially she’s wondering whether arts organizations can/should strive to be of their place rather than just in it. Says she:

I am not referring to “creative placemaking” as it is now defined. I am talking about place, about terroir — finding resonant ways to live and thrive in a very specific place, in its geology, climate, and landscapes, in its history, culture and social organization. Terroir means the unique qualities imparted to, for example, wine, that can be evoked only because of the specific place (soil, climate, culture) where it is grown.

The intriguing connection to wine continues with the French distinction between ‘wine of effort’ (defined by the craft and vision of the winemaker) and ‘wine of place’ (defined by the qualities and nuances of its specific location). She suggests that the Minnesota Orchestra, like most professional, large orchestras, has been a ‘wine of effort’ — defined by the professional and artistic standards of other major orchestras. And she wonders what it might look and act like if it strived to be a ‘wine of place.’

Obviously, effort and place are deeply intertwined; any human endeavor is a vexing combination of nature and nurture. But our approach and our intent can tilt one way or the other. And it’s fair to say that our professional culture system has often favored making excellent work by the standards of each discipline, rather than finding essential interplay between a discipline and a place.

And, of course, a cultural leader is steward to both the art process/discipline they engage and the place in which they work. Lutman’s inspiration for her post, winemaker Randall Grahm, captures this tension and task rather well:

As a winemaker in the Old World, if you are fortunate enough to be entrusted to care for one of these great vineyards, your job is really two-fold. First and foremost, you are not to screw it up. Secondly, if you have the wit to manage the first part of your imperative, your secondary task is to explore as deeply as you can, discover, as the French would say, your particular terroir, i.e. the individual distinctiveness of your site.



  1. says

    There is a type of terroir that is local, and a type that is not. We have a few cities with a highly local sense of terroir, like Santa Fe and New Orleans, but that is in part because they set themselves apart through being Spanish and French, respectively. They can’t be taken as a norm for how other cities in the USA could develop terror. Neither city, for example, is known for the high performing arts. So what would terroir be in most American cities which do not have such strong local characters, and which support high performing arts forms that are national and international in their character and history?

    Orchestras, for example, vary only nationally, and in our global village, even those distinctions are now rare. So the analogy between terroir and an orchestra developing a unique sense of place is weak and confusing. It could create false expectations and unrealizable goals. An orchestra is a very specific kind of ensemble with a very specific repertoire. It is not something that can become especially unique to a locale. In many respects, this is true for most of the high performing arts like opera and ballet.

    When a sense of terroir evolves in European cities, it is with rare exception not because their orchestras or opera houses develop a highly unique regional style. It evolves because the city prides itself on its cultural richness and completeness. The city says, we have a rich cultural life here. You can be bound to the earth here because we support and celebrate the highest levels of human intelligence and dignity across a wide spectrum. Our rich culture lives on all levels imbue our city with an atmosphere of sophistication and intelligence, and provides us with a sense of cultural autonomy.

    So that becomes the definition of terroir – an artistic fullness that gives a city cultural completeness and autonomy.

    That’s why Augsburg, Germany has a full time opera house even though its only 45 minutes from Munich and its famed Staatsoper. It why Ludwigshafen and Heidelburg have full time orchestras even though they are close to Stuttgart with its great ensembles. That’s why Graz and Innsbruck have full time opera houses and are not content to let the Vienna State Opera represent them. Terroir doesn’t mean having an orchestra with a unique style; it means being culturally complete and autonomous as a city.

    Needless to say, there are few American cities with this type of terroir. Basically, there is only New York, with Chicago and San Francisco trailing distantly as our only other candidates. These three cities, for example, are the only three in the USA in the top 100 cities for opera performances per year.

    So the question isn’t how the Minnesota Orchestra can develop terroir, but rather how it can contribute to giving terroir to Minneapolis.

    Terroir in Minneapolis would mean having a full time orchestra, a full time opera house with a ballet company, and a full time spoken theater. It would mean that Minneapolis could say that it is culturally autonomous and complete. Terroir is this sense is not an object like an orchestra or an opera house; it is a desire to live a certain way. The city itself is the unique wine, not its cultural institutions.

    A couple weeks ago there was fairly long discussion in the AJ Blog Culture Crash about the local nature of culture and how it relates to arts funding . Those interested can find it here:


    • says

      Thanks William. I find the framework of ‘terroir’ quite useful and clarifying. I think every place has unique elements and energies, whether or not they manifest in a cohesive or obvious ‘character’. And I don’t agree that a full complement of resident, professional cultural institutions or providers is necessary to a region’s ‘terroir’.

      The point, to me, of the metaphor was that each place has subtle, sometimes imperceivable, but persistent qualities; that cultural leaders might spend a bit more time and energy noticing and responding to those qualities; and a bit less time trying to look and sound and behave like some national or international archetype of their discipline.

      Yes, the world is global and connected in almost every way. But no, that doesn’t mean unique and robust local flavor and ‘climate’ for culture is or should be the same wherever you go.

      • says

        Miami has a metro area of 5.5 million people but does not have a professional symphony orchestra, nor an opera house. For opera performance per year it ranks 174th in the world. A person in Miami wanting to see an opera can definitely feel like they are in a Nowhereville – a place with no terroir. Miami certainly has terroir, a lot of local color, but in the high arts it is still a little place compared to its huge size and wealth. Surely this factors in determining the health and character of a city’s terroir.

        Americans, of course, are likely to disagree. They do not have a system for funding institutions like opera houses, and struggle even to fund orchestras, so they create an easier definition of terroir – sadly often the type in those big cheap bottles on the lower shelves. That’s why, among many reasons, Minneapolis isn’t like European cities with similar or even much smaller populations like Ghent, Genoa, Salzburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Lyon, Helsinki, Lucerne, Bern, or Stockholm. These cities have much more terroir, not just because they are older, but because they strive for, and pay for, cultural completeness and autonomy. A flash point is achieved where culture comes truly alive. It’s call terroir.

        The opera house at Kennedy Center was built over 40 years ago, but Washington D.C. still ranks 182nd in the world for opera performances per year (while having the world’s 11th largest metro GDP.)

        Look at the rankings for a few other capital cities, all listed on the website of Operabase:

        Vienna 1
        Berlin 2
        Paris 3
        Moscow 4
        Prague 6
        London 7
        Budapest 9
        Stockholm 14
        Sydney 16
        Madrid 17

        Even Athens in impoverished Greece comes in at 28th.

        Then comes Washington at 182nd. There are common stories of diplomats and other foreign dignitaries visiting Washington and wanting to see an opera only to discover the next performance is four months away. Aside from the lack of cultural offerings in the high arts, one might also take a tour of our cities’ massive and dehumanizing ghettos to see what our concept of terroir is. Very often, the stuff is undrinkable. Our definition of place, or terroir, is an urban wasteland to be quickly passed through to get to a flat, generic life in the suburbs.

        Europeans view the city itself as the greatest and most complete expression of the human mind and spirit. Venice, Florence, Rome, Prague, Amsterdam, Dresden, Barcelona and Paris, just to name a few, are all imbued with this ideal of terroir.

        Americans, by contrast, behave almost as if they have lost hope in their cities, as if they were dangerous and inhuman urban wastelands to be abandoned for the suburbs. This tacit assumption has had a profound but largely unrecognized effect on American political and cultural discourse. For a city like Detroit, the terroir has literally become a form of horror. How ironic when a bottle of wine has a poison label on it. No wonder Americans look away instead of facing the truth about the terroir of their cities. By necessity, they prefer more flexible definitions.

        Anyway, thanks for being one of the few who keep us thinking.

  2. says

    Terroir is evocative as a concept. Discussing large institutions, like orchestras or major theatres , may cause us to overlook the many arts making organizations that are already present in and of their place. Some years ago–partly in response to much theatre I had seen and done coast to coast–I founded a theatre with the specific idea that it belong to its place, that it be of and with its community. Could such a theatre survive? It did. Now 45 years kater In the Heart of the Beast is very much of its place. In fact, it helps shape its particular community in South Minnepaolis AND it has traveled the nation and the world. Being of thier place for an orchestra or a theatre long set in a different way of thinking is a refreshing idea–and much is to be learned from work already in place, of the terroir. Will funding pattrns and values shift to help this happen?

    • says

      It’s useful to consider the complex relationships between large and small institutions in conceptions of terroir. There is something deeply symbiotic in what produces a great wine – relationships and interactions so complex they can’t be defined. A flash point is reached where everything comes together. By contrast, if even one part becomes sick or absent, the terroir of wine is lost.

      Remember the Harlem Renaissance? What glorious terroir. What caused it to die? It wasn’t just a loss of heights, but utter destruction. It died along with the death of the entire concept of the American city.

      The musical style called Motown was one of America’s greatest achievements of cultural terroir. It died of the same disease that has put the Detroit Institute of Art close to an auction block.

      The richest terroir is created when there are large institutions and a rich underground existing side by side – like great vines and good soil in symbiotic relationship. I’ve noticed that the cities that spend the most on big opera (like NYC in the USA) also spend the most on small experimental forms of music theater. There are close symbiotic relationships between the large and small in terroir. If the Minnesota Orchestra eventually dies, your theater will not be far behind. If the orchestra once again flourishes, chances are your theater will continue to as well.

      There is, of course, another scenario when cultures face epochal changes. At the end of the Permian era about 95% of the life forms on earth became extinct in a mass die off. It took about 10 million years for the same number of species to again populate the planet. Entirely new life forms were created. At times, this seems to be America’s approach to terroir in cities like Detroit.