The McKnight Foundation recently named Minnesota playwright, director, producer, theater artist, and musician Rick Shiomi as the 2015 McKnight Distinguished Artist, in recognition of artistic excellence spanning four decades. Now in its 18th year, the annual honor includes a $50,000 cash award and recognizes individual Minnesota artists who have made "significant contributions to the quality of the state’s cultural life."
Before we take a closer look at the award and Shiomi's oeuvre, let's step back and see how this award fits into the bigger picture that is McKnight's mission and funding priorities.
When I last looked at the foundation, it was through the lens of its work in connecting artists with the public. The foundation awarded Minneapolis-based nonprofit organizations that reinvented seemingly innocuous experiences like reading, created unique visitor experiences, and immersed individual artists within the community.
These efforts fit squarely within the foundation's stated objectives of supporting working artists, funding organizations that "fuel exceptional and diverse artistic practice," and leveraging "community value." And at the center of it all stands the artist, the axis that makes the whole machine hum. To paraphrase baseball legend Reggie Jackson, the artist is "the straw that stirs the drink." It's why McKnight set up the McKnight Composition Fellowship and the aforementioned McKnight Distinguished Artist award.
All of which brings us back to Mr. Shiomi.
A seminal leader of the Asian-American theater movement since the 1980s, Rick Shiomi has written, produced, or directed over 50 plays during his career. He is perhaps best known as co-founder of St. Paul’s Theater Mu, dedicated to bringing Asian-American voices to the stage. Shiomi founded Theater Mu in 1992 and served as artistic director from 1993 through 2013. Under his leadership, Theater Mu became Mu Performing Arts and grew from a small startup in an area where Asian-American theater was almost nonexistent into a nationally recognized company.
As for the award itself, McKnight recognizes individuals who help "lay the foundation for Minnesota’s rich cultural life." It acknowledges artists who ignore the siren call of sunny LA or intoxicating New York and choose to stay put in the upper Midwest. As McKnight's site notes, "Despite opportunities to work elsewhere, they chose to stay—and by staying, they have made a difference."
Previous winners include poet John Caddy (2012), theater artist Wendy Lehr (2013), and theater artist Sandy Spieler (2014). McKnight will honor Shiomi at a private reception later this year.