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The Geeks Get Loud

3M may be the greatest idea factory in the world—smarter than Apple, more innovative than GE. But has Minnesota modesty been holding it back?



(page 3 of 3)

Something happened to 3M in the 1990s, or rather something didn’t happen. Nearly every major corporation in America was changing, becoming leaner if not meaner—except 3M. Soon enough, its insular, lab-driven culture, with its de-facto credo of “now that we’ve invented it, people are going to want it,” as one 3M marketing executive puts it, proved no match for streamlined global competition. Sales were erratic. 3M stock barely budged during the late ’90s tech boom. In a business world increasingly driven by Wall Street, with its twin loves of buzz and efficiency, 3M’s old-fashioned reputation for eureka moments had become a liability. There was a sense, says Carter, that 3M was “a bunch of bumbling scientists who just discover these things.”

Then, in 2000, James McNerney was named the new 3M CEO, the first outsider to hold the post. Within days of the news, 3M stock jumped 20 percent. A disciple of General Electric deity Jack Welch, McNerney quickly axed 8,000 employees (about 11 percent of the workforce), cut expenditures by 22 percent in his first year and another 11 percent in his second. He implemented Six Sigma, a management protocol popularized at GE that attempts to remove variability and waste from a production process, starting with developing only those products that can be made most efficiently. Thousands of 3Mers were indoctrinated in the process and in turn taught their colleagues. “They drank the Kool-Aid,” a former engineer told me.

By the time McNerney bolted for Boeing, in 2005, manufacturing speed at 3M factories had risen 40 percent and profits had grown, on average, 22 percent each year. But 3M’s research and development labs were, by many accounts, deeply demoralized. Mention Six Sigma to former 3M engineers who worked through the McNerney years and they invariably sigh, raise their eyebrows, shake their heads. Current, profitable products took precedence over “blue sky” research, as the discovery process is known. The number of new inventions dwindled.
Fry declared at the time that McNerney, given enough time, would likely have killed the 3M mystique entirely. “What’s remarkable,” he said, “is how fast a culture can be torn apart.”
 

Equally remarkable may be how fast a culture can be knit back together, if in fact that’s what is happening at 3M. George Buckley, who took over from McNerney, was also an outsider. But as a scientist himself, he seemed to understand the conflict between creativity and control. He built the research budget back up and yanked Six Sigma out of the laboratories, calling innovation “an inherently messy process.”

3M is now trying to reignite the sort of idea-sharing between divisions that fostered Post-it Notes and came naturally when 3M was a much smaller company. Walls are literally being torn down throughout the headquarters and a central plaza is being constructed where employees will be compelled to cross paths.

Instead of trying to restrict invention, 3M is now trying to explain it, advertise it—get a little louder. It hired Porcini, of course, and, five years ago, it opened an Innovation Center at its headquarters, a kind of private science museum complete with a movie theater and dozens of displays (including a prototype of Armstrong’s moon boots) designed to dazzle clients with 3M’s technological prowess. It has similarly educated its own employees, grooming them through guidebooks and seminars to be “brand ambassadors” (some of the most eloquent have appeared in videos on 3M’s YouTube channel) and helping them to refine their “30-second elevator speech” on what exactly 3M does, so they’ll be ready when someone asks, “So what do you do?”

But some observers, including former employees, wonder if the push to talk about innovation isn’t solving a problem so much as covering one up: the ongoing struggle to bring 3M culture into the modern era.

“You wouldn’t have to talk about innovation if it was obvious,” says Travis Hoium, a former product developer at 3M who left in 2009. Hoium worked in various 3M labs in Minnesota, finishing in a blue-sky lab “where I was working on whatever I wanted,” he says. He has a handful of patents from those days. But he believes that as the company has grown, it’s inevitably lost some tolerance for risk along with the employee trust that McKnight advocated.

“Of course it’s not the 1960s anymore; the economy is different, things have changed for all large companies,” Hoium says. “But 3M was a family business. They built a golf course. Everyone was a neighbor. If you won a technical award, you’d get a week at Wenowak. If the executive plane was flying somewhere and you wanted to visit relatives there, you could ride along. That doesn’t happen anymore. ”

Hoium recalls a tech meeting in which Buckley was invited to address the engineers. “We thought we’d get some rallying, some inspirational talk,” he says. Instead, Hoium says, Buckley noted that Chinese workers toil for far less pay. “The takeaway was, if you don’t work harder, you’re all going to be fired,” he says.

Hoium now works as an analyst and columnist for the Motley Fool investment-advice firm, and while he hasn’t advised against buying 3M stock—he owns some himself—he has opined that the company’s innovative magic has been replaced by something else: predictable if profitable genericness. “3M got to a size and age where it wanted Six Sigma,” he says, “and once you go off that cliff, I don’t know that you ever come back.”

Many analysts have cheered the arrival of new CEO Inge Thulin, who marks a return to 3M’s insider tradition: he has spent 33 years working for 3M around the world. Jeff Lavers and other 3M spokespeople argue that the magic is already back, noting that sales from products released in the past five years, a gauge of 3M’s inventiveness, are expected to comprise 32 or 33 percent of the total this year, up from 21 percent in 2005. The goal is 40 percent, Lavers says, better than the good old days.

Even if the labs have regained their luster, however, the question now is whether 3M can ever grow out of its shell without breaking it. “What we’ve learned,” Lavers says, “is that we sometimes take the beautiful culture we have here for granted. The more customers know about it, the more they like it. But how do you bottle that magic?” In other words, how do you sell serendipity?
 

It’s not difficult to spot the Design Lab at 3M headquarters, though it’s nestled inside one of the nondescript Mad Men-era buildings. The ordinary tan floor tiles in the corridor suddenly snap to fluorescent pink carpeting, which meanders, stream-like, through the lab. (Porcini, employees say, is constantly inventing new nicknames for it, like “the pink river leading us to greatness.”) And there, suddenly, are bearded young men eschewing sweaters. Massive Post-it Notes about two-feet square—what they look like at the factory before they’re cut down to size—are stacked in the entryway. Fluorescent, of course.

“If you want the best designers in the world, you need the right space to attract them,” Porcini tells me. “But we had to make it easy for tech people to be comfortable here, too. Without interaction we would be, how do you say, a dead branch.”

The designers work in an open area: no cubes, no walls. Design manager Lee Fain, who calls himself “a right-brain thinker in a left-brain company,” has marked out a desk-side parking spot with tape (3M presumably) for the Razor scooter he uses to cross campus. On the periphery are eight brainstorming rooms for specific brands or divisions, like the Post-it Note room, where a deer mount covered with the stickers hangs from the wall, and the Scotch tape room, with its fluorescent green carpeting, a shade that Porcini knows best by its Italian name: verde olive.

Porcini’s office, dominated by a poster of Audrey Hepburn hanging askew behind his desk, is full of the latest, greatest 3M inventions. His favorite is a video projector so small you can carry it in your pocket. “You can project everywhere!” he says.  

He also keeps a tiny man nearby—the Little Tape Man. Created by the Milanese designer of Alessi’s playful kitchen utensils, he appears to be crawling on his belly. Scotch tape is pulled through his head and attached to his upraised foot. It was Porcini’s idea, back in 2004, to update the Scotch tape dispenser—after 43 years—with something provocative. It was displayed in exhibits and design books. Buckley had one on his desk. But ultimately the Little Tape Man never hit the market.

“Innovation is about risk,” Porcini tells me, “working on the fine edge of feasible and not feasible. But it was too early for 3M to embrace that kind of language.” He keeps the Little Tape Man close at hand “as a symbol of this journey.”
 

Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.
 

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August 2015

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Cost: Free

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Multiple locations throughout the Twin Cities area
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1001 Kingwood St
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550 Vandalia Street, Suite 120
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Stanley's Northeast Bar Room
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Caponi Art Park
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Eagan, MN  55123
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Cost: Free

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Studio 395, Northrup King Building
1500 Jackson St. NE
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Sponsor: Kolman & Pryor Gallery
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Cost: Free registration

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Cost: $10

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Cost: Free

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Cost: Free and open to the public

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Cost: Free

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Contact Name: Anita Sue Kolman
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Cost: Free registration

Where:
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14675 Martin Drive
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View map »


Sponsor: Academy of Russian Ballet
Telephone: 612 501 9208
Contact Name: Kirill Bak
Website »

More information

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View map »


Sponsor: Franklin Art Center
Website »

More information

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View map »

More information

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Cost: Free

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Website »

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All Originals Jazz Series presents Bryan Nichols Quintet: Brian Nichols, piano, JT Bates, drums, James Buckley, bass, Brandon Wozniak & Michael Lewis, saxophones. All Originals is a weekly...

Cost: $10

Where:
Studio Z
275 E. 4th Street, Suite 200
St. Paul, MN  55101
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Sponsor: Studio Z
Telephone: 651-755-1600
Website »

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Join Day Block Brewing on Thursday Aug 27th as they host Nooky Jones, unveiling their exclusive beer specially designed in collaboration with the brewing team at Day Block Brewing - a part of their...

Cost: $12

Where:
Day Block Event Center
1103 Washington Ave S
Minneapolis, MN  55415
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The Bridge Chamber Music Festival is proud to announce its 14th season, August 20-27, in Northfield, MN. The annual concert series is held at various venues and dates over a week's span in...

Cost: $5

Where:
Carleton Concert Hall
1 North College St
Northfield, MN  55057
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Sponsor: Bridge Chamber Festival
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July 13, 2015 – White Bear Lake, Minn. – White Bear Lake is an extraordinarily picturesque Minnesota city that has maintained its small-town character over the past 150 years. It is...

Cost: Free

Where:
White Bear Center for the Arts
4971 Long Avenue
White Bear Lake, MN  55110
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Telephone: 612-990-0126
Contact Name: Lynn Nelson
Website »

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Paul Shambroom: Lost presents three new projects by internationally renowned photographer Paul Shambroom. The series Lost features photographs whose imagery is taken from old flyers of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Minnesota Museum of American Art Project Space
141 E. 4th Street
St. Paul, MN  55101
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Website »

More information

Join us for a salon-style show featuring new works by hundreds of artists including Israeli artist Shay Kun and local artists Carl Bretzke, Mary Lingen, Wayne Meineke, Mike Welton, Kevan...

Cost: Free and open to the public

Where:
Douglas Flanders & Associates
818 West Lake Street
Minneapolis, MN  55408
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Telephone: 612791-1285
Contact Name: Douglas Flanders
Website »

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The Meeting Waters Friday, August 28, 2015 – Sunday, August 30, 2015  Whittier Studios Reception: Friday, August 28, 6:00-9:00 p.m. Uniting artists from disparate...

Cost: Free

Where:
MCAD Whittier Gallery
2840 Grand Avenue, Minneapolis
Minneapolis, MN  55408
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Telephone: 612-874-3793
Contact Name: Ann Benrud

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Summer Group Show 2015 Featuring the artists of the Kolman & Pryor Gallery: Betsy Ruth Byers: Painting Kate Casanova: Mixed Media and Sculpture Jim Dryden: Painting Jil Evans: Painting...

Cost: Free

Where:
Kolman & Pryor Gallery
Studio 395, Northrup King Building
1500 Jackson St. NE
Minneapolis, MN  55413
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Sponsor: Kolman & Pryor Gallery
Telephone: 612-385-4239
Contact Name: Anita Sue Kolman
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Summer at the Civic: Free Friday Concerts Patio and Grill open at 4pm, Happy Hour 4 – 6pm, Music at 5:30 – 9pm Free admission.  Rain or shine. Fresh food & cold drinks....

Cost: Free

Where:
Rochester Civic Theatre
20 Civic Center Dr. SE
Rochester, MN  55904
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Sponsor: 507 Magazine
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Jay “Jayder” Kalk formed Church of Cash in sunny Honolulu back in 2010. With an uncanny grasp of the Man in Black’s catalog and many years of experience touring the United States,...

Cost: $5

Where:
Mankato Brewery
1119 Center Street
North Mankato, MN  56003
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Sponsor: Mankato Brewery
Contact Name: Curt Van Asten

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Fall registration During Open House you will meet teachers, observe class, register and place your child in appropriate level. Wednesday August 12 Open House 4:30pm-7:00pm 4:30-6:30...

Cost: Free registration

Where:
Academy of Russian Ballet
14675 Martin Drive
Eden Prairie, MN  55344
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Sponsor: Academy of Russian Ballet
Telephone: 612 501 9208
Contact Name: Kirill Bak
Website »

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Franklin Arts Center | Resident Artists Gallery will host a new body of work by Minneapolis artist Sara Suppan. Suppan’s paintings explore the relationship between the home and its...

Cost: Free

Where:
Franklin Art Center Resident Artists Gallery
1001 Kingwood St
Brainerd, MN  56401
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Sponsor: Franklin Art Center
Website »

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The Raymond Avenue Gallery is pleased to announce its 2015 third quarter exhibition: MINGEI INSPIRATIONS Raymond Avenue Gallery proudly presents the pottery of Lee Love and the paintings of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Raymond Avenue Gallery
761 Raymond Avenue
St. Paul, MN  55114
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Telephone: 651-644-9200
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Starring Meghan Wolff, Maggie K. Sotos, Sophie Brossard, Eric Heiberg, MJ Marsh, and Sean Dillon A ruthless competition where actors try to make the best and longest scene, and where the...

Cost: $10

Where:
Bryant Lake Bowl Theater
810 W Lake St
Minneapolis, MN  55408
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Bria Blessing for Ukraine (North American Tour) Don’t miss your chance to hear the magic voice of Bria Blessing, American Ukrainian, who has been living in Ukraine for more than 15 years...

Cost: $25-$35

Where:
Hopkins High School Theater Auditorium
2400 Lindbergh Drive
Minnetonka, MN  55305
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More information

In our latest best-of show, "Throwback BNW: Junk from our Trunk," the cast takes a look in the BNW archives for the best sketches from the last decade. The show will feature recent...

Cost: $25-$32

Where:
Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre
824 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN  55403
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Sponsor: Brave New Workshop
Telephone: 612-332-6620
Website »

More information

Join Day Block Brewing on Thursday Aug 27th as they host Nooky Jones, unveiling their exclusive beer specially designed in collaboration with the brewing team at Day Block Brewing - a part of their...

Cost: $12

Where:
Day Block Event Center
1103 Washington Ave S
Minneapolis, MN  55415
View map »

More information

July 13, 2015 – White Bear Lake, Minn. – White Bear Lake is an extraordinarily picturesque Minnesota city that has maintained its small-town character over the past 150 years. It is...

Cost: Free

Where:
White Bear Center for the Arts
4971 Long Avenue
White Bear Lake, MN  55110
View map »


Telephone: 612-990-0126
Contact Name: Lynn Nelson
Website »

More information

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Join SoFabU On the Road for an all day blogging Conference on August 29th at Mall of America. This event is open to all bloggers and influencers. There will be two keynote...

Cost: $59.99-$149.99

Where:
Mall of America
60 East Broadway
Bloomington, MN  55425
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Sponsor: SoFabUOTR
Website »

More information

Discover your power to heal! Reiki I - Level I Reiki is about acquiring the healing ability. In a Reiki I session students will learn the following: Summary of Reiki – origins,...

Cost: $150

Where:
Rising Sun Reiki Studio
4180 West Broadway
Suite B3
Robbinsdale, MN  55422
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Sponsor: Rising Sun Reiki Studio
Telephone: 612-940-5851
Contact Name: Cyndi Stavrou
Website »

More information

Join us in supporting Yoga For Water! Yoga For Water is an event, which will be held in participating yoga studios throughout the nation on August 29. The goal is to raise awareness and funds to...

Cost: Donation

Where:
YogaFit Studios Excelsior
494 Water St.
Excelsior, MN  55331
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Sponsor: YogaFit Studios Excelsior
Telephone: 952-401-8888
Contact Name: Sarah
Website »

More information

Paul Shambroom: Lost presents three new projects by internationally renowned photographer Paul Shambroom. The series Lost features photographs whose imagery is taken from old flyers of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Minnesota Museum of American Art Project Space
141 E. 4th Street
St. Paul, MN  55101
View map »


Website »

More information

Invest a few life-changing hours in our Power Trading Workshop, where you’ll learn: How to identify points where supply and demand are out of balance and price is about to move. The...

Cost: Free

Where:
Online Trading Academy Minneapolis
7900 International Drive Suite 170
Bloomington, MN  55425
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Telephone: (952) 814-4424
Website »

More information

Black and White refers to both the striking graphic qualities of the printed image and to the divisiveness at the heart of apartheid—the segregation of black and white. The remarkable story...

Cost: Free

Where:
Weisman Art Museum
333 East River Road
Minneapolis, MN  55455
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Sponsor: Weisman Art Museum
Telephone: 612-625-9494
Contact Name: Erin Lauderman
Website »

More information

Join us for a salon-style show featuring new works by hundreds of artists including Israeli artist Shay Kun and local artists Carl Bretzke, Mary Lingen, Wayne Meineke, Mike Welton, Kevan...

Cost: Free and open to the public

Where:
Douglas Flanders & Associates
818 West Lake Street
Minneapolis, MN  55408
View map »


Telephone: 612791-1285
Contact Name: Douglas Flanders
Website »

More information

Join us in supporting Yoga For Water! Yoga For Water is an event, which will be held in participating yoga studios throughout the nation on August 29. The goal is to raise awareness and funds to...

Cost: Donation

Where:
YogaFit Studios Northeast Minneapolis
520 1st Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN  55413
View map »


Sponsor: YogaFit Studios Northeast Minneapolis
Telephone: 612-444-2151
Contact Name: Jillian
Website »

More information

The Meeting Waters Friday, August 28, 2015 – Sunday, August 30, 2015  Whittier Studios Reception: Friday, August 28, 6:00-9:00 p.m. Uniting artists from disparate...

Cost: Free

Where:
MCAD Whittier Gallery
2840 Grand Avenue, Minneapolis
Minneapolis, MN  55408
View map »


Telephone: 612-874-3793
Contact Name: Ann Benrud

More information

Red Wing Depot Gallery will be full of the season...The Harvest Season. Depending on your background, you may envision different things when you consider harvest time. We have artwork that reflects...

Cost: Free

Where:
Red Wing Depot Gallery
418 Levee Street
Red Wing, MN  55066
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Sponsor: Red Wing Arts Association
Telephone: 651-388-7569
Contact Name: Arlene Roth
Website »

More information

Join us in supporting Yoga For Water! Yoga For Water is an event, which will be held in participating yoga studios throughout the nation on August 29. The goal is to raise awareness and funds to...

Cost: Donation

Where:
YogaFit Studios Linden Hills
4507 France Ave. S
Minneapolis, MN  55410
View map »


Sponsor: YogaFit Studios Linden Hills
Telephone: 612-444-1991
Contact Name: Grace
Website »

More information

2015 BLONDES VS. BRUNETTES TWIN CITIES   Help the Alzheimer’s Association Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter advance Alzheimer's care, services, programs and research by...

Cost: Free

Where:
Concordia University | Seafoam Stadium
1380 Concordia Avenue
ST. PAUL, MN
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Telephone: 410-627-0561
Contact Name: Nicole Atkinson
Website »

More information

Join A Little Green Festival for a late summer celebration! Bring a picnic and enjoy the free music of The Fairlanes (Doo-wop & pop hits from the 50's and 60's) and Late for Lunch...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wolfe Park Amphitheater
3700 Monterey Drive
Minneapolis, MN  55416
View map »


Sponsor: Little Green Women
Telephone: 612200-0329
Contact Name: Jenny Webber
Website »

More information

Fall registration During Open House you will meet teachers, observe class, register and place your child in appropriate level. Wednesday August 12 Open House 4:30pm-7:00pm 4:30-6:30...

Cost: Free registration

Where:
Academy of Russian Ballet
14675 Martin Drive
Eden Prairie, MN  55344
View map »


Sponsor: Academy of Russian Ballet
Telephone: 612 501 9208
Contact Name: Kirill Bak
Website »

More information

Franklin Arts Center | Resident Artists Gallery will host a new body of work by Minneapolis artist Sara Suppan. Suppan’s paintings explore the relationship between the home and its...

Cost: Free

Where:
Franklin Art Center Resident Artists Gallery
1001 Kingwood St
Brainerd, MN  56401
View map »


Sponsor: Franklin Art Center
Website »

More information

Join Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy for our newest fundraiser, Wine & Dine for Climate, at Minnesota's oldest operating winery: Alexis Bailly Vineyard! Enjoy a selection...

Cost: $50

Where:
Alexis Bailly Vineyard
18200 Kirby Ave. South
Hastings, MN  55033
View map »


Sponsor: Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy
Telephone: 612-278-7147
Contact Name: Katie Siegner
Website »

More information

Th Saint Henry's Catholic Church Parish Festival runs for two whole days and High Brow and The Shades & Who Knows It? (the Twin Cities only musical game show) performs on Saturday, August...

Cost: Free

Where:
1001 East 7th Street
Monticello, MN  55362


Sponsor: Saint Henry's Catholic Church
Telephone: (763) 295-2402
Contact Name: Linda@highbrowandtheshades.com
Website »

More information

In our latest best-of show, "Throwback BNW: Junk from our Trunk," the cast takes a look in the BNW archives for the best sketches from the last decade. The show will feature recent...

Cost: $25-$32

Where:
Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre
824 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN  55403
View map »


Sponsor: Brave New Workshop
Telephone: 612-332-6620
Website »

More information

July 13, 2015 – White Bear Lake, Minn. – White Bear Lake is an extraordinarily picturesque Minnesota city that has maintained its small-town character over the past 150 years. It is...

Cost: Free

Where:
White Bear Center for the Arts
4971 Long Avenue
White Bear Lake, MN  55110
View map »


Telephone: 612-990-0126
Contact Name: Lynn Nelson
Website »

More information

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