State of the Arts

According to the guidebook at my dentist’s office, we live in one of the best metropolitan areas in America, and recent census figures say our incomes are among the highest nationally as well. Indeed, the McKnight Foundation reported recently that more people visited the five major Twin Cities museums in 1998 than went to see the Twins, Timberwolves, and Vikings combined. Dance and theater is growing by leaps and shouts. The Walker Art Center is an unabashed world player in contemporary art, and Bruce Dayton and director Evan Mauer seem driven to put the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on the international map. Ask the National Endowment for the Arts and you’ll learn that more cultural centimes are spent here per capita than any other state in the country. But still, where are those artist types? The vanguard? The painters, sculptors, photographers, videographers, multi-mediaists, the ones who actually make art, who are the scene, who put a place on the map?

By and large, they’re waiting your table, or painting your house, or doing freelance ad layout for Best Buy. Being an artist in these parts means you’re doing it in your spare time—after you’ve brought home a paycheck. Many have chosen to swim for friendlier waters. Nancy Robinson, a painter who’s been working in Minneapolis since the mid-80s, has watched the scene—and artist friends—come and go. Two years ago she received a travel grant from the Jerome Foundation in order to pursue exhibiting in Chicago. She visited Chicago and later New York, and had the almost unheard of fortune to get shows in both cities. In the process, leaving Minnesota became an option. “There was just so much more going on elsewhere,” she says.

The experts estimate that Minnesota has an abundance of the creative poor. McKnight counted 300,000 artists a few years ago. But that same survey also noted that more than 60 percent of those artists were making less than $7,000 per year. There’s a lot of art being made here, but not much of it is selling.

The gap between local art and local pocketbooks is longstanding. Big collectors pick up Artforum or Jansen’s History of Art and they’re off to Chelsea or Madison Avenue. They buy it there, bring it back here, and—voila!—we’re a cultural capital. It’s reassuring to be told what’s good. Just so, small collectors are an endangered species. Galleries have been closing over the past five years as if a plague had gone through, and visual arts coverage in the local press has been little more than an afterthought. But the oft-heard cry over shrinking show space and a blind press is only begging the question. If the interest is going elsewhere and the money is going to the estates of Picasso and Rothko, then maybe there’s no reason to open the gallery doors or dedicate the column inches. Certainly there are plenty of people here who are passionate about art, but most of them are the ones making it, the ones with the empty pocket books. “I know plenty of people who didn’t make a dime on their work last year,” laments one painter friend. The few galleries that are shouting in the wilderness, like Flanders and Kellie Rae Theiss in the Warehouse district, are struggling valiantly for every penny. “We celebrated our fifth year in January,” says Theiss. “Things have been hard, but this year there’s been a turn for the better.” Heidi Andermack, former president of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, adds, “The number of artists in Art-a-Whirl went from 150 to 300 in just a two-year period.” In the studio enclaves of Nordeast Minneapolis and Lowertown in St. Paul, artists have organized open house-style tours like Art-a-Whirl and the St. Paul Art Crawl. They’re festive events. But at a combined seven nights out of a year, they still seem like a novelty.

Elsewhere, scattered widely across this gulf, are a handful of islands known as nonprofit/alternative spaces. Irrigated mostly by mercurial grant dollars (thank God for the likes of McKnight and Jerome) and led by a new generation of hardworking art prophets, local artists have found a few good places to mix it up, even sometimes with bigger boys and girls from the coasts. The Soap Factory is the grandaddy provocateur on the scene, with a truly impressive history of exhibits going back to 1988. Dozens of emerging artists have found a friend in director Christi Atkinson, who offers an open door but high standards. PARTS Photographic Arts has been doing the same for its genre nearly as long. PARTS’ presence, along with Intermedia Arts and more recently Jungle Theater, has turned a little corner of Lyn-Lake into an oasis. New to the ’hood are Soo Visual Arts Center and High Point Center for Printmaking.

Suzi Greenberg, executive director of Soo, is pleased with her accomplishments thus far. “Many artists are having their first real shows here and the response has been great.” High Point, maker of very fine, limited-edition prints, has been drawing on local as well as national and international talent. Across town, in a former porn theater near the corner of Franklin and Chicago Avenues, is Franklin Art Works. Executive director Tim Peterson is jubilant. “We’ll have had three years of programming come November and expect this fall to be big. We’re adding a video gallery, a reading room, and the bathrooms are being redone.” That’s in addition to shows by two highly respected artists—Argentinian Santiago Cucullu, opening September 14, and Mary Esch, opening November 13. FAW is also unique in that it’s dedicated to solo exhibits. “It’s an important step,” says Peterson. “We’re pleased to offer such an opportunity for the first time to many of these artists.”

Ironically, while the events of 9/11 and the sagging economy have had a chilling effect on finances, the effect on attendance has been the opposite. “People are definitely looking for something, a reflection of their feelings, their fears,” says Kelly O’Brien at PARTS. Last February, the show “Image of Afghanistan” by British photographer Simon Norfolk, depicting the war-ravaged country, was a highlight of the season and went on to tour the country. On September 11, PARTS will open “Promised Land,” four topical exhibits including John Sharlin’s “Letters from the Middle East,” a haunting installation of large-scale portraits of Palestinians and Israelis printed on transparent film. On the same evening Soo will open “Twins,” an unusual meditation on self and sibling. This comes on the heels of another introspective show at Franklin Art Works by Patrick Maun.

Clearly there’s fine work being made here. Twin Cities artists are beginning to reach outside the narcissism of an arts scene that is never given an opportunity to mature through real financial and moral support. Maybe in the near future, more people will have a yearning—and a reason—to support local artists. More important, perhaps we’ll start buying the great art that’s right under our noses.

Jon Zurn is a Minneapolis writer.