“Here you have time to think about what’s going on with your work,” said Norsten. “In New York there’s so much going on you can become wrapped up in that.” He also speaks for most artists when he notes the cheap studio space to be had here. “I can’t afford to pay twelve hundred dollars for a shit-hole in Brooklyn that takes an hour to get to,” he said, over beers at Psycho Suzi’s in Northeast Minneapolis. Other things keep him here as well. “I love that river,” he said, looking westward as if he could see the Mississippi a couple blocks away. “I love duck hunting, I’ve got a deep connection to the land. This is where I want to live. I can have a life here, not just a career.”
“He’s such a good painter that if he had been in New York, I don’t think it would have taken him this long to get noticed,” said Carolyn Glasoe of Norsten. “But he loves Minneapolis.” Glasoe knows the art scene in both cities well. Currently a private art dealer and consultant in California, she showed work from Norsten and Rathman more than ten years ago at Montgomery Glasoe Fine Art, the gallery she co-owned in Minneapolis’ warehouse district. Eventually she moved to New York, first running her own gallery and then partnering with another dealer.
“You can be in Minneapolis and rely on people you know to get the word out for you,” she said. “But it’s easier to make things happen in a place where there’s a hundred galleries in two blocks.” In New York, she learned to hustle for her artists, and encouraged them to do the same. “If you are an art dealer representing artists at a young level, you have got to use everything you can to get them noticed. You use their studio, the press, you tell them to get their butt out to gallery openings, to go have people see you. There is a whole way to get artists noticed, and to get people in turn to come to their shows.”
Spangler, who’s gone to his share of openings, described the social contrast between New York and the Twin Cities. “I feel like artists in New York really want to meet each other, because the more you’re together, the better everyone does,” he said. “In Minneapolis, there’s kind of a clique of artists, and if you’re not in that, it can be a dead end. In New York, if one option doesn’t work, there’s a hundred more. There are so many ways to get in there, so many networks of people. You can just have a good conversation with someone and then you’re friends.”
Vergne believes that the intense socializing in New York is a matter of survival for some artists. “It’s so competitive there, you need a group of peers, because it’s … mean. There is more identity, more strength, more power in being part of a group of people.”
But that isn’t a requirement, either. Rathman, who graduated from MCAD in the early 1980s, couldn’t envision himself making the scene in New York, either now or when he was younger. “I’m more introverted,” he said. “It’s never been a huge part of my thing to socialize in that way.” Not that he doesn’t have a competitive streak. “There’s kind of a me-against-New York thing in my head—this idea that I could be showing there, I’ve got something to say, I think I’m good enough.” In fact, after the enthusiastic reception for his first show at Clementine Gallery in 2001 (Glasoe helped make the connection), opportunities began cropping up beyond New York. He had shows in Europe and—a couple of months ago—in Los Angeles; now there’s a possibility of leaping from there over to Japan. Rathman has studiously honed his work, “paring away” the unnecessary. What remains are spare yet evocative images of men—cowboys, NASCAR racers, rodeo riders, wrestlers and boxers—engaged in their often violent pursuits. He frequently incorporates just a few words that serve to illuminate a complex situation in ways that are cryptic, poignant, funny, or all three.
So while it’s easy to do your own thing artistically in the Twin Cities, if you want more from (or for) your work “you have to go out and find people,” said Soth. He was referring to art-world connections both here and elsewhere—curators, dealers, and especially artists who might lead to them. “And people sometimes aren’t driven to do so because there’s a fear of promoting yourself and seeming not-artistic and crass. One has to get over that.”
In that sense, simply being willing to strategize and promote oneself could be an enormous advantage in a place like Minnesota, where people aren’t known for ruthless ambition. “People just kind of recede here. I don’t personally suffer from that problem,” Norsten said, “but a lot of people are very concerned with offending someone or saying something wrong. That doesn’t lead to very interesting conversations—or art.”