On a chill December night last year, hundreds of artists and art lovers of a certain age poured into the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to view a departed friend’s art collection. Dressed in eclectic attire, including one necktie that had formerly been its wearer’s ponytail, they milled about, hugging and shouting and laughing. They seemed thrilled to see one another, to see their art on the walls, and to recall, loudly, the rare and raucous scene they had created two decades ago.
Back then, in the mid-80s, the scene’s center was the New French Bar, where artists congregated and onlookers eavesdropped. On warm Friday afternoons, downtown workers who fancied themselves even halfway hip would take a late lunch there. They’d head down a long, dark, narrow hallway speckled with tattered posters, cross the creaky, worn wooden floor and sprawl on the slatted bench against the wall. They’d sip wine, eat crusty bread, and turn the crisp, green apple slices in the spinach salad into finger food. The lucky ones snagged a table on the loading dock where, across a vast, unobstructed expanse of rubble, they could watch the sun set and soak up arty vibes. The food was good, but the creative energy was better. And so far, no other bistro in town has managed to replace that intimate, funky ambience.
In the 1980s, Minneapolis reveled in an unprecedented—and so far unrepeated—boom for artists, dealers, consultants, critics, publications—any entity that could attach itself to art. Featuring thronged art crawls, ambitious galleries, and legendary personalities, the scene was also an aberration, many believe, a charmed confluence of burgeoning trends and random circumstances. Nationally, art was hot everywhere, a sweeping trend fueled by media hype and easy money. Locally, the boom begat a memorable decade created by the combination of a geographic center, a strong community ethos, and substantial corporate, government, and philanthropic support.
“I refer to it as the happy time,” said Scott Seekins, the bespectacled and head-banded figure best known for his distinctive dress code—summer whites, winter blacks. “I am art,” he has been known to say; perhaps more to the point, he is a strolling repository of local art history, one who observes social trends with a discerning eye.
Seekins and others are quick to point out that the local 80s scene didn’t erupt from fallow ground. In the 60s, Andy Warhol visited here, as did famous empaqueteur Christo; Gordon Locksley and George Shea famously invited the latter to their Mount Curve mansion gallery, where he wrapped nude young women in cellophane to serve as centerpieces for an oft-recalled gala. Seekins remembers the crowd at the Black Forest Inn and a Twenty-sixth Street scene in full flower in the 70s (perhaps due to its proximity to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design), long before a downtown scene emerged. “The very first thing I remember downtown was the E. Floyd Paranoid gallery. It was very obscure, a tiny gallery in the Shinders basement in Block E. One guy—kind of strange—ran it,” Seekins recalled. “He’d go through the dumpsters at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, then try to sell what he found.”
On Nicollet Mall, Gallery 12 at what was then Dayton’s was going strong; Glen Hanson worked there before launching his own Hanson Cowles Gallery on Second Avenue North and Fourth Street, right near the New French, where the Urban Wildlife Bar recently closed. Hanson’s landlord was Robert Thomson, a Warehouse District pioneer who had spotted the dilapidated building’s potential in the mid-1970s and leased it; he opened an art-framing shop there, precursor to his Thomson Gallery. But first-gallery bragging rights went to the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota in 1976, when this feminist collective of forty artists graduated from a collection of slides in a file drawer at St. Catherine’s College to a gallery in a former wholesale showroom in the Wyman Building, just down Fourth Street at First Avenue North.
Other artists were also banding together. In 1975, Seekins, Dick Brewer, Leon Hushcha, Herb Grika, and others formed a cooperative called Fort Mango, which moved a couple of times during its eight-year run, eventually ending up above the Loon Bar on First Avenue. A couple dozen patrons supported them, paying studio rent and expenses in exchange for selecting art pieces once a year. “We had really good patrons, and we sold a lot of art,” recalls Brewer, who is known for his sculptures and relief paintings on Plexiglas.