But in 1980, not much else was happening. Ronald Reagan had just been elected, economic growth was slow, and at 13.6 percent, inflation was through the roof. Jean-Michel Basquiat, soon to become a celebrity, was homeless in New York. In Minneapolis, the neighborhood that would become known as the Warehouse District was a sleepy little outpost of used-clothing stores and seedy watering holes, with no streetlights, no sports bars, no cops—and plenty of cheap space for young artists to take over and make into studios.
There were a lot of them, too, as art schools were turning out record numbers of students—not all of whom ended up in New York or L.A. “If you graduate a dozen painters a year in a state, that doesn’t quite make a community. But if you have a class of thirty, they’ll network in various ways,” said Stewart Turnquist, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts staffer who has run the Minnesota Artists’ Exhibition Program since 1977. “It’s one thing to deal with art because art moves you, but if you have living artists, it’s all the better. They turn out to be pretty interesting themselves.” Turnquist recalled one Minnesota artists’ exhibition show, Five Geniuses, which included Herb Grika’s motorcycle; visitors could mount the bike and take a simulated ride around a track. That Grika was deemed a “genius” inspired some disgruntled viewers to return their show invitations ripped into pieces.
In 1983, the fledgling scene in downtown Minneapolis got an influx of artists from St. Paul, including freelance photographer Larry Marcus. He had been living in a building on Wall Street, where tenants could build out the rough, raw space as they pleased, and where it was rumored that the absence of heat between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. encouraged closer bonds than might otherwise have occurred. Then an art-resistant landlord took over. “The way I heard the story, somebody sabotaged the furnace,” Marcus said. “By October 1, they couldn’t put the heat on, and we all got evicted.” Marcus, along with his studio partners Ann Marsden and Gus Gustafson, landed in the Wyman Building, which was fast becoming the epicenter of the gallery scene and eventually housed as many as twenty galleries.
Gustafson, a talented, teddy-bearish Mr. Congeniality known for plugging strangers’ expired parking meters, became the scene’s mascot. He seemed to be everywhere and know everyone. He was a photographer whose cash-strapped artist friends often asked him to record their work in exchange for a piece of art. By 2003, when a heart attack abruptly ended his life at age fifty-four, he had amassed an impressive collection. It was these “friends of Gus,” many of them now notable artists, who thronged to the MIA last winter to celebrate his influence and reflect on shared pasts.
“It was a very lively community, with lots of interesting characters. We were all relatively young, full of energy, full of the desire to make, talk, and live art,” Marcus said. “And among other things, we liked partying and having a good time.” There was the time, for example, that Fort Mango members donned white tuxedos and red, white, and blue corsages for a “Joan of Art” party honoring Joan Mondale, a noted arts activist who earned her moniker during the Carter Administration, when her husband Walter was vice president. And yes, she showed up, Seekins recalled, with her photo-phobic secret-security entourage in tow.
When they weren’t honoring political dignitaries, artists were trying to raise enough cash to pay the rent. Seekins remembers cohosting one rent party with sculptor Aldo Moroni, whose works now grace the General Mills and Ninth Federal Reserve Bank lobbies among other places. “Aldo was watching the door and charging for beer, and I was supposed to be playing records,” Seekins said. “He forgot to watch or got drunk or something, because at the end of the evening I asked him how much money we made. He said, ‘You made thirteen dollars and I made fourteen dollars.’ ”