Apparently, cocaine flowed as freely as cash. “It was a wild time. Just about everybody was somehow altered,” Brewer said. “We went crazy for a decade. Mount St. Helens exploded and so did I. I was out there on the deep end, but I think a lot of other people were out there, too.” As Moroni described it, “It was a stockbroker/coke-freak kind of deal. Those hypertensive go-getters—that was their game. Art was one of the ways that they expressed themselves.”
While galleries cultivated yuppie tastes, cash-rich companies helped underwrite the art scene by creating a solid collector base. Art became serious business as law firms, insurance companies, and financial-service firms hired consultants to build collections. At First Bank System (now known as US Bancorp), curator Lynne Sowder assembled “one of the most radical corporate collections of contemporary art in the country,” Deborah Gimelson wrote in the New York Times in 1994. Sowder arrived at First Bank in 1980 and inherited “about a thousand duck prints—we called it Art Ducko,” she told Gimelson. By the time she left in 1990, she had acquired a collection “valued at more than twice the $5 million it cost,” wrote Robert Atkins, the art columnist for the Village Voice.
Though she was not universally loved by local artists, Sowder was bold, decisive, and revered for her knowledge and power. She “removed art from the realm of the trivial and invested it with fresh, non-symbolic purpose,” according to Atkins. She and associate Nathan Braulick saw the First Bank visual-arts program as a way to transform the corporate culture and get people talking—to management as well as one another. Employees did engage with the art, in a Scandinavian sort of passive-aggressive way. If they didn’t like a painting, they set it askew or obscured it with potted plants. Atkins’ article referred to a 1986 survey of First Bank System employees in the Twin Cities, in which only twenty-five percent of one thousand respondees indicated that they liked the FBS art; sixty-nine percent did not.
Undeterred, Sowder conducted art seminars and eventually set up “Controversy Corridor,” where art pieces were exiled when at least six employees voted “No, thanks.” Yet employees could also choose art for their offices and were encouraged to organize exhibitions for the bank’s public galleries. While padding the pocketbooks of local as well as national and international artists and dealers, Sowder also raised art awareness and discussion to unprecedented levels, at least among several thousand First Bank employees.
While corporations poured money into the local scene, philanthropic and government institutions did their fair share. McKnight, Jerome, and Bush Foundations and the Minnesota State Arts Board all funded artists. “Four local funders—that was unheard of in the eighties, and still unheard of today,” said Neal Cuthbert, who moved from Detroit to Minneapolis in 1980 specifically for the art scene, and who currently directs McKnight’s arts program. From 1983 through 1985, McKnight approved thirty-two arts-related grants, totaling more than two million dollars. It is still the state’s largest private arts funder.
Opportunities for local artists mushroomed when 1984 legislation created the Minnesota Percent for Art in Public Places Program, which called for large building projects to designate one percent of their construction or renovation budgets for buying or commissioning original art. Artists also could apply for Bush Artist Fellowships, available since 1976, and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest.
While they didn’t live well—no cars, no TVs, no balconied condos—artists could forego day jobs. More often than not, they lived where they worked. One gritty but engrossing location was the then-derelict Block E on Hennepin Avenue, where crime was high—forty-five robberies were reported between June 1 and September 30, 1986, for instance, compared with seven one block away on Nicollet—and traffic was heavy. If their muses left, artists could always sit and watch forty-thousand cars go by each day. Or grab a whale of a drink at the notorious Moby Dick’s, spend $3.43 at Best Steak House for a twelve-ounce sirloin, baked potato, Texas toast, and salad, or peruse whips and edible underwear at Fantasy House.