When the Rifle Sport arcade vacated a twelve-thousand-square-foot space on the second floor of one Block E building, artists moved in. Rent was incredibly cheap: two to three dollars per square foot per year. Colleen Barnett, a student, bronze sculptor, and purported risk-taker, lived in the huge gallery space—in a pile. Her colleagues likened her abode to a beaver’s dam made of books, plywood, canvas, and debris, beneath which, it is rumored, she sometimes slept.
“I first met Colleen at four or five in the morning. I’d been up all night painting when I heard this noise in the hallway,” said Julie O’Baoighill, a painter and performance artist known as JAO, who had a studio across the hall. “She was moving this giant piece of furniture that I couldn’t believe she was moving by herself. I don’t think she ever slept. She didn’t really have a bed.”
Barnett and Bill Taylor officially opened the Rifle Sport Alternative Art Gallery in September 1985. Other alternative galleries—Circus to the Trade, No Name Exhibitions (now the Soap Factory)—flourished as well, at least by reputation. Punk rock bands, outrageous parties, and creative antics kept the buzz alive. JAO remembers the time Steve Grandell (now known as “Venus,” lead singer for the band All the Pretty Horses), managed to drive a small, wildly painted car through Rifle Sport’s door and part way up the stairs. “People would open the door, see the car there, and close the door. Then they’d peek in again,” she said, laughing. “Art was selling fairly well at the time,” JAO said. “Even Rifle Sport made a profit, and that was big news.” Indeed, Los Angeles collector Frederick Weisman bought a painting from a Rifle Sport artist. Meanwhile, a passel of more-conventional galleries—Oulman, Groveland, Flanders, Bockley, Artbanque, M.C., Hastings Ruff—were making even more money. Things got better still after Warehouse District gallery owners had a marketing brainstorm: They’d pool their resources and sponsor an art crawl. Every six weeks, hundreds of voyeurs in smart attire and quirky earrings poured into downtown for the much-anticipated event. It was a place to see and be seen, and perhaps buy a piece of art that would elicit comments from passersby. Galleries were often so crowded that lines actually formed to see the art, and hungry artists looking for free wine, cheese, and pretzels had to arrive early.
“Nothing demonstrates the unprecedented expansion of the Twin Cities art scene better than the 21 Minneapolis galleries that will premiere new shows tonight,” proclaimed Star Tribune critic Mary Abbe (Martin) in 1989. “That’s right, 21—not counting the birthday party Walker Art Center is throwing today for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden or three other gallery shows that opened Friday night, one of them in St. Paul. Two-thirds of these galleries didn’t exist five years ago. Fortunately, quality is also on the rise.”
But the happy time was about to end. When 1990 dawned, Rifle Sport was gone. The gallery was breaking even in 1988, when the city announced plans to raze Block E. It survived its move to the Fawkes Building near Loring Pork for more than a year, but sales declined fast. The stock market had crashed in late 1987, ending the longest bull run in history and leading to rampant layoffs—as well as a sharp downturn in the millions that companies had been channeling into the arts. Prominent art collections implied conspicuous consumption, and that made stockholders nervous.
“We thought it would go on forever, but clearly it did not. It was much more a function of style—a fad—than a deep-seated commitment to art,” said Brewer. Added Barry: “The train came to a screeching halt, and people flew off as fast as they climbed on a few years earlier.”