Many companies had acquired art for the wrong reasons: public relations, cachet, image, investment—“reasons that weren’t really about an appreciation of what art is and what art can be on its own terms,” said Don McNeil, art curator at General Mills for the past thirty years. “It was very fashionable. The biggest mistake some corporations made was in feeling that this was really going to help their image, make them seem more refined and classy.”
Some people never fell for the hype in the first place. Brant Kingman, a painter and sculptor who spent seven years in New York hobnobbing with Keith Haring, Warhol, and Basquiat, returned to Minneapolis in 1984 after being shot by intruders. “It was so much more dead here,” he said. “The one problem that Minneapolis had, and still has, is that it suffers from the ‘I’m not Chicago or New York’ syndrome. Certain dealers looked to those cities for leadership and chose artists from those cities to be their stars, and local artists may have suffered because of that.”
As art lost its luster, downtown artists—some three hundred, according to Moroni—lost their base. Target Center opened in 1990; sports bars soon followed. “There was a big, sweeping change in the marketplace,” said Cuthbert. “Rents went up, the cultural vibe changed, people spread out, and the community dissipated.” The Warehouse District changed from an artists’ neighborhood to an entertainment destination. Unlike writers and playwrights, who have the Loft and the Playwrights Center, visual artists had no organization or physical place to rally around.
Yet some fifteen years later, the art scene may well be rumbling again. A number of figures from the 80s—Brewer, Kingman, JAO—still make their livings as artists. The several thousand artists who live in the state face fierce competition, but funding hasn’t declined; in fact, the McKnight Foundation distributed about twenty-seven million dollars in arts-related grants between 2003 and 2005, compared with nearly nineteen million dollars in the mid-nineties.
“Some of the energy is coming back,” said McNeil. He still acquires between ten and twenty works a year to keep the 1,400-piece General Mills collection as current as possible. He grouses about the decentralization—“In the eighties, you could go downtown and see ten or fifteen galleries in one night. Now you have to hire a bus or something”—but lauds the new galleries and new wave of young artists.
Although the Wyman is not completely bereft of art spaces (the relatively new Gallery Co is showing work on the second floor), today’s scene has sprawled. In 2003, Minneapolis designated the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District as the area bordered by the Mississippi River and Broadway, Lowry, and Central Avenues; just off Central, the Northrup King building is home to 130 artists. A fifteen-year Arts Action Plan is under way, and the annual Art-A-Whirl, while less intense, is still reminiscent of the old art crawls.
“I think it’s more vibrant than ever,” said Turnquist, pointing out that both the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center have expanded and enjoy record membership levels. “The number of artists has increased, and as you look into the group, you see not only the abundance that results, but also the different viewpoints. While older artists are still making significant art, the younger ones are naturally looking for new ways of seeing, so they’re adding to the mix.”
“We have a lot more possibilities now. I think the area is in renaissance again. Things are happening,” said Todd Bockley, who moved his gallery to Kenwood last year, reopening it nearly a decade after leaving the Wyman Building. Despite the quiet location, about 150 people turned out for a January opening. Bockley is excited about the maturation of local artists (in one show he featured “Warehouse vets” Glen Hanson, Philip Larson, and Stuart Nielsen) and the earnestness of local buyers. Minnesota collectors are unique, he believes, because they’re fad resistant; they “don’t buy with their ears,” but trust their instincts instead. “There’s something really beautiful about buying art because you love it and enjoy it and live it,” he said.
“I’ve seen more energy in the last year or two than I’ve seen since the happy time,” Seekins admitted. Life is still hard for him and others like Brewer and JAO, though they get by. But even when art went wild, no one got rich and no one got famous. Kingman says that while this area—which Seekins calls a suburb of Sweden—is full of talented, hardworking artists, the local scene has never managed to elevate them beyond regional status.
“There’s been a burst of things happening, but it’s never going to be an art center. It’s not like New York or Paris, it’s just not, and probably never will be,” Seekins says, resignation in his voice. “I stay here for the fishing.”