Visual Art 3-30-2002

State of the Art: Visual Arts in Minnesota

Part 1

introductionArtists from across the country come to the Twin Cities to take advantage of the many foundations in Minnesota that support artistic work. Yet while artists and foundations abound in Minnesota, there aren’t enough galleries and collectors.

Director Cynthia Gehrig has been with the Jerome Foundation in St. Paul for 24 years and as such she’s had her eye on the visual arts for quite a while. Each year she sees more and more grant applicants, all producing quality work, but she doesn’t see new galleries increasing in number at the same rate as the local artists.

“I don’t think the gallery scene in the Twin Cities has improved substantially at any point for any length of time during the last 24 years. I mean there are periods of excitement with new galleries opening and we’re in one of those right now, there are a number of new alternative spaces opening which I find very exciting but we still don’t have the collection of private galleries and non-profit alternative spaces that the size of the visual arts community in Minnesota deserves,” Gehrig said.

The Jerome Foundation directs its fellowships toward new and emerging artists. Other organizations, The Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board, also give grants to artists at different points in their careers. Gehrig says that web of support is stronger now than it has ever been. But several gallery owners have remarked it seems much easier to get funding for an individual artist than for a non-profit gallery. Gehrig says that’s something she’d like to change:

“Certainly the Jerome foundation is willing to fund non profit alternative spaces — once things balance out I think there is some room for some growth,” said Gehrig.

“Once things balance out” is a reference to the current economy. Buyers are buying less; foundations are funding less. As a result both galleries and artists are suffering. A few galleries have opened but there are more in tough financial straits. Midway Gallery Executive Director John Rasmussen says he had to cancel his December show because of lack of funding.

“At this point, we’ve got shows planned for the winter and the spring and we’re hoping to get support from some different foundations for those but it’s not looking very positive right now,” said Rasmussen.

Rasmussen is both hopeful and pessimistic. Open for under a year, he says the gallery has drawn a lot of positive feedback from artists and other gallery owners. But he’s seen a lot of galleries come and go, and he wishes the gallery scene was more stable.

“I want to see us be more stable. Hell I want to stay open — it’s a lot of work to open up a space — I’m not going to let this thing die because I don’t have the energy to start it up again. You know, this is the one shot and you’ve got to make it work,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen says he wished he’d opened the gallery a few years ago, when the economy was stronger. That way, he’d be better equipped to make it through hard times.

Jonathan Whitney, director and curator of Gus Lucky’s in Minneapolis, is preparing the gallery’s last show. While he thinks the establishment was successful as an outlet for artists, it didn’t make money. One thing that might have helped is better media coverage:

“One frustration we have with the media is that a lot of shows we think should get covered don’t and then it’s kind of you wait your turn. You can only get covered so many times so you have to sort of pick which shows are going to get covered,” said Whitney.

Cynthia Gehrig at the Jerome Foundation agrees there needs to be better arts criticism in the local media.

“Writing about exhibitions, writing about galleries, is not a very strong aspect of our culture in Minnesota. It happens but it happens not in many places. We’re interested in radio, we’re interested in on-line, we’re interested in television, we’re interested in print — arts writing, arts criticism,” said Gehrig.

Gehrig says the Jerome Foundation plans to launch a series of new funding initiatives in 2002. She hopes it will inspire local media organizations to do more in depth critical coverage of the local visual arts scene. But contributing Arts Critic to the City Pages Michael Fallon says there just isn’t a big huge buying public and the buying public is necessary to create the atmosphere that would create the need for art critics. Fallon is one of a handful of freelance arts critics in the Twin Cities. He says he’d be asked to do more arts criticism if the editors felt enough people were interested in reading it.

“I get the sense that there’s a bit of ambivalence in the reading audience about art reviews — very rarely does someone write in to the paper and say ‘oh that was an interesting art review’ — that never happens — it sometimes feels like you’re writing in a vacuum,” said Fallon.

Fallon says back in the 1980’s a number of successful galleries were concentrated in the warehouse district of Minneapolis. He says that created a sense of identity and solidarity within the arts community. Today there is essentially the same number of galleries as twenty years ago but they are spread out across the Twin Cities. This lack of geographic concentration leaves artists, gallery owners and even arts critics feeling left out on their own.

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