General 2-3-2004

What Is a Minnesota Artist?: Results of the Meeting

Jaime Kleiman attended the meeting called Jan. 17 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts by Clea Felien, which brought together an ad hoc group of artists, critics, and curators who want to find ways to make art more crucial to the mainstream culture.

What is a Minnesota artist? What is unique about making art in Minnesota? Why is it so difficult for Minnesota artists to sell their work to major buyers? How come most of the significant publications in the Twin Cities don’t publish any real criticism? Squeezed between celebrity scandals, Al-Qaeda, and electoral media events, our newspapers and weeklies have lost any sense of what a real story is. Their audiences only seem to read the news when it’s laid out like a tabloid. In short, substantial arts criticism in the Twin Cities is virtually nonexistent because most editors think that no one wants to read it.

At least, this is the general consensus of the artists who attended the symposium at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts on Sunday, January 17th. Moderated by art critic Michael Fallon (the original moderator, Stewart Turnquist, had to bow out at the last minute), and rallied together by painter and Visual Arts Critics Union of Minnesota (VACUM) member Clea Felien, the group of approximately twenty visual artists and others set out to create a dialogue, identifying professional hurdles and brainstorming for solutions.

Fallon began by reading a letter from the absent Turnquist, who mused on the media blitz surrounding the mission to Mars, stating dryly that “publicity doesn’t generate itself – they have good P.R.” This statement naturally developed into a debate about the role of the artist as entrepreneur, addressing the age-old, headache-inducing quandaries involved in trying to make a business of art.

Felien’s original focus was on connecting the considerable network of about 30,000 visual artists in the state of Minnesota. She also wanted to address ways in which Minnesotan artists can make themselves more visible and more important to the culture at large. In keeping with her original mission, special attention was paid to make sure the talk didn’t “turn into a gripe session,” and that the plans laid today would “reach out to the community at large.”

Patricia Briggs, an art critic, teacher, and curator, encouraged everyone in the room to write to newspaper editors and express their desire for “serious criticism and serious arts venues” in Minnesota. While there are many galleries in town, it was widely acknowledged among the group that the Cities are “lacking a commercial side.” Well-loved buildings like Franklin Art Works don’t provide artists with enough resources to get media attention or more than a handful of visitors from the outside (re: non-artist) world. She noted that, “Local collectors will rarely spend more than a few dollars in Minneapolis…agents will shop for [collectors] in selected markets [New York or L.A.]. Minneapolis has become an art crawl mecca – people know to go to Art Crawls, but won’t go to galleries. It’s a homey Midwest thing to buy directly from artists.” This is a cultural phenomenon that Minnesotan artists face when trying to create “a more serious atmosphere for ourselves that would…generate publicity, clout, and attention.”

Briggs also advocated for VACUM’s trialogue series, which occurs every month at the MIA’s Minnesota Artist Exhibit Program (MAEP) gallery. The trialogues bring the artists face to face with audience members and critics for an open discussion about their work, thus promoting arts criticism and educating in the process. VACUM hopes the trialogue series will become an “accessible part of the arts community” and encourages all interested to participate.

Many artists expressed the desire to make themselves, and their work, more “crucial to the public.” There was disagreement as to how best to generate publicity and achieve the level of professionalism that is necessary to seriously enter the market. Mark Wojahn’s caution that, “This is not about getting bigger, but about growth” was met with mixed reactions. Some artists wanted to assertively market their work in large groups, theorizing that a bigger show would get more attention than a smaller one. Others seemed content to stay away from the business side of things, which is in itself a contributor to the relative anonymity of the Twin Cities art scene. A few people expressed the fear that the general public considers artists to be an extravagance, an eccentric minority of citizens who don’t benefit society in any financial way. While the true contributions of artists may be immeasurable, all agreed that it is considerable and vital to a whole, well-rounded and civilized nation. Someone asked, “Are we in a dark ages?” No one answered, but the question struck a chord with many attendees.

“We came here because we believe in something,” said Fallon, yet no one was able to agree on a concrete plan of action in two hours’ time. The few choice activities that everyone committed to emphasized community outreach: people said they would write to their newspaper editors and request serious, genuine criticism in lieu of the more ubiquitous “lifestyle” stories. All promised to support local work by seeing more gallery shows and encouraging their friends to attend as well. A proposed mini “salon” to be held every week in Minneapolis was a well-received suggestion – in addition to being a pleasant and consistent way of interacting with one’s contemporaries, regular social meetings reaffirm the necessity of diverse communication, networking, and idea-swapping within the visual arts community. (The Kitty Kat Club in Dinkytown on Thursdays from 6-8, if you’re interested.)

Other pertinent issues raised included the need to engage in honest and passionate dialogue and encourage artists to take advantage of the benefits of the website, which is a free service and an adaptable resource.

For my two cents, I think artists of all disciplines need to band together and collaborate, as many seem to be facing similar challenges. For instance, a group of theatre critics held a meeting at the Playwright’s Center a few months ago to discuss the unsatisfactory state of theatre criticism in the Twin Cities. I suspect that dancers and musicians might be having discussions analogous to the MIA meeting. So why aren’t we all talking to each other? Why aren’t we merging our worlds together? There is strength in numbers and strength in community. We need to pool each other’s resources to achieve our collective goals, whether that be an art fair, a dance benefit, or a statewide renaissance. Yet the eternal conundrum remains: artists must find a way to sell their work without selling their souls.

That said, will be running an open forum on these topics (see below for a direct link to the forum, called “What Is a Minnesota Artist?” This forum will have regular news of the doings of this ad hoc group, as well as topics for discussion and debate). The group (tentatively called the Artists Round Table, or ART) will meet again in three months, and continue communicating via the forum and an email list. It’s not quite a revolution, but it could be a start.