On a Friday evening at the beginning of this fall, people streamed into the Art is Not a Sacred Object (AØSO) Cooperative Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis for the last time. As they sipped beer and wine, two men set up sound equipment and visual props on a cramped stage at the front of the midsize hall. Meanwhile, in the back corner, two 8mm film projectors clattered and cast grainy images on the arched ceiling: two people smearing food on their nude bodies; a 1950s housewife hanging laundry on a clothesline in a far-off suburban paradise; old newsreel footage. AØSO had hosted a handful of such open-format events, until, its founders say, a rent hike of nearly 50 percent spelled the gallery's end. (AØSO's former landlord could not be reached for comment.)
Sometime after 10 p.m. the lights went down and the show began, featuring inventive but somewhat juvenile puppetry by the first stagehand, and punkish, self-penned confessional songs by the second. After a time, the crowd began to filter outside to get away from the noise of this young artist's guitar. A storm opened up overhead as the party continued into the evening, symbolically punctuating the final event at AØSO, which would close its doors for good the next day.
Although Northeast Minneapolis is arguably the art center of the Twin Cities these days, that distinction may be ending as the neighborhood evolves. Like AØSO, two other Northeast galleries have closed in the last six months, and another in the last year. At the same time, rising rents and new neighborhood development threaten to displace some of the artist occupants of warehouse studio spaces.
Roughly defined as the Central Avenue corridor running between 3rd and 37th avenues, Northeast Minneapolis has historically been a confluence of working-class residences, light-industrial parks, warehouses, and low-rent retail shops. At present, several art galleries (including Acme Visual Arts and Icebox Gallery) and a number of large studio complexes (including the S & M Tire Warehouse, the Tyler Street Studio Building, the California Building, and the Northrup King Studio Complex) can be found around the Central Avenue corridor, where the low-rent warehouse and industrial spaces began to attract artists and gallery owners about 10 years ago.
While estimates vary, Perry Ingli, the chair of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA) and an artist who sells work around town, suggests there are more than 500 artists living in the area. "Artists are constantly looking for affordable spaces," Ingli says. "And they want affordable spaces close to the city, so they've been coming to Northeast."
In fact, the art scene of Northeast was growing so quickly that three years ago, David Felker, a local artist who shows his sculptural work internationally and who has run several art galleries across the country, helped found Art-a-Whirl, the Northeast Minneapolis gallery and studio tour. "Important things are happening in Northeast," says Felker, who won a Minneapolis Award from the mayor in 1994 for his efforts in founding Art-a-Whirl. "Artists are coming together here, and they are creating a cultural phenomenon for the city. What is happening here deserves to be recognized. The city of Minneapolis needs to know that the real meat in the art scene is happening in artists' studios out in places like the S & M and California [buildings]."
To understand how the art scene ended up in Northeast Minneapolis one would have to look at Minneapolis's last art boom roughly 15 years ago in the city's Warehouse District. Back then, the neighborhood hosted a pocket of dilapidated retail spaces and warehouses where artists and fringe galleries could exist relatively inexpensively. With the influx of restaurants, office developments, and strip clubs in the '90s, that scene has all but disappeared, and in recent years nearly all the downtown galleries have closed.
According to Howard Christopherson, currently the owner of the Icebox Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis, the peak years of the Warehouse District art scene were from roughly 1986 to 1990. "The downtown scene was large. There was a good crowd of people. It was a go-to-see-and-be-seen kind of place. There were bars open after the art shows on Saturday nights where artists would meet. There were studio parties. It was great."
When urban renewal began, artists were forced out by large development projects or by the razing of their buildings. Christopherson's warehouse studio was torn down by the city to make room for a Target Center parking lot. The Sex World building, where 15 or so artists once had space, and where Christopherson had once made a video, was bought by adult-entertainment entrepreneurs. Where as many as 25 art galleries had thrived on the concentration of artists and art buyers, now only a handful of galleries survive.
"Back then," says Christopherson, "everyone who had the idea of having a gallery opened one. Now, there are a lot of sports bars down there, and endless numbers of strip joints."
After the artists were priced and pushed out of downtown Minneapolis, some took refuge in St. Paul, particularly in the state-subsidized artist cooperative housing of Lowertown and Frogtown. Many others, however, found their way eventually to Northeast Minneapolis, where the abundance of old warehouses provided artists with the cheap room necessary for their work and where a sense of community was fostered. In some instances, downtown artists were offered token amounts of money to relocate their studios north of the river.