"After they left the downtown," said David Felker, who moved to Northeast Minneapolis six years ago from Alaska, "many artists could only afford to go to the old industrial area of the city, which happened to be Northeast Minneapolis. There's lots of warehouse and light-industrial space. When I got here, I observed how many artists were working here and I was amazed. There are several very successful artists living here, people like Perry Ingli and Doug Argue who are dedicated working artists and whose work is influencing the whole population."
According to Doug Padilla, the former owner of the Art Jones Gallery, which closed a few months ago, buildings such as the California and Tyler have served as art spaces for a decade. "The nice thing about our [the S & M Tire Warehouse] building was the owner used to go away all winter to live in Florida and he played golf all summer, so we as artists could thrive in an atmosphere of benign neglect. We created a community there because there was a lot of freedom. We went out and brought artists into the building because the owner left us alone. We had a yearly art show for the whole building. The main feeling I had then was a sense of discovery."
Howard Christopherson founded Icebox Gallery 10 years ago in what he calls an "unlikely" space in Northeast Minneapolis at 24th and Central avenues. "We tried to take nontraditional art and make a big deal out of it," said Christopherson, explaining that clients usually go to the Icebox Gallery for its framing operation. "We try to turn people on to alternative art. Many of the big-money people do not venture out to where the upstarts are. But I think the small galleries are where the really cool stuff is."
Icebox became a linchpin in a number of unusual and successful arts events held in Northeast Minneapolis, including a Halloween Show that it held annually for five or six years. "People used to come out here from all over to see that show," he said. "And there were a lot of events like that in Northeast back then."
"Every time I talked to an artist in the area, there was so much enthusiasm," says Kjersti Monson, the young artist who founded AØSO, only to see it close within the year. "I rented the space"--at the historic Margaret Barry House on Pierce Street--"first as a studio, but after I moved in, it became interesting to me to have an event here."
"AØSO created a lot of different creative opportunities for artists to take advantage of," says Caprice Glaser, a sculptor from St. Paul whose large public artwork can be seen across the Twin Cities and who participated in AØSO's first event. "I think Kjersti did something spectacular. It was alive and spontaneous... Artists came from all over. Things like that should happen more often, and in spaces like that."
"We wanted to bring interdisciplinary art to the space," continues Monson. "We wanted all kinds of things: puppetry, live music, humorous spectacles... All of it was to challenge the notion that art is a commodity, and to tell people that art can be simply experiential."
It is ironic that just as Northeast Minneapolis has grown into a mature and diverse art scene, economic factors may force the artists and gallery owners to pull up roots. According to many, the increases in property values and rental costs are outpacing real estate inflation in all but a few areas of the Twin Cities.
"In Northeast especially, property values are going up pretty dramatically," says Bob McNamara, a Northeast Minneapolis real estate broker for Independent Brokers Realty. "Rental rates are rising dramatically, too." According to McNamara, last year alone saw a 5 to 10 percent across-the-board rise in real estate values in Northeast Minneapolis (the rate climbed just over 3 percent nationally. In residential areas, McNamara reports, rental properties have climbed from $250 or $300 per room to more than $400 a room in the last two years.
In light of this trend, developments over the last few months have led some Northeast artists to conclude that the neighborhood may not remain hospitable to their lifestyle. A number of small gallery spaces in Northeast, including AØSO, Art Jones, the Space Gallery, and David Felker's International Gallery, have had to shut down because of economic troubles.
"It's a hard thing to run a gallery here," says Padilla, whose Art Jones Gallery closed this summer after a large show resulted in only three paintings being sold. "People in Minnesota appreciate art, but nobody buys anything. So no one can afford to run a gallery. The town has a nonprofit mentality. Everyone thinks you're funded somehow."
Christopherson also describes the difficulty of turning art into sales, and places some of the responsibility on artists with unrealistic expectations. "So many artists create things that don't sell," he says. "There are lots of reasons to be an artist, and money often isn't one of them. If I didn't love art and love working with artists, I would have done something much more lucrative."