The Political Portrait

A lively election throws local artists from the palette to the ballot--revealing the true color of politics

Most political contests are wildly different from the national media show that is the presidential election. This was evident on a recent Saturday afternoon when most of Minneapolis was preparing for a campaign stop by Al Gore. On the docket for this event would be the usual trenchant sound bites, baby fondling, glad-handing, and yuk-yukking. Meanwhile, 100-odd people studiously ignored the looming circus on Nicollet Mall, and gathered instead over coffee and scones for an election that, for a select few, may hold greater import.

It may come as something of a surprise that these politically motivated souls were visual artists, and that the election in question was for the three open board-member positions with the Minneapolis Institute of Art's 24-year-old Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP). After all, the visual arts and the political arts are normally seen as incompatible (just ask Jesse Helms or Rudy Giuliani, Robert Mapplethorpe or Damien Hirst). Let's face it, most politicians would rather commit seppuku than be known as frequenters of art museums, and most artists would rather be shot than give a speech at a proverbial podium.

On this day, though, the traditional barrier has crumbled, and local artists will struggle to take on the mantle of political leadership. And unlike the presidential race, which is laden with polltakers, spin-doctors, and pundits who temper the pace and dampen the excitement, the election of an artist panel can sometimes be tempestuous and wholly capricious.

"There's no way you can possibly predict what will come up," says Cynde Randall, MAEP program associate, prior to the event. In past years, according to Randall, groups of artists with distinct agendas have sought to wrest control of the panel during this annual election, occasionally sparking artistic showdowns. "One year [during the mid-1990s], there was a really volatile meeting where a contingent felt that art museums were irrelevant. That art was irrelevant. They wanted to take the [MAEP] program out of this space and put it somewhere else, out in the community. The issue was so contentious that we had to hold a second meeting...."

A few years earlier, in 1989, a small group of realist painters who called themselves "Lack's lackeys" (after influential local realist painter Richard Lack) quietly tried to gain a majority on the panel. Their goal: To force the program to show work by local realist painters. "We wanted to make sure there was equal representation for representational artists around the state," said Gary Christensen, a painter and member of the group. "Our intentions were pure, but other artists didn't see it that way. Three hundred and fifty people showed up for the [MAEP] meeting, and we missed gaining a majority by one vote."

After the election loss, the realists eventually faded into the broader artistic citizenry. As an offshoot of the contentious 1989 meeting, however, the MAEP did hold one realist show, "Academic Dialogue," in late 1990. Call it politics in action: Through a failed electoral putsch, a critically scorned school of art found its way back onto museum walls.

Randall continues: "One of the lessons I've learned in my fifteen years' worth of meetings: The thing you least expect will be what pops up."

 

At a quarter after 11:00, the motley crowd filters into the Pillsbury Auditorium at the heart of the MIA. There seem to be two strains of people in the audience, perhaps representing two major artistic constituencies--a sort of two-party system. The first group is the eccentrics, who are dressed in harlequin colors (green velvet shirt and bright orange pants, for instance) with various accouterments: jangling jewelry, spiked or dyed hair, a bright canvas bag. The other group is...well, the fashion-challenged might be the best way to put it. Most of these folks sit in the back of the room with their feet up on the chair in front of them; their clothes are drab, colorless, and worn, their hair unkempt. They seem to have just woken up and are barely paying attention.

The meeting starts with opening comments by program coordinator Stewart Turnquist--a senior civil servant in this tumultuous democracy. He is a dapper and cheerful man--he reminds one of a favorite uncle--and has served as the program's coordinator since early in 1977 (that is, for all but the program's first year). "Hard to believe, but I'm your obedient servant," Turnquist begins, after introducing the other members of the MAEP support staff (who are all employed by the MIA): program associate Randall, and program assistant Karen Harstad. He then launches into an hourlong, homespun slide-show recap of the past fiscal year--a state of the union address, or perhaps a state of the art.

The MAEP panel is an important institution in the Twin Cities, among established artists and those only peripherally interested in art. For most artists, having a show in the Minnesota Artists Gallery--where all MAEP shows are currently presented--is a career highlight. After all, there are not many opportunities for artists to show in a major museum such as the MIA. The primary duty of the panel's seven members, in fact, is to select the shows for the Minnesota Gallery. At the same time, panel members also help the staff set policy and make strategic decisions that will affect the viewing audience in many ways.

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