The Political Portrait

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

In this vein, Turnquist points to January's "Foot in the Door" show, which developed out of a desire expressed by early panel members (back in 1979) to get the public at large involved in its exhibitions. Even Jesse Helms might agree this was a good decision. This third installment of "Foot in the Door" showcased the work of an amazing 1,744 people from across the state. The opening night of the exhibition drew more people than the museum could handle, and viewers were wedged into the gallery, shoulder to shoulder, motionless, for several hours. "There were so many people, the temperature of the entire building was raised several degrees," Turnquist jokes.

MAEP panel members serve two-year terms, with elections staggered (as in the U.S. Senate) so that not all members are selected at once. Instead, three members win board seats in one election (such as this year's), and four are elected in the next. Also, by its own rules, the MAEP panel must be balanced to match the artistic makeup of the state at large. This means currently that the panel comprises five members from the Twin Cities metro area (to match the relative concentration of artists here), and two from outstate. On this day, there are two metro positions open, and one outstate position.

Such gerrymandering may not seem terribly interesting on the face of it, but the collision of outstate artistic expression and urban sensitivities recently played out in a rather explosive way. This past week, the program was seized by a controversy over its current show--Mark Knierim and Robert Lawrence's "An Acre of Art"--and, in particular, the presence of live poultry. To be even more specific: two Barred Rock chickens, who inhabited a rather roomy cage in the middle of the exhibition area.

The original proposal for "Acre" involved an artistic experiment wherein the two artists would tend an acre of land for a year and make art out of their ruminations on the concept of the rural. And though the original draft failed to mention the chickens, the MAEP has allowed live animals in several shows in the past--the first time, according to Turnquist, in the mid-1980s. According to Randall and Turnquist, the spat began Saturday, October 14, when a museum visitor left a message at the MAEP office citing concerns about the treatment of the birds in the gallery.

"I talked with him on Monday," says Turnquist. "And I gave him a rundown of all the safety and health considerations that we [the MAEP] and the artists had made. I was filling him in, too, about the reasons of the artists for including the animals in the exhibition, thinking he would begin to understand that the artists and he had the same end in mind--a raising of consciousness about these animals. But then he started raising his voice and shouted, 'These chickens will be sacrificial lambs!'

"That's when we started getting e-mails from around the country. They're astounding. And I think they really define the moment."

According to a press release circulated by MAEP staff and the two artists the day of the elections, the birds were removed from their cage in the show on October 19 after "the widespread public misinformation and escalating controversy surrounding the birds' inclusion in the exhibition potentially jeopardized the safety of the birds and the museum."

Privately, both Knierim, the owner of the birds, and Cynde Randall, express some bafflement at what they perceived as the guerrilla tactics of a small group of animal-rights protesters who had never seen the show or the condition of the birds. Veiled threats of violence against the museum, the show, and, paradoxically, the birds themselves were common in the e-mails and phone calls.

"The people I've talked to say it's really awful," says Knierim during a break from the meeting. "Artists support free expression....They don't see the problem with it. Visually and aesthetically, it works and is a very successful piece....I've changed politically because of this. I am really opposed to the way these activists used violence and destruction as blackmail to get their point across. I disagree with birds being used for testing, but also believe we need to encourage changes through dialogue."

 

MAEP's chicken emergency is the subtext of this year's meeting. Yet the subject never exactly comes to the floor. Instead, Turnquist runs over the time designated for his remarks by some 45 minutes. One would be hard-pressed to say whether this lack of expediency is incidental, or the design of a seasoned politician. The upshot, in either case, is that the time allotted for open discussion is cut in half, depriving the audience of the opportunity to get properly riled up over this slight to free expression (a favorite topic among artists).

Most of the questions, instead, have to do with the primary issue at hand--the logistics of the election and the procedures for artists who wish to apply to the MAEP for a show. The only semi-emotional outbursts come from Amy Toscani, a panel member elected last year and continuing into next year, and Frank Gaard, a long-established local artist and cartoonist who is in the audience. Toscani jumps out of her chair and onto the stage when an audience member asks what was difficult for the panel during the last year.

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