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.

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.

"I'll tell you what was difficult," she says as the other panel members watch her with wide-open eyes. "We need slides. So get your butts in gear and send slides in....We need slides in order to pick new shows!"

Frank Gaard, meanwhile, insists that the current space that the MAEP occupies is too centrally located, and too big and impersonal for some shows that might be more intimate or controversial. This line of argument seems odd on the face of it: Isn't exposure what the MAEP is about, getting local work seen by as many people as possible?

"There are school children walking through," Gaard says with a near sneer. Audience members shift impatiently in their seat. Gaard suggests that the panel look to move the gallery around the museum to more obscure spots, depending on the character of the proposed show. This is the closest anyone will come to mentioning the "Acre of Art" show or censorship.

But then, as with the broader presidential election, the electorate is not as agitated as in past years. All the big issues--race, gender, sexuality--seem a thing of the past, and no one seems willing to argue his point. "Let's move on," cries an anonymous voice from the audience, and so they do.

Nominations are taken fairly quickly. Program assistant Karen Harstad scribbles the names on a piece of acetate, and an overhead projector casts them up on a screen behind the stage. Ten names appear on the ballot for the metro-area slots: Erica Spitzer Rasmussen, Jan D. Elftmann, Bruce Tupola, David Monson, Carolyn Swiszcz, Alexa Horochowski, Kate Whittemore, Bernice Ficek-Swenson, Maija Morton, and Leslie Gerstman. Someone from the audience, perhaps the same voice as before, moves that the nominations be closed--there will be no filibustering at this congress--but Cynde Randall has to point out that there are not yet any candidates for the one slot for an outstate artist. A few more names are mentioned then--Dave Beauvais and Billy Curmano--and the candidates, who according to the rules must be present for the nomination to be valid, accept in a good-natured, "Sure, why not?" kind of way.

It is getting late now, close to when the meeting was originally scheduled to close. So Toscani informs the dozen wannabe politicians that they will be strictly held to the two-minute time limit in their speeches. One by one, they each amble up to a well-lit podium, hesitantly give their pitches, and return to the audience.

Overall, the addresses are rather unpolished. Some candidates talk about their careers as artists, others about their experiences in arts administration. One tells how he has run in the past but lost to "all these pretty girls up here." Very few of the candidates present any concrete proposals or mention any practical ideas for what they'd like to see happen on the panel over the next two years.

While the chickens rule the chatter in the auditorium, they will prove a taboo topic at the rostrum. "It's a bit of a surprise," says Cynde Randall, after the speeches have ended and ballots have been collected. There is a lull now, as a small coterie of ballot-counters gather onstage. The audience, meanwhile, returns to the atrium to drink more coffee and chat while waiting for the results.

Randall is excited about the people who ended up running. "There's a great range of ages and experiences," she proclaims. But later, she will admit to being surprised at the election results. The winners will be David Monson of Minneapolis, who cited an interest in public art works in his speech; Bruce Tupola of Minneapolis, who teaches at St. Cloud University and mentioned his love of painting; and Billy Curmano of southern Minnesota, whose eccentric performance work brings attention to environmental issues.

"When I heard which three won, I thought, 'Wow! Three men. That's kind of unusual,' Randall continues. "But afterwards I realized these three artists are very different types of artists. They'll each bring a unique sensibility to the panel."

A few of the candidates are surprised too. "It's a numbers game," one woman says, consoling her friend, a candidate who has lost.

And in this vague discontent, the crowd of artists indulges in that most widespread of electoral traditions: complaining about the results.

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