From the sidewalk, the Weinstein Gallery resembles a struck sitcom set. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the two rooms of the Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis are eerily empty, the walls bare of art and the blanched maple floors spotless and uncluttered. With track lighting flooding the rooms like klieg lights, there is an unspoken expectation that something is about to happen, something big. I ring the doorbell and wait.
Originally built in the late 1920s for small neighborhood shopkeepers--a grocer or a butcher, perhaps--the building on 46th Street that houses the Weinstein Gallery has seen many configurations. When the gallery opened in 1997, it occupied only half the space it does now--that is, just one storefront. A few years later, the gallery expanded into a neighboring space, so it now fills two storefront windows. I realize as I wait on the sidewalk that it is not often one sees any building space, let alone an art gallery, in such a state--all lit up and yet completely vacant. Soon gallery assistant Kate Heider answers the doorbell and takes me through the display rooms to the basement where I am to have an audience with the resident wizard of the gallery, Martin Weinstein.
Weinstein, who is 59 years old and dressed informally in jeans, sneakers, black T-shirt, seems hesitant to meet me at first. In fact, the first words he speaks are: "What kind of story exactly are you planning to write?" This despite the fact that Weinstein himself has called to solicit an article--a worthy suggestion given the impressive number of big-name shows his gallery has mounted in recent seasons. Then he draws back into himself, as if taken aback at his own words. He will do this numerous times over the next few days--making gleeful or outrageous statements, thinking better of them, taking them "off the record," or saying, "You can't print that." And then he drops another colorful line, and starts the process all over again. In this fashion, Weinstein seems like a man constantly juggling a dozen thoughts.
The initial awkwardness passes quickly--Weinstein is a talker down to the marrow--and he sets off on a small whirlwind of activity: a tour of the space and a discussion of the renovation that took place when the gallery opened more than four years ago. All the while he keeps tabs on what his employees are doing, and he maintains a lookout for the arrival of new artworks from the framer of the gallery's next show.
When Weinstein bought the one space in 1996 it had been a boarded-up potter's studio. "You can't imagine what it was like down here," he says, gesticulating around the room. There was cardboard on the ceiling that had been there for 70 years. It was so dry, we had to take it all out." Upstairs, it took nine days of scraping to remove the linoleum that covered the original maple floors.
The first show at the Weinstein Gallery--paintings by Madison, Wisconsin, artist T.L. Solien--opened in August 1996. Since then Martin Weinstein has put up and taken down nearly 40 shows, nearly one per month. Originally, most of the displays were of paintings. In the last couple of years, though, painting has declined as a marketable commodity--"No one is doing painting now," says Weinstein--and so the gallery has shifted mostly to photographs. Among artists who have shown at the Weinstein Gallery are a number of nationally known figures, such as Chuck Close, Robert Polidori, David Byrne, Mary Ellen Mark, and Nicolas Africano. At present, the next year is booked solid with new shows.
Weinstein has a habit of jumping from topic to topic. Having given a cursory overview of the renovation, he talks about the difficulty of insuring art, then he praises the work of the artist of his upcoming exhibit, Sarah Moon, and praises the way the show will look once it's up. He then praises his preparation crew.
"When we put up a show," Weinstein says, "framing usually takes three weeks. We do a first-class framing....I like to do spare, elegant shows....For us, it is less important to have great economic success. The goal is to make a truly beautiful show. The reason the gallery exists, all I care about, is making a beautiful show."
Then we're back looking at the basement, examining the storage spaces, the floor racks filled with paintings, prints, and photographs. Weinstein talks about keeping the basement free of dust--how he needs to conduct a major cleaning once a week. A moment or two later he returns to talking about the storage racks again.
"There's never enough space," he adds--and then he is off on another subject.
The art world has its share of characters--figures ranging from legendary raconteurs to brilliant pitchmen--and Martin Weinstein seems to belong in this company. There is a bit of the ringmaster to him, an awareness of the choreography of art and artists, patrons and critics, that goes into the running of a successful art business. Weinstein is constantly hitting you with the hard sell, yet there's never a hint of insincerity. He truly believes in what he's selling. And the fact is, his faith is not misplaced. It is surely remarkable that Weinstein has succeeded here in the Twin Cities, where in the past two years at least four galleries have folded, including the significant International Gallery of Contemporary Art (managed by Art-a-Whirl founder David Felker) and Thomas Barry Fine Arts.