A Picture of Discontent

A series of artist showdowns paints an unflattering portrait of the diStilo Gallery

On a weekday in late March at about 10:00 a.m., Sean Doyle showed up at the diStilo Gallery on Dupont Avenue South with two pickup trucks, a 24-foot dock truck, and seven accomplices. The 38-year-old fashion designer jimmied the lock on the front door of the converted warehouse space with a credit card. He then employed a more conventional entry method, keys, to open the two remaining locks.

For the next seven-plus hours, Doyle and his ad-hoc moving crew boxed and loaded up most of his life's possessions: fabric, tools, refrigerator, stove, clothing racks, computer, stereo equipment. Doyle estimates that, all told, he had $20,000 worth of materials locked up in the gallery. "Every last belonging of mine was in there," he says.

The gallery was slated to open at 1:00 p.m., but to Doyle's relief the proprietors never showed. His luck wasn't all good, though. As Doyle was finishing up his covert operation, he rounded a corner with a wheeled clothing rack and plowed into a clay sculpture by Natasha Dikareva depicting a woman with long flowing hair. "There was no fixing it; it was smashed to smithereens," Doyle recalls. "It was the one thing I didn't want to happen. I don't know her; I don't wish any ill on her whatsoever."

Forging a new collective: Former diStilo artists Cathan Murray, Holly Vrieze, Chris Rand, and Brad Ehrsam
Tony Nelson
Forging a new collective: Former diStilo artists Cathan Murray, Holly Vrieze, Chris Rand, and Brad Ehrsam

Feeling there was nothing he could do about the sculpture, Doyle finished loading his stuff, locked the doors, and departed. It was the welcome end to a bitter relationship with the diStilo Gallery, a two-year old venue in the Uptown neighborhood that displays work by young and emerging artists.

Late last summer, Doyle was introduced to Patrick Burek, the founder and director of diStilo Gallery, through another artist and quickly moved into the 7,400-square-foot converted warehouse space on a handshake agreement. The designer says he was promised rent-free space in which to design and create the evening gowns and leather corsets that he sells to individual clients. In return, 30 percent of anything Doyle sold through the gallery would go to diStilo. He was also expected to help run the gallery, a sort of artists' collective where everyone works to achieve the greater goal of presenting and selling work. "The opportunity looked too good to be true," says Doyle, "a place to rent for free where all I had to do was pitch in at openings and help fix up the place."

In November Doyle put on a fashion show at diStilo, with runway models showcasing his latest designs. The show was a bit of a bust, with low attendance and no sales--and from there his relationship with the director, Burek, disintegrated. Doyle believes that the situation soured once it became clear that his designs weren't going to attract scores of wealthy patrons to the gallery. By December, Doyle says, Burek was no longer including him in meetings to discuss the gallery. In January Burek began demanding rent money. Then in February the lock on the front door was changed.

Doyle was unable to do his work without access to the materials locked inside the building. He says he stopped by the gallery during the hours that it was supposed to be open to try to collect his belongings, but nobody was there. Finally he decided to take matters into his own hands. "I didn't want to chance it," says Doyle, before humming the Mission: Impossible theme. "I just wanted to grab my stuff and get the hell out of there."

When Burek discovered the shattered sculpture, he contacted the Minneapolis Police Department. According to the police report, he fingered his disgruntled tenant as the primary suspect, but Doyle has not been charged with any crimes.

Strangely Doyle is not the only artist who has broken into diStilo in the last year. Adam Considine, a painter who recently had a falling-out with Burek, tells a similar story. According to Considine, he was hired to be a curator at diStilo in November. He organized a show called "Priority Mail," featuring political work by 15 different artists, but never saw a penny for his efforts. After Burek locked him out, Considine says, he had to scale a wall and climb through a window to retrieve six of his paintings.

In the two years since diStilo opened its doors, the fledgling Uptown gallery has left a trail of disgruntled artists in its wake. The stories are remarkably similar. Burek dazzles people with his vision of a collective designed to showcase and sell the work of emerging artists who otherwise wouldn't get exposure. He promises them free--or very cheap--studio space and gallery shows. Then they gradually butt heads with the director and leave diStilo embittered. "He's predisposed to that kind of situation, it seems," says Doyle, who has since relocated to the Rossmore Building in downtown St. Paul. "Maybe he should find a different line of work."

Prior to opening diStilo Gallery, Patrick Burek operated an interior-design business, with a focus on imports from Mexico. He says he stumbled into leasing the warehouse from Bennett Lumber after an artist whose work he was helping to market fell behind in paying rent on the space. "I've always had a fascination with helping artists," Burek says. To that end, along with diStilo he's created the New Quarter Arts Alliance, a nonprofit group that he says is in the process of filing with the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status. Through that organization he hopes to be able to secure grants and perhaps offer art classes. In the coming months, the gallery has plans for a show examining the African Diaspora and another curated by the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota, a group devoted to getting women's creations on gallery and museum walls. "I'm just the director trying to channel the energy of artists," he explains.

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