Burek claims to be completely bewildered by his contentious relationship with artists. Standing in the gallery on a recent Thursday afternoon, surrounded by plaster heads, traditional Chinese landscape paintings, and other works from diStilo's current four-person show, "Breathing Room," he raises his hands in disbelief at what he calls his "artist problems." Burek is a slight, 52-year-old man with a full head of gray hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. Sweat beads on his pinkish face as he shows off the un-air-conditioned space with the enthusiasm of a proud father.
Burek adamantly denies that he's been anything but a straight shooter in his dealings with artists. "Any negative things that come out of this gallery are personal vendettas from people who don't get what we're doing. We're generous to a fault to anyone who comes in here." With regard to Doyle, Burek maintains the designer simply refused to pay rent. "He was in the gallery six months; he paid absolutely nothing," Burek says. "It was always a song and a dance."
In the case of Considine, Burek says that when the artist didn't get his way he became threatening. "I gave him carte blanche," he sighs. "We gave him every opportunity."
DiStilo Gallery opened to the public on Saturday, December 2, 2000 in grand style. Its inaugural show, "Metamorphoses," featured the work of nearly two dozen artists, many of them exhibiting in a gallery for the first time. The recently rehabbed warehouse space, located on a quiet block amid the bustle of Uptown, was packed with hundreds of people from dusk until well after bar-closing time. Fire- and sword-swallowers roamed the gallery rooms. A mime silently performed; a puppet show entertained patrons. The space took on the air of an impromptu nightclub, complete with cash bar and rock bands providing a sonic backdrop.
"It was a zoo," says Cathan Murray, one of the artists who had helped renovate the space and who was showing his work that night. Adds Chris Rand, another artist who had helped transform diStilo into a viable gallery space: "I've grown up around art shows my entire life and I've never seen an opening like that." For one night at least, the diStilo gallery was everything that Burek and his group of fledgling artists had envisioned.
At the time, Murray and Rand had just graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where they'd met Brad Ehrsam, an established artist who was auditing a course at the school. All three work primarily in wood and metal, creating pieces for both the rarefied realm of art galleries and the retail furniture market. Ehrsam discovered the warehouse space, where artists Holly Vrieze and David Aschenbrener had already set up shop, and brought along his two younger colleagues from MCAD.
The artists were inspired by Burek's vision of a cultural collective and by the untapped potential of the vast, raw warehouse space. They took it on faith that everyone shared the same goals: creating, displaying, and selling art that otherwise might not get a chance in the marketplace. Burek's name was on the lease, but the assumption was that everyone held an equal stake in the success of diStilo Gallery and New Quarter Arts Alliance.
When the artists moved into the warehouse it was in tatters, a disheveled storage facility and haven for squatters and graffiti taggers. It was chock-a-block with all manner of garbage: scrap lumber, insulation, ceiling tiles, mattresses, beer cans. Lighting was almost nonexistent. Walls were either punched through with holes or covered in graffiti. "It was just a huge maze of junk and stuff stored all over the place," recalls Ehrsam.
From July to October, the five artists worked morning and night renovating the space. They set aside their own projects and picked up hammers and paint rollers. They knocked down walls, then reconstructed and painted them. They refinished the wooden floors, installed new lights, reconstructed the ceilings. They created woodworking and metal shops. "For a brief moment everyone was happy," recalls Aschenbrener. "Everyone helped everyone else."
Everyone, four of the artists claim, except for Burek. By most accounts, as the work progressed through the summer and into the fall, the director was largely absent. Ehrsam says that he grew increasingly wary as the weeks passed. He was putting hundreds of dollars of his own money into the renovation and began to worry that it would all be wasted. Ehrsam kept meticulous records of every purchase that went into diStilo and logged the number of hours he spent laboring on the project. According to Ehrsam's receipts, he poured nearly $6,000 into the gallery, everything from $1.48 at Nicollet Hardware for fasteners to hundreds of dollars spent at Home Depot for drywall. In addition, he figures that he spent 800 hours laboring on the gallery. At $15 an hour--a rate that even an unskilled handyman might scoff at--that amounts to $12,000 worth of labor. "I almost didn't have any pieces in the show, because I spent all my time building the place," Ehrsam says.
On the night of the grand opening, one of the steel-and-wood end tables that Ehrsam had on display was damaged. He took it as a warning sign. Ehrsam removed all of his tables to the metal shop and then the next morning, foreseeing a meltdown with Burek, took them out of the gallery altogether. A few days later the lock on the front door was changed. Then Ehrsam received a notice from Burek that his lease was being terminated, allegedly for non-payment of rent from September to December--an assertion he flatly denies. As evidence, Ehrsam produces a copy of a check for $320--enough for two months' rent, he says--dated October 1, 2000. "[Patrick]'s pretty much lied to my face," he asserts.