A Picture of Discontent

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

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."

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.

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.

Ehrsam and Murray parted ways with the gallery immediately. Rand and Vrieze followed a few weeks later, after lining up new studio space. Of the original core group that rehabbed the warehouse space, only Aschenbrener remained.

Not surprisingly, Burek offers a different account of what took place at the end of 2000. He asserts that Ehrsam and his fellow artists were, in essence, attempting to mount a gallery coup d'état. The woodworking shop that Ehrsam and others were using initially took up one room, he notes, and then a second. Burek believes that they ultimately wanted to take over the lease from Bennett Lumber and push him out of the picture. "[Ehrsam] moved in lock, stock, and barrel and started expanding his woodshop, and then he brought in all his cronies," Burek asserts. "The more we grew, the less these people were happy because they thought it was their own private playpen."

Ehrsam says he contemplated suing Burek and diStilo but figured there was little to gain from further extending the dispute. "It had already cost me too much money and time," he says.


David Aschenbrener was a squatter in the current diStilo Gallery space when he first met Patrick Burek in late 1999. There was no hot water or heat in the dilapidated storage facility. Trash was piled everywhere. "It was brutal," Aschenbrener recalls. "I didn't have a lot to my name."

Burek had recently begun renting the space that Aschenbrener had made his temporary home. When they ran across each other, Burek inquired about the bronze sculptures that belonged to his new de facto tenant. Rather than kick Aschenbrener out on the streets, Burek gave the recent Chicago transplant his first break. "I got a show from him, like, two days later in the International Market Square, so it worked out pretty well," Aschenbrener recalls. "Patrick's been great."

Aschenbrener has stayed on through all the drama at the diStilo Gallery, from the opening-night euphoria of "Metamorphoses," to Sean Doyle's clumsy break-in. "It's been an interesting experience," Aschenbrener laughs, seated in his studio on a Saturday afternoon. "I thought I left drama behind in Chicago, but I guess not."

On the walls of his studio are a series of vintage refrigerator doors that have been chiseled with cartoonish, animal-like figures. He's currently working on a sculpture that features a rusty pickax and an amorphous bronze form mounted on a hunk of wood. Aschenbrener calls the piece "Nothing Worth Doing Is Easy." The artist's dark tan betrays the fact that he has not quite made the leap to being a self-sufficient artist. "I'm painting houses with my art degree," he laughs. Despite the day job, he's had considerable success finding outlets for his work. In addition to shows at diStilo, he has displayed his sculptures at galleries in Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee.  

Aschenbrener is at a loss to explain the constant infighting that has plagued the diStilo Gallery. "To me it kind of blows my mind, because what I've seen is people trying to help people and then things just happen," he says. "I just try to stay out of that stuff. I try to stay neutral."

Aschenbrener is not alone in defending diStilo and Burek. Philip Hoffman, a painter who helps run the gallery and has had a studio there since March 2001, also praises the group's work. Hoffman says that he had been laid off by a frame shop and was without a studio space when he met Burek. "Patrick opened this whole world to me and got me out of my shell," he says. "I'm actually living my dream." Hoffman charges that artists like Considine and Doyle have simply taken advantage of Burek's generosity. "We just need to learn not to let people abuse it," Hoffman says.

Michael Williams, who's served on the gallery's board of directors since its inception, echoes those sentiments. "A couple of the artists thought they were in charge, and frankly, you can't run an organization where you have all kinds of people in charge," says Williams. "They started resenting that Patrick was the leader of the organization."

He blames the problems on immaturity and greed. "Could things have been handled differently? Well, probably," Williams concedes. "That goes without saying. But in the overall view, what happens is, people come to a point in their lives where they have opportunities, and responsibilities to go with it. Some embrace it and some just look for someone else to blame for their difficulties."

Perhaps the chief lesson to be learned from the problems that have plagued diStilo is that informal business arrangements--even among people who share the same goals--often lead to misunderstandings and ugly disputes. Nicholas Harper, who owns Rogue Buddha Gallery in Minneapolis, says that he's careful to put everything in writing and to go over the contract with his clients--who also come from the ranks of younger and unseen artists. "Fifty percent of the responsibility goes each way," says Harper. "Ultimately, it's the artists' responsibility to protect themselves and to get things in writing. But at the same time it's the gallery owner's responsibility to create a corporate climate that's very on-the-level and straightforward, and putting it in writing creates that."

Mark Wojahn, a local sculptor and photographer, adds that there's a chronic lack of business skills among artists. "It's definitely a sickness," he says. "They're so interested in doing their art that business is totally secondary....It's kind of like the blind leading the blind. Nobody really knows what they're doing."

The core group of artists who originally renovated the diStilo space have moved on to a new studio. They found another dilapidated warehouse space in the Longfellow neighborhood and again began the arduous task of rehabbing the facility. There are now woodworking and metal shops in the building, as well as a darkroom. A cavernous, high-ceilinged space that currently hosts Ping-Pong matches could one day be converted into a gallery.

For Rand and Murray, the recent Minneapolis College of Art and Design graduates, the experience with diStilo was their first foray into attempting to make a living as working artists--and they say it taught them a few hard business lessons. "We learned a lot about viewing a person and knowing what they're about," assesses Murray. "We should each get a doctorate in something for all that we've gone through."

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