And Take Your Canvas with You!

Sean Smuda

On a Friday evening at the beginning of this fall, people streamed into the Art is Not a Sacred Object (AØSO) Cooperative Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis for the last time. As they sipped beer and wine, two men set up sound equipment and visual props on a cramped stage at the front of the midsize hall. Meanwhile, in the back corner, two 8mm film projectors clattered and cast grainy images on the arched ceiling: two people smearing food on their nude bodies; a 1950s housewife hanging laundry on a clothesline in a far-off suburban paradise; old newsreel footage. AØSO had hosted a handful of such open-format events, until, its founders say, a rent hike of nearly 50 percent spelled the gallery's end. (AØSO's former landlord could not be reached for comment.)

Sometime after 10 p.m. the lights went down and the show began, featuring inventive but somewhat juvenile puppetry by the first stagehand, and punkish, self-penned confessional songs by the second. After a time, the crowd began to filter outside to get away from the noise of this young artist's guitar. A storm opened up overhead as the party continued into the evening, symbolically punctuating the final event at AØSO, which would close its doors for good the next day.

Although Northeast Minneapolis is arguably the art center of the Twin Cities these days, that distinction may be ending as the neighborhood evolves. Like AØSO, two other Northeast galleries have closed in the last six months, and another in the last year. At the same time, rising rents and new neighborhood development threaten to displace some of the artist occupants of warehouse studio spaces.

Roughly defined as the Central Avenue corridor running between 3rd and 37th avenues, Northeast Minneapolis has historically been a confluence of working-class residences, light-industrial parks, warehouses, and low-rent retail shops. At present, several art galleries (including Acme Visual Arts and Icebox Gallery) and a number of large studio complexes (including the S & M Tire Warehouse, the Tyler Street Studio Building, the California Building, and the Northrup King Studio Complex) can be found around the Central Avenue corridor, where the low-rent warehouse and industrial spaces began to attract artists and gallery owners about 10 years ago.

While estimates vary, Perry Ingli, the chair of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA) and an artist who sells work around town, suggests there are more than 500 artists living in the area. "Artists are constantly looking for affordable spaces," Ingli says. "And they want affordable spaces close to the city, so they've been coming to Northeast."

In fact, the art scene of Northeast was growing so quickly that three years ago, David Felker, a local artist who shows his sculptural work internationally and who has run several art galleries across the country, helped found Art-a-Whirl, the Northeast Minneapolis gallery and studio tour. "Important things are happening in Northeast," says Felker, who won a Minneapolis Award from the mayor in 1994 for his efforts in founding Art-a-Whirl. "Artists are coming together here, and they are creating a cultural phenomenon for the city. What is happening here deserves to be recognized. The city of Minneapolis needs to know that the real meat in the art scene is happening in artists' studios out in places like the S & M and California [buildings]."

To understand how the art scene ended up in Northeast Minneapolis one would have to look at Minneapolis's last art boom roughly 15 years ago in the city's Warehouse District. Back then, the neighborhood hosted a pocket of dilapidated retail spaces and warehouses where artists and fringe galleries could exist relatively inexpensively. With the influx of restaurants, office developments, and strip clubs in the '90s, that scene has all but disappeared, and in recent years nearly all the downtown galleries have closed.

According to Howard Christopherson, currently the owner of the Icebox Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis, the peak years of the Warehouse District art scene were from roughly 1986 to 1990. "The downtown scene was large. There was a good crowd of people. It was a go-to-see-and-be-seen kind of place. There were bars open after the art shows on Saturday nights where artists would meet. There were studio parties. It was great."

When urban renewal began, artists were forced out by large development projects or by the razing of their buildings. Christopherson's warehouse studio was torn down by the city to make room for a Target Center parking lot. The Sex World building, where 15 or so artists once had space, and where Christopherson had once made a video, was bought by adult-entertainment entrepreneurs. Where as many as 25 art galleries had thrived on the concentration of artists and art buyers, now only a handful of galleries survive.

"Back then," says Christopherson, "everyone who had the idea of having a gallery opened one. Now, there are a lot of sports bars down there, and endless numbers of strip joints."  

After the artists were priced and pushed out of downtown Minneapolis, some took refuge in St. Paul, particularly in the state-subsidized artist cooperative housing of Lowertown and Frogtown. Many others, however, found their way eventually to Northeast Minneapolis, where the abundance of old warehouses provided artists with the cheap room necessary for their work and where a sense of community was fostered. In some instances, downtown artists were offered token amounts of money to relocate their studios north of the river.

"After they left the downtown," said David Felker, who moved to Northeast Minneapolis six years ago from Alaska, "many artists could only afford to go to the old industrial area of the city, which happened to be Northeast Minneapolis. There's lots of warehouse and light-industrial space. When I got here, I observed how many artists were working here and I was amazed. There are several very successful artists living here, people like Perry Ingli and Doug Argue who are dedicated working artists and whose work is influencing the whole population."

According to Doug Padilla, the former owner of the Art Jones Gallery, which closed a few months ago, buildings such as the California and Tyler have served as art spaces for a decade. "The nice thing about our [the S & M Tire Warehouse] building was the owner used to go away all winter to live in Florida and he played golf all summer, so we as artists could thrive in an atmosphere of benign neglect. We created a community there because there was a lot of freedom. We went out and brought artists into the building because the owner left us alone. We had a yearly art show for the whole building. The main feeling I had then was a sense of discovery."

Howard Christopherson founded Icebox Gallery 10 years ago in what he calls an "unlikely" space in Northeast Minneapolis at 24th and Central avenues. "We tried to take nontraditional art and make a big deal out of it," said Christopherson, explaining that clients usually go to the Icebox Gallery for its framing operation. "We try to turn people on to alternative art. Many of the big-money people do not venture out to where the upstarts are. But I think the small galleries are where the really cool stuff is."

Icebox became a linchpin in a number of unusual and successful arts events held in Northeast Minneapolis, including a Halloween Show that it held annually for five or six years. "People used to come out here from all over to see that show," he said. "And there were a lot of events like that in Northeast back then."

"Every time I talked to an artist in the area, there was so much enthusiasm," says Kjersti Monson, the young artist who founded AØSO, only to see it close within the year. "I rented the space"--at the historic Margaret Barry House on Pierce Street--"first as a studio, but after I moved in, it became interesting to me to have an event here."

"AØSO created a lot of different creative opportunities for artists to take advantage of," says Caprice Glaser, a sculptor from St. Paul whose large public artwork can be seen across the Twin Cities and who participated in AØSO's first event. "I think Kjersti did something spectacular. It was alive and spontaneous... Artists came from all over. Things like that should happen more often, and in spaces like that."

"We wanted to bring interdisciplinary art to the space," continues Monson. "We wanted all kinds of things: puppetry, live music, humorous spectacles... All of it was to challenge the notion that art is a commodity, and to tell people that art can be simply experiential."

It is ironic that just as Northeast Minneapolis has grown into a mature and diverse art scene, economic factors may force the artists and gallery owners to pull up roots. According to many, the increases in property values and rental costs are outpacing real estate inflation in all but a few areas of the Twin Cities.

"In Northeast especially, property values are going up pretty dramatically," says Bob McNamara, a Northeast Minneapolis real estate broker for Independent Brokers Realty. "Rental rates are rising dramatically, too." According to McNamara, last year alone saw a 5 to 10 percent across-the-board rise in real estate values in Northeast Minneapolis (the rate climbed just over 3 percent nationally. In residential areas, McNamara reports, rental properties have climbed from $250 or $300 per room to more than $400 a room in the last two years.

In light of this trend, developments over the last few months have led some Northeast artists to conclude that the neighborhood may not remain hospitable to their lifestyle. A number of small gallery spaces in Northeast, including AØSO, Art Jones, the Space Gallery, and David Felker's International Gallery, have had to shut down because of economic troubles.  

"It's a hard thing to run a gallery here," says Padilla, whose Art Jones Gallery closed this summer after a large show resulted in only three paintings being sold. "People in Minnesota appreciate art, but nobody buys anything. So no one can afford to run a gallery. The town has a nonprofit mentality. Everyone thinks you're funded somehow."

Christopherson also describes the difficulty of turning art into sales, and places some of the responsibility on artists with unrealistic expectations. "So many artists create things that don't sell," he says. "There are lots of reasons to be an artist, and money often isn't one of them. If I didn't love art and love working with artists, I would have done something much more lucrative."

While retailing art has always presented a challenge, many of the workshops where sculpture, paintings, prints, and photography are created now seem to have a precarious existence. The owners of some buildings that house studios have started selling these newly valuable properties to industrial developers. The S & M Tire Warehouse, for instance, was sold to Hillcrest Development last year, leaving the 40-odd artists who rent space in the building uncertain about the future there. Several artists seem convinced that Hillcrest--which is currently working on four development projects of a few buildings each--plans to renovate the space for light-industrial use. It's a suspicion that is shared by others with business in the neighborhood.

"I'm sure Hillcrest is putting $10 million in the old Phillips bottling plant," says Ted Risk, a real estate broker in Northeast who specializes in commercial properties. (The Phillips building is a warehouse located in a complex next to the S & M building.) "I don't want to speak for Hillcrest, but I'm sure they'd like to rehabilitate S & M and make a nice upscale building. That's how these developers make money."

According to artists, as soon as Hillcrest bought the S & M building, rents there were raised from about $2.50 per square foot to the current rate of $6.50. And rents are rumored to be climbing as high as $11 per square foot at the Phillips building--a figure Hillcrest owner Scott Tankenoff will neither confirm nor deny.

"This is frustrating to me," says Tankenoff, who bristles at suggestions that he plans to develop the S & M Warehouse to the exclusion of artist tenants. "We have many leases in the S & M that go on beyond this year--a couple of years even. This [the artists' fears] doesn't seem reasonable."

Tankenoff points to rising rents within the context of improvements that have been made to Hillcrest properties. "We've spent money upgrading a failing heating system [at the S & M]. We put a new boiler in, and a new elevator to meet city code for providing access...Other buildings go at different prices because of different levels of improvements. We decided to take a different approach with the S & M. We have sacrificed raising rents to have a full building, and we need a full building to carry the cost of the building."

Currently, the artists and gallery owners who remain in Northeast Minneapolis are anxiously waiting to see what happens to their spaces. "I don't think we can stop the rising rents," says Padilla, who claims that most artists in Northeast now have a bunker mentality. "It's a capitalist machine out there. People are just trying to survive. The scene is not flourishing; it's just surviving."

But while the campaign continues outside the artists' bunkers, in recent weeks some quiet battles have been won by the arts community. For instance, artists in the Tyler Building survived an attempt by the Park Board to raze their entire block, located just off Central Avenue in the heart of Northeast Minneapolis. The plan, if it had passed, would have permanently displaced the 50 or so artists who live and work in the Tyler Building for a proposed aquatic and fitness center.

"Why are city politicians willing to put out money for a fitness center?" asks David Monson, an artist at the Tyler Building who has organized his peers and petitioned local officials. "Artists need to stay in touch with politicians and show how big the voter base is. Then things like this won't happen."

According to Julia Berman, a member of the Northeast Minneapolis Community Center Task Force, artists' issues are beginning to be heard. "The Park Board is reviewing their plan because of artists' concerns... Dislocation [of the artists in the Tyler Building] doesn't make sense if this is not the right place."

In the same spirit, many artists have been lobbying for a revision of the zoning code currently being undertaken by the Minneapolis Planning Department. These artists believe that a relaxation of the rules governing the zoning of industrial and commercial space in Northeast Minneapolis will give them some protection against owners bent on removing them, or from authorities looking for zoning violations.  

"We are aware of the issue," said Blake Graham, who is supervising the creation of the new code at the Planning Department. According to Graham, there will be some flexibility in the emerging zoning code to accommodate artists who want to live and work in the commercial or light-industrial spaces of Northeast. Under the plan, artists will be allowed to live in districts zoned for commercial use, and, through the use of overlay--or mixed use--districts, artists will be allowed to occupy and create art in selected industrial zones. "We've made it easier for artists," Graham says.

Local politicians, too, are beginning to take note of their artist constituents. "The time is now," said Paul Ostro, Northeast's representative on the Minneapolis City Council, who recently met with several area artists to discuss possible solutions to their problems--including organizing artists to purchase their own spaces with city help, as occurred several years ago in Lowertown St. Paul. "We have to do something, or we are going to lose our artists in Northeast. And that would be a real shame."

For now, though, the arts scene in Northeast seems to stand at a crossroads, as artists plan new schemes to show their work, while they evaluate the viability of remaining in the neighborhood. "I don't think it's all over in Northeast," says Perry Ingli. "Artists will continue to feel pressure, but the scene is evolving. Artists are showing their work, in their own studios now because so many galleries have failed. They're doing what it takes."

"We have to figure out a way to buy buildings or we'll be gone," says Padilla, who is considering moving out of Northeast soon if things do not improve. And that seems to be, for many artists and gallery owners who can't survive in the current economy, the final option.

"And the artists end up where?" asks Padilla sarcastically. "Coon Rapids?"

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