From the Skunk House to National Renown: Soap Factory Celebrates 25 Years

Jaime Carrera

Jaime Carrera

This Saturday, the Soap Factory will celebrate 25 years of supporting innovative and emerging artists with a big party. The no-holds-barred affair is a chance to celebrate how far the Soap Factory has come since its early days as a small alternative gallery for emerging artists known as No Name Gallery.


In October 1988, No Name Gallery, started by a pair of artists named Jim Tittle and Laurie Muir, opened in a building called the Skunk House. The space was owned by John Linsmayer, whose family had been in the fur trading business. He came up with the name from when he was a kid skinning minks and skunks as part of the family business. He had had an office on the second floor, which had once been his grandfather's. On his business card, "head skunk" was listed as his title. 

Tittle and Muir had a studio space in the building, which was located in downtown Minneapolis, but they had their eye on a storefront space on the first floor that they felt would be perfect for a new gallery. Though Tittle's career was doing well -- he had a show at the underground Rifle Sport Gallery and had sold work to the Walker Art Center -- both he and Muir wanted to do something different from what most galleries were showing at the time.

"There were a lot of vanity galleries," Tittle says. So they decided they wouldn't show their own art, but instead use the gallery as a way to find out what their contemporaries were doing. 

Linsmayer, the building's owner, was "a benevolent dictator," Tittle says. At first, he said no to the gallery idea. "He didn't want any trouble." At the time, most artists were living in their studios. 

Jim Tittle and Laure Muir, before No Name Gallery's first show

Jim Tittle and Laure Muir, before No Name Gallery's first show

Then one day, Tittle walked into Linsmayer's office to pay rent, and the owner asked if he would put in a fire-alarm system for the building. Tittle replied that he could theoretically do such a thing, but didn't have any experience. In the end, he agreed to do it, and No Name was born. 

"We were looking for people who had no name," explains Tittle. 

"We wanted to create a place for emerging artists," says Muir. "This was way before social media. To become a more well-known artist, you had to have shown in art galleries, but in order to get shown in galleries, you had to have some sort of reputation."

No Name grew quickly. Sometimes, over 200 people would show up for an opening. Of course, it didn't hurt that Summit Brewery had just opened as well, and would donate a keg of beer for their events. The gallery eventually became a nonprofit and grew their network of volunteers. 

No Name Gallery was forced to move from the Skunk House when the Federal Reserve Bank bought the building. It became No Name Exhibitions for a while in its second location in the Bottling House in northeast Minneapolis. The new name reflected the increase in performance art that the gallery had been taken on. By then, Tittle and Muir had moved to St. Paul and become less involved. The volunteers involved with the organization took ownership of the space. 

How No Name eventually was able to purchase the Soap Factory building for $1 is now the stuff of legends. Most accounts point to a volunteer named Dave Gravy, who happened upon the information that the building was for sale. Herman Milligan, who served as board of directors chair in the early years after they moved to the Soap Factory, explains that Gravy actually overheard a conversation at a bar in the area about how Pillsbury was being acquired by Grand Met, so the building was a liability. They wanted to sell the building for a dollar. "So he said, 'Well, put me on the list,'" Milligan says. 

Christi Atkinson, who acted as a part-time curator in the Soap Factory building after showing up to a meeting and volunteering for the job, says that in the beginning the Soap Factory had no heat. There was also no electricity, no pipes, and there were holes in the floor and in the roof. "We were going to show work until the building fell," she says. 

Luckily, the McKnight Foundation swooped in and gave the organization funding to build a new roof, which stopped the decay. "We started to see the building as ours," Atkinson says.

The building was filled with lard three to five inches deep. The volunteers would come to shovel it out, filling dumpster after dumpster with the stuff, and then going over the building with a power washer. Volunteers would have to wear special clothes, because otherwise you would take the smell back home with you, which often happened anyway.

They didn't do the basement at first. "We ran out of energy," Atkinson says. Eventually, she got young people from the Walker Art Center's teen program, which was her full-time job, to clean the basement, with the reward being they got to exhibit down there. 

Because the building was so run-down, it provided an opportunity for artists to really take some chances. "We used to let people cut holes in the floor," Atkinson says. One artist, Rollin Marquette, filled the basement with water. "We didn't have anything to lose," she says. 

Unlike today, with the Soap Factory surrounded by fancy condos, there was almost no development surrounding it except abandoned factories and empty lots. But Herman Milligan, who served on the board, could see that there were changes afoot with the city of Minneapolis's plan for the Mississippi River Corridor. "I said, 'Look. We're lucky that we own our building. If we want to survive and make it work, we need to get a full-time ED.'" 

So they hired Ben Heywood, who joined as the organization's first full-time executive director at the end of 2002. He changed the name from No Name Exhibitions at the Soap Factory to just the Soap Factory, because the latter "was a bit of a mouthful," he says. 

When Heywood joined the Soap Factory, it had an annual turnover of $70,000 and about 2,000 visitors a year. Last year, the institution had a budget of $600,000 with 25,000 visitors. "What we've done over the past 10 to 12 years is grow considerably," he says. 

That, and make improvements to the building. Since Heywood has joined, the space has gotten new plumbing and electricity, a fire system, and a new set of code-compliant bathrooms. 

The Skunk House

The Skunk House

By the end of this year, the Soap Factory will have permanent heating and air conditioning. When Heywood first started, he would run his office out of Dunn Bros. "We got very cold," he says, although for the past four years, at least the office space has been heated. 

The cold winter months did provide inspiration. The Art Shanty Project, which is now its own organization, first started through the Soap Factory. After they debuted on Medicine Lake, they were stored in the basement of the Soap, and the following season were shown in a gallery exhibition in the space. 

Right now, the Soap Factory is looking to find new partners, both nonprofit and for-profit, that can help complete the refurbishment of the building. While the first floor and basement are largely completed, there's still much to do on the upper two floors that they'd like to get into operation. 

With support from foundations and investments that have come from the Legacy Amendment, the Soap Factory has been able to grow. They also owe some of their success to the annual Haunted Basement, which just had its eighth edition. The program earns a good portion of the Soap Factory's annual revenue. Unlike grants, money earned from the annual program comes with no restrictions. "All nonprofits look for that kind of earned revenue," Heywood says. 

In terms of programming, Heywood calls the Soap Factory a "third space." "It's not a museum or a commercial gallery. You can't buy and sell things here. It's a third space where art is made and exhibited and actively participated in by the audience," he says. He also looks at the organization as a cultural commons. "It's not really about what I want for the space," he says. "It's what the Twin Cities want the place to be. It's a space that is available for the creativity for this region. It's not up to me what that creativity is. It's up to the creativity." 

The celebration this Saturday will include music and performance from Beatrix*JAR, SOLID GOLD, and DJs Diarrhea (Jackie Beckey) and Christopher Saint Christopher (Christopher Allen). Ian Rans will emcee. There will be cocktails, fancy small plates, a live auction, and one-night only art by Aaron Dysart and Andy Duckett. Jaime Carrera and Live Action Set will also perform.

See here for information about how to order tickets to Saturday's event.