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MMAA remembers the Twin Cities art scene of the 1970s

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This week, the Minnesota Museum of American Art takes a look back at the 1970s art scene with a new show featuring a number of prominent Twin Cities artists from the era. The exhibition is centered around a series of photographs by Victor Bloomfield, a professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics at the University of Minnesota, who dabbled in photography and immersed himself in artist social circles. The show, titled "Studio Sessions: Minnesota Artists in the 1970s," includes 31 photographs by Bloomfield's of artists such as Frank Gaard, Katherine Nash, Jerry Rudquist, Harriet Bart, Warren MacKenzie, and Nancy Randall.

At the opening reception, guests are encouraged to dress in '70s attire. It will take place on Thursday August 15, and will include an introduction by Bloomfield, refreshments, participatory activities, and funk, jazz, and soul music provided by DJ Booka B. 

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Bloomfield, who was born in New Jersey and grew up in California, moved to Minnesota in 1970 to join the faculty of the University of Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, he became interested in photography, and installed a darkroom in his home. Then he and his first wife became friends with artists George Morrison and Hazel Belvo. Bloomfield started taking pictures of the couple and their family, and they in turn began inviting them to  parties at their house in St. Paul, which had formerly been a church. "It made a great space for working artists, and had a lot of space for socializing," Bloomfield recalls. 

There he met other artists, as well as Suzanne Kohn, who had a gallery on Grand Avenue where she would host Saturday afternoon salons with wine and conversation. 

"I just started asking a few people if I could photograph them in their studios," Bloomfield says. Inspired by a photography book by Ugo Mulas called New York, the New Art Scene, which included images of New York artists in the mid-1960s, Bloomfield set out to document the people in the Twin Cities art scene. 

"I would call people up and say, 'I'm doing this project on upstanding Twin Cities artists. Would you like to be included?'" Bloomfield says. All told, he photographed about 70 artists, mostly painters, sculptors, and printmakers, a little less than half of which are included in the exhibition.

Bloomfield showed his work at Suzanne Kohn's gallery in the latter half of the 1970s, and then they sat on his shelf until Dr. Kristin Makholm, the executive director of MMAA, reached out to him because she had heard from Belvo that he had a photograph of George Morrison that she was hoping the museum could use for a catalogue of Morrison's work. After showing Makholm the picture, he shared some of his other photographs with her. "We looked at each other and said, 'This is a show,'" he says. 

Among his subjects were Katherine Nash (the namesake of the University of Minnesota's Katherine E. Nash Gallery), Harriet Bart, Jerry Rudquist, Frank Gaard, Wayne Potratz, Thomas Rose, and Phyllis Wiener, who was one of the founders of WARM. In addition, there are photographs of Martin Friedman, director of the Walker, and also Samuel Sachs, former director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. 

Each of the artists featured in Bloomfield's photography (19 of whom are still living) will have an accompanying artwork included in the exhibit. Christina Chang, who curated the show, says some of the artists felt strongly about choosing a work from the 1970s, while others are showing recent work. 

In addition, the exhibit includes objects such as reproductions of a guest book Hazel Belvo kept of the famous parties she and George Morrison held at their home. There will also be copies of Pot Boiler, the only arts-focused magazine of the late 1950s and '60s, Chang says. 
In preparation for the exhibit, Chang did studio visits for almost all of the living artists, and some of their stories are included in the didactic labels.  

During the period, Bloomfield says that there was a real solidarity among the visual arts community. "People really attended each other's openings. I was really impressed with that," he says. Even when the artists didn't like each other -- and there were rivalries -- they always came out to support to one another. At social events, there'd be wine and snacks, and a lot of conversation about art, the politics of art, and why the Walker Art Center didn't show local artists. (So, basically the same as today.)   

Another thing Bloomfield says is worth noting about the time was that there was a growing realization that the Twin Cities was a major center for the arts. That was in part due to the Walker Art Center's reputation, the MIA's Minnesota Artist Exhibition program, and around that time the Women's Artist Registry of Minnesota was also formed. "There were some institutional things that were happening that cemented the arts community," he says. 

IF YOU GO:

"The Studio Sessions: Minnesota Artists in the 1970s"

Thursday, August 15 through October 20

MMAA Project Space

332 N. Robert St., St. Paul

Thursday's opening event takes place from 7 to 8:30 p.m., with an introduction by Victor Bloomfield at 7:15 p.m. Don't forget your 1970s attire.