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Only Masochists Need Apply

Small change: Curators Vance Gellert and Christi Atkinson are paid a pittance for their work in the local art community
David Kern

Wanted: executive director for nonprofit art center. Responsibilities include too much to do in too little time with too few resources. Plenty of backbreaking physical toil coupled with mind-boggling financial conundrums. Qualifications: must be able to deal with artists and a public who will stretch you as thin as Lara Flynn Boyle, or who will tear you apart like so many hyenas if the mood strikes them. Experience in a leadership position and good phone voice a must. Salary: not enough for what you will be required to do--but as there's no price you can place on this job anyway, we figure why bother even trying. Must be willing to start as soon as possible. Are you free tomorrow?

Two local visual-arts organizations in the Twin Cities--No Name Exhibitions at the Soap Factory, and pARTs Photographic Arts Gallery--have recently been advertising for new directors. And had those ads been entirely forthcoming, they may have looked quite a bit like the model above. Instead, both No Name and pARTs have stuck to the script, using such nonprofit/corporate-speak as "programmatic goals" and "organizational mission" and "donor cultivation." Perhaps this represents an attempt to disguise the truth--that these organizations fully intend to suck the living souls out of their leaders-to-be.

That's what one would have to surmise after listening to Christi Atkinson, who has been program director at No Name for the past eight years, and Vance Gellert, executive director of pARTs for eleven years. "These are tough jobs," says Gellert in a tired voice. "Some people think they are glamorous, but it's just a big pile of work." Gellert, the founder of pARTs, the Twin Cities' only nonprofit arts organization dedicated to photography, nearly retired from his position this fall. His dreams of escape were as vague as they were fleeting. Perhaps, he thought, he would find some other work, something less stressful. He would turn back to his own craft--photography--for a while, then search for some long-term projects.

But, in fact, Gellert never made it out of the building: He was unable, after a summer-long search, to hunt down a successor who would take the job. In fact, the two final candidates refused the job offer and stayed put where they were--one with the Minnesota State Arts Board, the other in New York City--when they realized all that the executive-director position entailed. As Gellert explains it, the work he does at pARTs really would fill two jobs: an administrator who pays the bills and raises funds, and a program director who curates the shows. Gellert shrugs: "We probably scared the crap out of them when they saw how much work I was doing already."

So what to do? Rather than give up, Gellert is now getting set for a major expansion and (yet another) capital campaign for the brainchild he founded. That is, pARTs is now planning to develop a partnership with the University of Minnesota and Artspace, a nonprofit property-development agency for the arts, to create what he calls "the premier organization for photography in the Midwest." The plan calls for an expansion of pARTs' current programs, a reconstruction of the gallery space, and an addition of classrooms and darkrooms.

"I just love more work," Gellert cracks dryly, then speaks in a more serious voice. "It's more work than I want, but I'm really ready to roll up my sleeves....We'll see how this goes. I might move on then. Who knows? I can't keep this up forever."

 

Christi Atkinson, meanwhile, is dreaming of potential freedom from No Name after March 2, the application deadline for a hire who will assume many of her duties. "I'm just relishing a chance to focus on my work," she says of the day job at the Walker Art Center she has held for seven of the eight years she's worked as a volunteer at No Name. (At the Walker, she is assistant director of teen programs.) Atkinson is eager to take advantage of the employee development opportunities at the Walker-- perhaps take some classes, travel, take on new projects. Also, there's a little matter of a personal life, something No Name has pretty much devoured over the years. "I can't wait to have time for personal fun, and do things like exercise, cook, and have time in the day for real things."

No Name, founded in 1988, was the first Twin Cities organization to provide a regular venue for new and emerging artists in town. When Atkinson started, she says, she loved her work, consuming as it was. And indeed, she helped the organization develop into one of the top contemporary art venues in the state. But as the arts community grew and demand by artists to show work increased, she became overwhelmed by her workload. "The last two years I haven't loved it," she says. "There was an awareness that the job was too big....It's a full-time job, raising money, getting together programs for artists, maintaining the building."

The person who replaces her will have the title of director, and will draw a real salary for the first time--around $25,000 to $30,000. (Atkinson received a $3,000 stipend each of the past three years, and was paid nothing the years before that.) But a familiarity with post-postmodern installation art is only the most basic requirement for this job. Over the years, Atkinson's duties in maintaining the Soap Factory, where No Name mounts its shows, have included coping with electrical and fire-safety issues, fixing the alarm and sprinkler systems, improving handicap access, contracting for structural repairs, and endless plumbing. Still, she says, at least the organization--after eight years--is now stable in its reputation and finances. "It just needs someone young and ambitious to take it to the next level," she says.

Not just young and ambitious--Atkinson's replacement will have to be wise, patient, burly, handy, and enough of a financial wizard to go toe to toe with the big capital campaigns that are currently dominating the arts-funding environment. As reported in City Pages a few weeks ago, ongoing arts capital campaigns at places like the Walker and the Guthrie currently exceed $500 million, and arts funding organizations such as the Jerome Foundation are cutting certain programs.

It takes a certain amount of self-sacrifice to do this sort of work, according to Jay Heikes, a co-director of the late and lamented Waiting Room Gallery. "We were all really busy, the three of us," he says of the Waiting Room team. "We had to do [the gallery work] on top of our jobs; it was possible, but tight. If we hadn't had jobs it would've been easier. But we had to have jobs to support the gallery."

Heikes and his two cohorts closed the gallery last fall when their landlord raised the rent in the ramshackle building that housed both them and the gallery. He sounds somewhat relieved, though disappointed, to be free of the burden. "Three weeks of the month were manic. Always we were looking to the next show."

"It's a lot of work," says Tim Peterson, director of Franklin Art Works, who runs his gallery without any other support staff (while pulling in a salary in the low 20s). "It's very full-time; it's hard to explain it any other way."

Among the duties Peterson says he has to fulfill in his gallery--along with the regular curating and fiscal management--are shoveling snow for an entire city block, cleaning the toilets in the building, and scrubbing the scuff marks that visitors have left on the gallery floor.

"It's amazing, the sheer volume of work," he says, and expresses a little worry whether No Name will be able to find the right person for their open position. "The fear is, maybe there are three or five people in town who can do this job. And you can only wonder if they'll be willing to take the job."

Anyone?


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