It’s a question that seems to come up with greater frequency each year: How do our cities stack up when compared to other cities across the country?
“You will always come across these lists on the internet, the top 10 cities for living or recreation or for singles or live music or whatever else,” says artist, writer, and Minneapolis personality Andy Sturdevant. “Nobody knows what the method for coming up with these things is, because usually it’s just a website where a bunch of freelance writers are sitting in a room and then they go, 'Well, Seattle seems pretty good. And Minneapolis seems like it’s okay. Let’s put that as number two.' There’s not a lot of rigor behind it.”
In response to these somewhat arbitrary lists, since 2011 Sturdevant has come up with his own system of faux sociological data to determine how cities stack up in the field of contemporary art. Armed with an easel, a pad of sticky paper, and some sharpies, Sturdevant travels to different cities where he determines, along with the audience, which cities have the best ecology for contemporary art.
This week, he’s visiting the Pivot Art + Culture in Seattle, the art center run by Ben Heywood, formerly of Minneapolis’ Soap Factory. It’s the seventh city where Sturdevant has conducted the program, having previously visited Louisville, Philadelphia, Chicago, Nashville, and Chattanooga.
When Sturdevant does his “study,” Minneapolis and Seattle often come out roughly in the same tier.
“It seems like Seattle and Minneapolis historically have an affinity in terms of being mid-sized cities that tend to be regional attractors for artists and musicians and whoever else,” he says. “I think Minneapolis has traditionally been a little higher because I’ve always done this project on the East Coast and in the Midwest.”
“People kind of clamp down on whatever opinion they have,” he adds. “When the tenor of their opinion matches that of everyone in the room, that’s what we go with.”
This is all in fun, of course, and not to be confused with a serious study — whatever that might look like. “I would expect there’s a warrant out for my arrest,” Sturdevant jokes.
In write-ups of the program, Sturdevant has been described as a kind of auctioneer and professor, but he says he’s not really putting on a character. “That’s the way I talk in public,” he says.”It’s a slightly exaggerated version of myself.”
When he first came up with the presentation back in 2011, Sturdevant thought he’d run it very seriously, but he threw that idea out right away. "There’s no way you can do that. It’s such a ridiculous proposition,” he says.
While the exercise is a bit absurd, it leads to interesting conversations. He got the idea from going to artist conferences, and talking with people at the bars afterward who were comparing different art scenes. “I basically take that dialogue and formalize it slightly more,” he says.
Sturdevant believes that the project works because contemporary art is a very itinerant proposition. People might go to one college in one city, get a master's degree in another, and go to a third city to teach or work.
“There are national networks of organizations and other artists, so there tends to be this conversation that’s happening on a national level,” he says. That national conversation makes it possible for Sturdevant to comfortably do the project in any number of cities. “I really don’t need a lot of infrastructure to do it. If i’m in a city and I can convince some kind of art organization to give me three hours of their time and a tripod, I can do the project without much hassle,” he says.
Attending Andy Sturdevant Presents U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings: A New Hierarchical Approach might be tricky if you live in Minnesota. You will soon have a chance to see Sturdevant’s work at St. Olaf’s Flaten Art Museum in his solo exhibition, “The Via Northfield,” if you're up for a road trip this season.