The Best Things In Life Aren't Free

Guy Nelson's mannequin autopsy, "Bubble Gum Girl, 2001"
Courtesy of Soo VAC

A principle of evolutionary psychology states that modern skulls still have Stone Age minds. In other words, there has not been enough time for gray matter to have adapted to modern living conditions, and evo-psychologists credit all kinds of mind disorders to a basic human disconnect with incomprehensible contemporary realities. As for me, I blamed my hunter-gatherer mindset for not understanding the ironies of the local art market as I made my way to Soo Visual Arts Center (SooVAC) on a recent Friday to meet its director, founder, and benefactor Suzy Greenberg. That is to say, for an art forager like me--accustomed to finding his meals in this or that crumbling cave around town--finding SooVAC was like a caveman stumbling upon the newly built Hagia Sophia.

"I'm trying to set up my ideal here," Greenberg says of her space, a sprawling art gallery that occupies a little less than half of its Lyndale Avenue building (the other half is occupied by the new Highpoint Center for Printmaking). "Kind of like in art school--the energy of having a community, artists hanging around and talking and tossing around ideas."

Greenberg is rather nondescript-looking: shortish, darkish, dressed in loose cotton clothing--black and brown with black boots. She looks, more than anything, like someone who has just graduated from art school. And, in fact, she earned an M.F.A. degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1998. Her nonprofit brainchild, however, is anything but nondescript. In fact, SooVAC is quite a spectacle in comparison with similar local art venues that run on a shoestring and seem stuck in an endless, static cycle of benign neglect. SooVAC's massive gallery is clean and inviting, its brick building lovely, and its neon signage highly visible. Behind the scenes, in the art studio and workshop in the back, people work in silent efficiency.

It doesn't take an evolved mind to know that it is more pleasant to view art in a beautiful space than in a cave, but figuring out how to finance such endeavors, particularly in the current economy, can be mind-boggling. Amid the layoffs and budget deficits, there has been a recession in the local art scene marked by gallery closings (at Gus Lucky's and the Waiting Room); gallery scale-backs (at Midway Contemporary Art, the MCAD Gallery, et al.); and curtailment of arts funding (by organizations such as the Jerome Foundation and the St. Paul Companies). This, of course, is news that bodes ill for many arts organizations in town struggling to survive the next year or two.

But it's also where the ironies blossom. Last July, just as the economy was tanking, the Minnesota Council on Foundations reported that local arts institutions--behemoths such as Walker Art Center, the University of Minnesota Art Department, the Guthrie Theater, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company--were planning to launch capital campaigns to raise funds in excess of $500 million over the next several years. This amount doubles the previous record for capital campaigns set in 1996, and further squeezes out the small arts operators in need of money.

"I look at the huge capital campaigns in town," says Greenberg, "and I don't understand how in the current economy you can think you'll get the money." (All of SooVAC's own funding requests have so far been rejected, including three grants that had seemed quite likely back in the fall.)

Oddly, even though Greenberg opened SooVAC in June, exactly when the economy nose-dived and money began drying up, the art center has seemed to thrive. And so her experiences may be instructive.

"I spent five years figuring out how to do it all," says Greenberg. She used what she calls "private seed money" given to her by her father, a retired New York commercial art dealer, to purchase outright the building that houses SooVAC. "Instead of buying a house or nice car, I did what I wanted to do."

Though Greenberg declines to reveal how much she paid for the building, she does say that the 11,000-square-foot building is in a district where average annual rents are $13 dollars a foot. Leasing out approximately half the building (to the print center) no doubt helps pay the bills.

"I do what I have to to make sure space exists," she says. This includes selling small items by artists in a store at the front of the gallery. "If we need money, we'll cut gallery space in half and rent out the other half. There's always a way to survive. And I think people want there to be a space like this in town."


According to Greenberg, SooVAC's mission is nothing less than changing society by building a new and enlightened community of artists and art lovers who will all come to worship at this cathedral of art. The current show at SooVAC reflects something of this utopian desire. Titled "Abjectify," it is a collection of six artists whose work purportedly explores ideas of attraction and repulsion. The concept is based on an infamous and gender-theory-based show held at the Whitney in 1993 called "Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art."

What stands out in this space is the sense of longing behind the grotesquery. In Christine Willcox's gauzy pseudo-realist paintings, for instance, gangly awkward youths in swimming caps have taped photos of muscular men on the walls behind them, a symbol of their longing for perfection. Liseli Palivka's nightmarish doll-and-stuffed-animal tableau hints at a longing for childhood innocence. And Guy Nelson's strange sculptures using taxidermy hint at a longing for an ideal of nature.

Perhaps everyone, like Suzy Greenberg, longs to find an ideal world beyond the reality of contemporary society. But artists and would-be gallery directors, having been fed so many idealistic portrayals of the romance of art, forget that supporting the making of it is the non-idyllic half of the equation. So many people fail at art because they are never able to cope with the modern economy--where printing an exhibition announcement can cost several months of rent, and where selling art to support yourself is about as easy as restoring the Sistine chapel with finger paint. If only art were as simple today as it was for the cave painters.

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