by Juleana Enright
If you lived in the Twin Cities circa late ’80s/early ’90s and were at all engaged in the arts or underground punk scene, chances are you remember Speedboat Gallery. If you don’t, that’s okay – many factors could be responsible for your naivety to the subject. Perhaps you didn’t live here at the time, or perhaps you were a wee babe barely in preschool an not yet aware of the joys of a good, underground rock show. Maybe you were stuck in some podunk town when all the cool shit at Speedboat happened and could only dream of such arty debauchery. Or perhaps you were religiously in attendance at every Speedboat show but a river of Black Label is creating some intense memory gaps. Whatever spectrum of the SBG awareness you fall under, this Saturday you’re in for a refresher and a chance to experience a bit of the old SBG magnetism for yourself.
Without rehashing The Oral History of the Speedboat Gallery (a must-read), here’s a little background:
Located at 1166 Selby Avenue, St. Paul from ’88 until the po-po shut it down in ’94, the alt gallery survived on low cover charges, art sales and die-hards, never receiving grants despite their intense impact on the avant-garde creative community and recognition in national mags like Details, Billboard and Art in America. The long-defunct SBG originally started out as a storefront art gallery housing basement concerts featuring local and non-local underground bands, but evolved into an iconic incubator for cutting-edge talent in both the art and music scenes.
This weekend, CO Exhibitions premieres A Punker’s Revenge, a one-night-only exhibition that “salutes the memory, the passion, the insanity, the art, and the rock n’ roll” of SBG. The show will include artwork from a few of the gallery’s veterans (Bruce Tapola, Alexa Horochowski, Scott Dolan, Frank Gaard, Sean Smuda, Michael Thomsen), plus work from the next generation of SBG-esque artists including Crystal Quinn, Katelyn Farstad, Adam Callier, Oakley Tapola and Sophie Wiel.
I caught up with Twin Cities legend, Speedboat Gallery founder, Paul Dickinson to chat about the upcoming tribute show and take a stroll down punk memory lane.
l’étoile: Speedboat was shut down 18 years ago. Why the dedication show now?
Dickinson: It truly was Arzu Gokcen’s (Pink Mink/Selby Tigers) idea that we have some sort of party to celebrate that time in our lives, and there was an overwhelming positive reaction towards this idea made it happen. Plus, I will use any excuse to put on a rock/art show!
l’étoile: Are there any current local galleries that you believe follow the same Speedboat archetype?
Dickinson: That’s a good question because in my mind, other than the rock music, we were running an old fashioned SOHO style art gallery. Yet Speedboat occurred in a special place and time I don’t know if you could get away with it today. I think Midway and XYandZ show cool artwork and take on interesting ideas. Anyone can have a party and drink a few beers, but it is the interaction of live music and compelling art that really make the party an event – so anywhere that is happening today is in the spirit of Speedboat.
l’étoile: When Speedboat first started it was more of an art gallery cover for a rock ‘n’ roll venue that allowed for an “anything goes” type of atmosphere. How did it merge into a full on art business?
Dickinson: It’s funny, we thought “art opening” got us some sort of amnesty, and in a way it did! But the art exhibitions just took off – people bought it, and more importantly, it meant something. It was challenging but also rewarding to put together an art show. Sometimes it was just about messing with people’s minds. And we really got into doing it, to having a professional looking place that exhibited great work.
l’étoile: How do you think the art scene has changed since the SBG years?
Dickinson: It has and it hasn’t. Sometimes the scene seems fragmented to me. I think the biggest issue that hasn’t really changed, is the lack of a truly viable and sophisticated art-buying public. There are some great collectors here, and perhaps a growing number of buyers, but many people in Minnesota think they can experience “art” for free. On the positive side, this is a great place for creative energy – we just make it up as we go along.
l’étoile: A few of the visual alums from the gallery’s early life – including Bruce Tapola and Frank Gaard – have gone on to become well-known, established artists. What do you think of their success and how it speaks to gallery’s cutting-edge incubatorship?
Dickinson: I think a curator should take chances. I certainly made my share of mistakes, but at least I tried. We had an office, and a telephone. It really did ring off the hook with crazy ideas. I said no to many of them – no, you can’t start yourself on fire; no, you can’t build a sheet rock wall and put your head through it – yet there were times where we took a chance and it paid off. But as far as Tapola and Gaard, they just kept working. I believed in them then and I believe in them now – [they're] just great artists that defy category.
l’étoile: The gallery played host to some influential bands like Green Day, Jawbox, Heavens to Betsy and Bikini Kill. Who were some of your favorites?
Dickinson: It is kind of a blur, but some memorable shows for me were: Nation of Ulysses, Slant Six, Arcwelder, Huggy Bear, No Means No and Citizen Fish.
l’étoile: Tell us about the clandestine dynamics of running Speedboat. How did you avoid run-ins from the law due to lack of occupancy permits, etc.
Dickinson: Well, you don’t have to let the cops in your place without a warrant. We were very aware of our property rights. We were clandestine. We had lots of people who believed in what we were doing – someone would just give us microphones or track lights, out of the blue. I don’t think we ever had one meeting or I ever looked at one resume. We came from a world of putting on punk shows in VFW halls and warehouses and one of your jobs is to not get busted, so we went to great effort to keep things under control. I actually had a deal with the St. Paul Police to stop the music at a certain time and I honored that deal.
l’étoile: Do you ever regret living by the mantra of “play not by the rules” in terms of Speedboat? If you could go back would you have gone down more of a legal route to gain funding and grants and in hopes of possibly keeping the gallery alive longer? Or do you think the anarchistic temperament was necessary to the gallery’s chronicle?
Dickinson: We did play by some rules – we had a retail permit for selling art, and paid taxes on those sales. And I think almost seven years of operation is a good run, longer than many places that were given actual operating budgets. We were forced to innovate. We didn’t have the patience to wait around for funding and grants. We didn’t want to mimic the corporate world, which is what you have to do to get funding from the powers that be. We didn’t want to wait around for some squares to tell us it was “our turn” to do something; we just did it. Looking back, yeah, we did contribute to the “community,” but I doubt that, at that time, anyone would of given us a grant.
l’étoile: Tell us about your connection with Rifle Sport Gallery and the Artpolice magazine.
Dickinson: I loved Rifle Sport – they were our artistic kin in Minneapolis. I liked their approach. Our connection? We drank each other’s beer. Artpolice was a controversial and disturbing magazine that was always getting into trouble. We had a “Mr. and Mrs. Artpolice” show at Speedboat – and we sold it and displayed it.
l’étoile: What’s special about the young artists featured in A Punker’s Revenge and why did you pick them to represent the local up-and-coming art scene?
Dickinson: All of them have great energy, spirit and attitude – and they are making cool stuff. I have been keeping my eye on them for a while – I am so happy that I have an opportunity to put them in a show!
Catch A Punker’s Revenge: A Celebration of Speedboat Gallery one-night-only at CO Exhibitions on Saturday, June 30th from 6-10pm. The show features photos and artwork from the Speedboat archive plus live music from Dickinson’s post-punk band Frances Gumm and Still Pacific. For more info, check out the Facebook invite.