by Nathaniel Smith
In this three-part series, “The State of the Arts,” l’étoile arts columnist Nathaniel Smith questions the benefit of the proliferation of pop-ups, art and craft fairs and the financial domination of the MCAD Art Sale to the Twin Cities.
Like most of us, the good folks at l’étoile are in reflection mode as the nights get colder and the days get shorter, and they have asked me as their new arts columnist to collect my thoughts and experiences from this past year into some kind of cohesive “best of” list. I insisted that I could not, mostly because for half of the year I was running a gallery, which besides making me biased also took up most of my time that I could have been seeing other shows. Instead I am going to experiment with the end of the year wrap-up formula, and applaud some things that I have seen that are absolutely unique and great about the Twin Cities’ fabled arts scene, and question others that I would like to see change or evolve in the next year. There is no way to please everyone with any kind of list, and I’m actually hoping that people get their prim and proper Minnesota-nice feathers ruffled and get all passive-aggressive about it. That means you care and have opinions, and being challenged is the best way to realize how great the things you’re defending are, or realize that maybe some habits and trends can be improved.
In the film The Cool School about LA’s game-changing Ferus Gallery (the gallery that all but created their now-dominant art scene by supporting and nurturing local artists), founder Walter Hopps mentions that there are five things needed for a healthy art city:
“1: Artists to make the work
2: Galleries to support it
3: Critics to celebrate it
4: Museums to establish it
5: and collectors to buy it”
As you can probably guess, the Twin Cities has number 1 more than covered. We are truly blessed to have a rich diversity of artists, musicians, designers and creators, and even more blessed that they usually fall under more than one of these categories, intermingling and inspiring each other. We are also museum rich – with the world-class Walker Art Center, the MIA, the Weisman, the entirely under-mentioned Museum of Russian Art and dozens of others. The more obvious shortcomings lie in numbers 2, 3 and 5. Collectors, money and galleries are needed to help support a healthy, sustainable artistic community, and unfortunately we are constantly at risk of losing those who enrich our city’s quality of life to greener pastures elsewhere. So to begin, we are going to have to start with the very un-Minnesotan topic of your money, and what is it really worth dear reader.
Minneapolis generally considers itself to be a hub for comfortable, creative living, and our citizens are unusually adept at spewing out statistics about how great we are, quoting figures and studies from this or that magazine that mentions we have more theater seats per capita than New York, that we have more bike lanes than Portland and that our literacy is higher than the entire South (Alright, I’ll admit that one’s pretty great). And to their credit, I would go so far as to say most people in the Twin Cities probably enjoy or are more aware of art than almost any city in America. My question for you is this: How many pieces by local artists do you currently have in your living space? This isn’t a judgment, I promise. Now compare that to how many images you have on your walls, by this I mean concert posters, Ikea prints, thrift store macramé owls etc. (basically anything that isn’t family photos). I feel like most of the people whose houses I have been in are more arts informed than the general population, yet I am always surprised that there is rarely anything from local artists on their walls, even though they might be wearing a I ♥MPLS T-shirt and have a MN outline tattoo on their forearm. I see this as a contradiction; thoroughly enjoying being able to say how great Minneapolis’ cultural life is, yet not supporting it. So why is this?
It might be because the arts scene, like the music, fashion or DJ scenes, is unintentionally inclusive. Or it might be that people are not sure where to look. Minneapolis art spaces are particularly spread out and hard to find, and unfortunately, they are usually passion projects rather than sustainable businesses. Also unfortunate is the fact that because very few galleries are permanent (as in not a pop-up, temporary space), artists careers are not cultivated, nor are long-lasting relationships with collectors. This is precisely why galleries need to be supported. By simply taking away all of the pressure of promotion and sales, the artist is able to spend more time creating and with any luck, will be able to develop a strong, individual style and create fantastic works (that benefit all of us) over the years. Also, by offering set open times, events, community interaction and building up a clientele, a gallery is able to connect several different social circles that the artist might not have been able to on their own.
We will never have the gallery scenes that Chicago or New York have, simply because we will never have the money or the population those cities have. But, considering there is around 7,700 millionaires in this state and more grants per capita than anywhere else in America, it seems there should be a stronger, more sustainable gallery scene. My thinking leads to the age old nemesis of MN cultural life, city planning and professional sports team success: financial practicality above all else, even if it ends up costing more in the long-run. So even if we all will admit it is important to have museums to go to, beautiful art to see and a creative community that allows us to brag about being better than any other city in the Midwest, buying art is just not practical to the average citizen. So how does one of the thousands of emerging artists get their work out there where the practical and frugal MN population can see it? Enter the holiday arts-and-craft sale…
Benefits of holiday art and craft sales
Craft fairs, holiday pop-up shops and the MCAD Art Sale fill the void of confusion for most people who are curious and genuinely interested in art but might not know where to start, especially if it is their first time. It provides a one-stop shop, has set hours and is perfectly timed before Christmas. The costs are reasonable as works are priced to sell, and one walks in with no set notions of what they will find, only that it will be a unique gift for a loved one or yourself, and that it supports the local economy. When I spoke to the energetic and supremely helpful Trish Hoskins, one of the founders of the largest and most well known craft sale, No Coast Craft-o-Rama, she informed me that this year’s event will host almost 100 artists, artisans and craftspeople and according to stats listed on their website, almost 12,000 people will visit each day and most vendors end up selling a fair amount of work. Even more impressive is the community that has developed around this event.
“I definitely feel like there’s a lot of cooperation as well as competition in the local indie craft show circuit,” says Hoskins. “I’ve also seen several current and past vendors grow their business and develop themselves as artists to the point that they are supporting themselves full time with their work. This is awesome!”
In addition to the community-building for participants, with most of the vendors in No Coast hailing from Minnesota, that is a lot of money staying in the local economy rather than buying holiday gifts from big box retailers.
What worries me about holiday art and craft sales
Despite the great work available at all of these events (see the complete list and information at the bottom) and the money and creativity snowballing locally, there is still something that gently irks me about this trend. Perhaps there is just something a little disappointing about the fact that some people will talk about how great the Twin Cities arts community is, but the only way that they will support an artist who worked so long and hard to develop their style of photography/painting/design is to buy that artist’s work on a coffee mug or oven mitt or t-shirt. At the same time, hey, they are supporting work! To attempt to get both sides of the story I spoke with Chuck U, who is one of the only visual artists I know who actually makes his living solely from his work (and who participated in this past weekend’s Sound Gallery’s How Bazaar holiday sale) to gather a unique perspective of how artists must support themselves. U, who admits most of his income comes from selling prints as opposed to originals, says, “Twenty dollars seems to be a magic number… I don’t have a problem with people supporting art by buying $20 t-shirts, most people don’t have $100 to spend.”
He also brought up an interesting point when we were commiserating about how no artists can support themselves selling huge $10,000 works, and it being more of a culture of having several small sources of income. U added, “I’m not even sure I’d want someone who can afford to drop 10 G on something as, let’s face it unnecessary, as a painting, to be the one who gets to keep it forever,” which brings up another good point. Isn’t an artist supposed to want as many people as possible to see and own and enjoy their work? And doesn’t selling prints/cups/oven mitts do that?
Well, yes and no. If we are ever expecting to have a world-renowned, influential arts scene in the Twin Cities (which I absolutely believe we have the potential for, and within the next decade even), it will almost surely not come from artists supporting themselves by selling t-shirts only around holiday shopping times. We need to nurture and identify those local business that in turn nurture and enrich our lives and the future of this city. This is my major problem with pop-ups. They do not have the life span to connect to people. They have their own benefits true, but what is the use of “getting your work out there” to an artist if all they ever do is jump from one show to the next? At best, they cover the costs of their materials and entry fees and continue their hobby. At worst, they give it up entirely when they get a little older when being an artist becomes impractical in their eyes (or at the very worst, we get a series of Uptown Art Fairs where gypsies travel the country selling “art” in form of frames, plates and refrigerator magnets…shudder).
But, variety in shows and a differentiated business model is great, and I am not against holiday sales (hell, I’ve organized them before), because group shows with affordable prices make sense. Every business has holiday sales, and pop-ups and holiday group shows are what can help SOOVAC or CO Exhibitions continue quality arts programs (much like the Soap Factory needs its Haunted Basement to keep their doors open), then so be it, we need these quality galleries around. Any business whether non-profit or altruistic still needs to pay its bills, and to do that you need to be as creative as the artists themselves. Ash Marlene Hane, an artist who specializes in the print medium and who is participating in Gamut Gallery’s ongoing Raging Art On pop-up, has several reasons for participating in a holiday sale, ranging from launching a new design line to selling smaller works at affordable prices as well as to have fun and meet other artists in a large, relaxed group show. During an email discussion about holiday and pop-up sales, Hane agreed in the importance of a stable gallery model, but also added “that has to start with people investing in smaller works first. And that is one of the big reasons that shows like this one at Gamut are important to me, because I am selling fine artwork at affordable prices (between $15-100, most around $50).” However, she also adds that lowered prices are only part of the equation, because “it is funny that kids (aka, peers) will spend that on a bar tab one night but balk at buying a piece of art for that price.”
And now the elephant in the room when discussing art sales in MN, the MCAD Art Sale. Started in 1997 as a small student and alumni sale, this event has gotten bigger every year and is now the largest student art sale in the world, supposedly selling seven pieces every minute. At first glance this sounds fantastic for the art community, until you begin to realize that the art community is not made up entirely of MCAD students and alum, and that much of the money spent at the MCAD Art Sale is coming out of money that would have been spent elsewhere. There is also a prevailing mistrust of the money made from the sale, with conflicting reports stating that the student-artists keep 80% of sales, with the additional 20% going to either the costs of the sales, or to scholarships depending on who you ask. There is also the question of where the $150 cost to be one of the first day attendees (with VIP treatment including valet and wine service as well as first dibs on artworks) goes, but seeing as it is a non-profit school it is hoped that it is given back to students, as opposed to earned by selling the students work. I attempted to contact MCAD directly to clarify many of these issues but could not (full disclosure, this was only days before my deadline so they still might get back to me), so instead I asked a former participant, illustrator/designer/artist Paige Guggemos, who as a recent graduate recently participated in her first Art Sale. Guggemos was able to sell the majority of her work, but admits that she thought the commission were never really clarified to participants.
“The Art Sale is my best opportunity to make money from selling my work all year,” she says, pointing out benefits like the massive amount of people, promotion and the number of connections and exposure by exhibiting her work. Guggemos’ experience as a a participant seems to clear up any ominous perception an outsider may have of the sale, but admits, “I have negatives to say about it, because I want it to get better, but it’s definitely a positive experience.”
Another side is where all of the money that people are spending on the MCAD Art Sale was being spent before it became the largest student sale in the world. There is definitely a feeling amongst many people, especially artists not connected to the school, that it is becoming the Walmart of local art, basically shuttering the windows of most competition. While this might be a slight exaggeration, anyone can see that the number of galleries, especially those not operating as non-profits or pop-ups, is dwindling.
Sally Johnson, director of the oldest, (as well as one of the only traditional, artist-representation) galleries in Minneapolis, Groveland Gallery, summed up my feelings and fears exactly when I interviewed her by email.
“Frequently art buyers/collectors mention to us that they are planning to hold back on purchases because they can find such great deals at a student sale,” Johnson says. “I certainly appreciate the enthusiasm of art buyers for inexpensive work. And I understand that for student artists selling their art can provide a great boost in confidence as well as a needed infusion of cash. My concern is that when artists and galleries try to sell work after the artist has left the supportive platform of college, the collectors don’t necessarily follow them, choosing instead to continue to purchase inexpensive work from a ‘subsidized’ sale. I feel that this practice doesn’t add value to an artists work in the long run and makes it difficult for commercial galleries to compete for the finite dollars being spent on art in our community.”
This is the danger about putting all of our eggs in one basket. I absolutely respect all of the work MCAD and its students and faculty have done to put Minneapolis on the map over the years, but I do see a definite danger in a sale growing so large it eclipses everything else. Conversely, how fantastic is it that a sale like this has grown this big, even during a recession? Also, what happens to these students who after they leave MCAD’s sale? The galleries that have been shut down or turned to pop-ups or passion projects surely will not be able to support all of them, meaning many who are trying to make a career out of their work will have to move, or eventually abandon it. I do not have an answer for these many of these questions, but I do feel the only way we will continue thriving as a contemporary, American city, we will have to start asking each other these questions soon.
What its all about
So why am I spending so much time discussing commerce anyways? Isn’t business the opposite of art? Why is money important?
Longevity. Good art takes time, and the best artists will always find a way to truly express themselves. But there are so many who could be or should be doing more and the weight of years with no health insurance eventually crush their dreams. Do you realize that Minneapolis’ best artists might never be discovered because they were involved in a bike-accident, had no insurance, had to get a second job and then just gave up on art entirely? This kind of thing happens daily, and although yes, that’s life, it is also the health and image of our city, and is thoroughly preventable.
When discussing selling as an artist and people’s hesitation in buying non-practical, though beautiful things, Ash Marlene Hane countered with a story.
“My father always said to me as I was growing up that if every year you buy one or two nice things,” she says. “Pieces of artwork, handcrafted furniture, ceramics, etc. Then when you are older you live in a house full of beautiful things. And it is true. We are a very blue collar family. And our house is full of beautiful things, collected over time.”
I would argue that this is not just good advice, but a metaphor for our city. We are all a little blue collar, but forward-thinking. We are proud of our city and also a little unsure of ourselves, often citing reasons why we matter, but if we continue to fund quality projects, artworks and galleries, we will not only be seeing the benefits immediately, but we will have pride in knowing we helped create them for decades to come.
Upcoming Holiday Art Events:
“Raging Art On”: Pop-up art sale featuring work by Ash Marlene Hane, Scott Seekins and others (click here for the full list)
@ Gamut Gallery, 1006 Marquette Ave, Minneapolis
3-9 pm daily Thursday, December 13-Saturday, December 15
TOUCH PARTY: A collaborative poster show feat. Ken Hannigan (Anthem Heart), Keith Eric Williams and Matt Kamilar (Click HERE the Facebook invite)
@ QXC, 2524 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis
8 pm-midnight Friday, December 14
Holiday Clutch Sale: Handmade clutches by Ina Grau’s Crystal Quinn and others.
@ Ina Grau Studio, 711 W Lake St #419, Minneapolis
Noon-4 pm Saturday, December 15
Who Made Who 5th Anniversary Sale: Poster prints on sale by Amy Jo, Dale “TOOTH” Flattum, and Lonny Unitus
@ Who Made Who Studio, 158 13th Ave NE, Minneapolis, whomadewhostudio.blogspot.com
Noon-7 Saturday, December 15 & noon-5 Sunday, December 16
Holiday Sparkle Jewelry Mart: Jewelry by Jennifer Merchant, Betty Jaeger, Emily Johnson, Karin Jacobson and more
@ Northrup King Building, 1500 Jackson St NE #332, Minneapolis
11 am-5 pm Saturday, December 15 & noon-4 pm Sunday, December 16
“Post-Apocalyptic Blues: Mayan Tales from the Fiscal Cliff” Opening Reception & Holiday Party: Art for sale by Laura Andrews, Elisa Berry Fonseca, DC Ice, Kyrié Kotlowski, Joshua Mercil, Katie Parr, Jon Reischl and Jeremy Szopinski including small works that will be wrapped as gifts and sold sight unseen for $100
@ Fox Tax Service, 503 1st Ave NE, Minneapolis, www.foxtaxservice.com
Opening reception 6-10 pm Saturday, December 15; on view through April 15
Last Minute Handmade Gift Market: Vandalia Street Press, silvercocoon, Beth Chekola & more
@ Peace Coffee Shop, 3262 Minnehaha Ave S, Minneapolis, www.lastminutehandmade.com
2-6 pm Saturday, December 15