Borne of the sweat equity of 40 women, the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota (WARM) opened a gallery in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District in 1976 that would by the mid-1980s be known nationally as one of the largest and most active women’s art cooperatives. Five years after it opened, WARM hired Catherine Jordan as its coordinator, and a year later she became the group’s executive director. Her vantage point of the 1980s offers clear views of both the feminist art scene and her work that followed, helping to educate young people about the then-new epidemic of HIV/AIDS. As part of our series of reflections on a turbulent decade–presented in conjunction with the exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s–she shares her memories with the Walker’s Yesomi Umolu.
What were you doing artistically in the 1980s?
I’m a fifth-generation Minnesotan—born and raised in Minneapolis—so this is my home. During the 1970s, I helped create a program called Teenage Health Consultants, which trained teenagers to be health educators for their peer group. I also worked with parents of adolescents to help them understand how to be better equipped to help their children. When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, all this ended as we lost a lot of federal support for the work we were doing. I was hired by WARM Art Gallery in 1981 as its coordinator, and later became the group’s executive director. It was a dramatic change for me; I was very new to the contemporary art scene despite having used arts and creativity in my work with health education.
WARM was founded in 1976 by 40 women artists who felt they had no place to show their work. Their art wasn’t being purchased by galleries or major museums such as the Walker. At that time, women weren’t visible in all spheres of public life, including the visual arts world. As women throughout the nation were getting organized about their own lives by challenging stereotypes and traditional roles, in the arts women were saying, “We deserve to have a place of our own, and we’re going to make that possible.”
WARM had a space in the Wyman Building on First Avenue North. These were the days before the Target Center was built, when Minneapolis’ warehouse district had a thriving visual arts community. The space was transformed through the sheer sweat equity of the collective. There was no hierarchy within the group: everyone served on the governing body of the organization and shared responsibility for the management and daily operation of the space. The exhibitions in the gallery rotated between presentations by WARM members, guest artists, and an annual juried show. The latter often involved inviting a prominent woman artist to jury a show of women artists throughout the state.
The collective also created a publication called the WARM Journal, which was published six times a year. There was also the Feminist Perspectives series, which invited artists and cultural leaders to the Twin Cities to talks about issues pertaining to women’s rights.
A major endeavor of WARM was the mentoring program, which paired emerging artists with established artists. WARM was inspired to create the program because a lot of women artists lacked professional mentorship on how to balance a career, studio practice, and life. It was a highly successful program that modeled the idea of sharing confidence and artistic voice.
WARM was one of the first galleries in the warehouse district, and we held our own for a very long time until we couldn’t afford the rent any longer. I left in 1986, and the gallery went on for another four or five years until the Target Center came in. The rent went from $200 a month to $2,000 and WARM just couldn’t afford it. We were Soho’ed out of the community!
Was the warehouse district the main spot where WARM members and their affiliates would hang out? Or were there other parts of the city that had a convergence of like-minded individuals?
Certainly WARM’s gallery and the New French Cafe, a couple of bars and restaurants in that area, including the Monte Carlo, were the watering holes and meeting grounds of folks.
After WARM closed, Traffic Zone opened a few years later, and artists finally got an equity position with Artspace Projects, which was very influential in helping to stabilize the difficult cycle of artists coming in and renovating and making neighborhoods safe, and then getting pushed out because they had no equity. Traffic Zone’s a good example of artists owning their own space, and using retail on the main floors to help pay for it.
Do you feel that wider communities beyond the arts were open to some of the discussions that WARM was engaged in? Who attended your exhibitions and events?
I think the primary audience was other women artists and their friends. I think my contribution was to help WARM go more mainstream. Certainly our involvement in the Art Crawl meant that we were able to get different kinds of people into the gallery, and that was very successful. I think the Feminist Perspective Series was relevant mostly to feminists, who can be men and women, and they certainly were both. When we hosted a major exhibition of art by women artists in private collections we had the resources to publicize WARM throughout the Twin Cities and saw our audience blossom.
What did you do after WARM?
As the AIDS epidemic was taking off, I woke up and said, “Whoa, what’s this? How do you protect yourself? And if I don’t know, how do these kids know?” So I decided to go back to my health education work. I felt like I’d given five years of my life to support women and their voices, stories, and artwork, and I needed to get back to my own voice. So I did my own project. It took me about a year to raise the money, and then I was in production for six months, and then eventually went on to work at the Minnesota AIDS Project as their youth educator on HIV/AIDS prevention. I started Arts Over AIDS with members of the arts community to set up an educational system that could help them prepare for and deal with policy issues as well as the personal side of the disease.
Were you in any way involved in the Act Up movement?
We were certainly well aware of them. I didn’t participate directly, but people like Patrick Scully did. His work is very close to my heart. Arts Over AIDS was more focused on education: how do you educate the arts community so that they know what the disease is and how to prevent it, and how do you deal with HR personnel issues of making sure it’s safe for people who may be HIV-positive to continue to work? It was public awareness and education. We made videotapes and helped support the Minnesota AIDS Walk as well as a whole host of other things.
Groups like Act Up certainly arose and mobilized themselves in order to counteract the lack of a national agenda on the AIDS issues. Did Arts Over AIDs emerge because of similar concerns?
Sure. We were so early on in the epidemic at that point, and there was a lot of fear, denial, anger, and just mean-spiritedness. We were trying to provide a positive place, both in terms of helping people prevent the spread of the virus as well as dealing humanely and respectfully with people who might be affected with HIV/AIDS.
And, of course, in those years there was very little hope. There weren’t the drug cocktails; people were dying very quickly. So it was a support system. We organized a local international AIDS day on December 1, including a non-denominational worship service. We’d get up at dawn and gather to honor the people who were gone. So it was a mix of things. But it was because we felt that lots of people were under attack and being treated poorly, and we wanted to show our support, care, and love of folks, and make this a better place to live and work.
What artists, thinkers, activist movements, or politicians influenced your work with Art Over AIDS?
I’d been a health and sexuality educator for a long time, so I had that experience and the understanding of disease in general. I understood that it is nobody’s fault. Keith Haring was a great role model. I look to Patrick Scully right here in our own community as someone who came out not only as gay but as being HIV-positive very early in the epidemic. The same with my close friend, Bob Tracy.
There were people in the field here in the Twin Cities who had taken on tough issues, and we were just now doing it for ourselves. What we did was not Act Up; they had a different role. I think Act Up is a critical example of challenging the status quo and getting people to think. And then, you’ve got to have somebody that’s going to make the change.
In the 1980s, several different crises were bubbling, having to do with women and civil rights and the AIDS crisis. What were the overarching questions that communities asked themselves? Were people thinking collectively about how they could care for each other?
I don’t think we were very coherent or reflective about this. There was a lot of fear. In 1985, when word was just starting to come out about this disease in Africa and all of a sudden these gay men were dying, people were panicked. As a person who has a lot of gay and lesbian friends, just seeing what this was doing to the gay community made me angry and sad. There were members of the community who saw the disease as the “wrath of God” and used it as an opportunity to discriminate against and denigrate people they didn’t know or didn’t like. So as a person who cares deeply about social justice and humanity, I’m hard-wired to want to get involved to stop this needless and stupid response.
I grew up when birth control was illegal to have if you were not married. So I’ve had a lot of experience throughout my life of seeing injustice and laws that are built on the prevailing status quo but don’t serve the community well. I’m attracted to those places where I think I can make a difference in helping to open up people’s thinking, their hearts and minds, so that you don’t see the person who’s infected with a disease as the devil or somebody who’s going to harm you. They’ll harm you only if you don’t take precautions to protect yourself from a disease that is preventable.
What do you think are the legacies of the 1980s?
I go back to the legacy of WARM. I have huge respect for those women. They walked their talk. They had an idea. They had a vision. Organizing 40 people is a very tough thing to do, because you’re holding, in that circle, a lot of tension. Not everybody agrees. It’s not easy, and they somehow found a way through that. I learned a great deal. I didn’t go get an MFA; I got my visual art training at the WARM Art Gallery with those women. I hope I hold on to that understanding of how you can work in groups to further a common good.
As for the AIDS crisis, there are many legacies. We lost a lot of people. I think we did dig down into some of the “unspeakable” things of our culture. People don’t like to talk about sex. We had to talk about it. We had to go to a different place and really get into it and really challenge a person to see “the other” as someone who is human, who has feelings and rights. And that wasn’t easy, either.
I think we’ve come very far. There’s not the stigma there once was, partly because there’s now education and people aren’t dying around us in huge numbers. They’re able to manage and live with their disease. It’s just a very different time now than it was then. But I think part of the legacy also relates to what we are dealing with right now with the proposed marriage amendment. There is still a very deep mistrust of changing long-standing traditions. To discriminate against people because of who they love is just unbelievable to me. I think, unfortunately, that there is probably some connection back to the HIV/AIDS crisis that also supports that point of view.
There’s a little saying: “If it’s about us, don’t do it without us.” In the case of both WARM and Arts Over Aids, the central actors in the issue were ultimately involved in setting the framework and the policy. The 40 women artists created their own system and ran it, and Arts over AIDS was built by the artists and arts administrators for their community. I think if it worked well, that’s in great part because of how it was run.
Love, sex, and politics are not easy issues in our culture. They are never going to be “solved,” and we need to keep our eye on the prize and do the best we can for the long haul. I’m proud of the people that I’ve worked with, and I think we helped to change minds and attitudes, and hopefully helped save some lives.