A shorter version of this essay, adapted for print publication, appears in the fall 2011 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books on stands now. This and other “mnartists.org presents” essays are available online, in the Rain Taxi archives.
IN THE SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 1989 ISSUE OF THE STAR-TRIBUNE, art writer Mary Abbe wrote a column entitled “Lush growth of art blooms in 21 shows.” In it, she previewed a few of the art openings going on that evening, mostly in and around the Warehouse District in downtown Minneapolis. “Nothing demonstrates the unprecedented expansion of the Twin Cities art scene better than the 21 galleries that will premiere new shows tonight,” she wrote. “That’s right, 21.” The art calendar published on the same page offers confirms it with half a broadsheet-sized page packed full of gallery listings, many of them within a five-block radius around 1st Avenue North and 4th Street North. It was an area sometimes known, in a pique of nihilistic ’80s art humor, as NoWare (North Warehouse, get it?), but then as now more generally familiar as the Warehouse District.
Twenty-two years later, the idea of so many shows opening at once is still pretty hard to imagine. Outside of the once-a-year Art-A-Whirl in Northeast Minneapolis, I can’t recall the last time I went to even five shows in the same evening — especially on a regular September weekend night. It’s also incredible that all of these exhibitions were within walking distance of each other; attending multiple openings in the span of one night generally means traversing large swaths of city by bike or car.
If you’re an artist in Minneapolis, you likely know the broad outlines of the Warehouse District story: the artists and gallerists thrived for a while, until they were run out by stadiums, sports bars, strip clubs, economic downturns and rising rents. Some galleries relocated, most shuttered. Artists moved elsewhere, scattered to the four winds. While I realized I knew barebones details of this story, reading Abbe’s piece, I wondered what it would actually feel like to be in the area of all that many-years-ago arts activity. What are these buildings and spaces like now? How are they used? What do they look like? What do they feel like?
So one recent Friday afternoon, before a Twins home game, I bicycled down to 1st Avenue with a photocopy of the newspaper article, a map, a sketchbook and a camera to find out for myself – to undertake a Ghost Crawl, two decades later. I picked a game day because I figured people would be out en masse, replicating to some extent the feel of a large weekend gallery crawl.
Many (most!) of the artists mentioned in this piece are still living and working locally. I debated whether I should email some of them and invite them to come with me. I decided against it, ultimately, as I wanted to make this walk by myself, and find out how these spaces felt to be in, with no immediate links to their storied pasts.
Here’s some of what I experienced.
Ten of these spaces were inside the Wyman Building, located at 400 North 1st Avenue in the Warehouse District, so that seemed like the place to begin. The Wyman was perhaps the flagship space of the Warehouse art scene in the 1980s. The exterior looks much the same as when it was built as a warehouse for dry goods sellers in 1901 (it’s one of the most prominent features of the skyline visible from Target Field – the building with the rooftop water tower). The inside, however, was completely renovated in the mid-2000s, and now appears to be a totally different space than the one that housed those ten galleries in the 1980s.
I start at the top. The seventh floor, where Jon Oulman and Vaughan & Vaughan were located in suites 706 and 712 respectively, is now a single open office space occupied by the advertising agency Colle + McVoy. The elevator opens right into the reception area, where I am instantly regarded with suspicion by the woman at the front desk (probably because I have camera with me). I take a look around at the very polished, wildly well-appointed space, mumble a ridiculous lie about my dad once working there, and turn right around, back into the elevator. On this floor twenty-two years ago, Vaughan & Vaughan exhibited sculptures by noted New York artist Cara Perlman.
The openings on the third floor of the Wyman that long-ago evening were Thomas Barry in 304 (multimedia artist Bruce Charlesworth), Georgean’s in 312 (four Israeli artists), Sonia’s in 318 (wood sculptures by Glen Elvig), and Textile Arts International in 340 (“Brocade: Cranbrook Style”). Again, the individuals suites are gone today, and this entire floor is now occupied by Quayside Publishing. They appear to have very lovely offices, but the receptionists don’t seem eager to have me wandering around with a sketchbook and camera. Charlesworth and Barry are fairly well known now in their respective circles (Charlesworth has a Wikipedia page, in fact). In 1989, they were about the age I am now, in their early 30s — it’s fun to think of them as peers.
The second floor of the Wyman was occupied by Anderson & Anderson (240), who were showing new work by sculptor Wayne Potratz, and Peter M. David (next door in 236), who was exhibiting prints by nationally known heavy-hitters Dine, Hockney and Motherwell. This floor seems the most unchanged since the late 1980s. Both 236 and 240 are still present and accounted for: the latter is occupied by the offices of Connect Retail Services (“where the customer meets your brand”), and the former is currently vacant, with drawn wooden slat shades. It’s not hard to imagine a small gallery in either one.
The first floor of the Wyman — that once housed Hastings Ruff, Flanders Contemporary Art, and Bockley Gallery — is pretty empty now, consisting mostly of polished marble floors, light fixtures, and a large entry atrium. There seems to be only one office suite, occupied by Sight Marketing, and it doesn’t match any of the suite numbers I have. Twenty years ago, painter Charles Thysell was at Hastings Ruff (in fact, that night was the gallery’s premiere), painter Don Holzschuh was at Flanders, and Bockley was opening an exhibition of outsider art. Bockley is the only gallery still in business today and is now located in Kenwood, a few minutes drive southwest of the Warehouse. The first floor of the Wyman is now home to two of those Warehouse District nightclubs with stupid one-word names: Aqua and Envy. Other nearby clubs with similarly dumb names: Elixir, Epic, Karma, Drink.
Exiting the Wyman, I head a block south to the one-time site of Peterson Fine Art, at 506 1st Ave. N. That night twenty-some years ago, the gallery featured oil paintings by MCAD alumnus Wayne Ensrud and prints by then-deceased Cubist Max Papart. The space is now the home of Pizza La Vista, a gyros-and-pizza joint catering to the late-night club crowd. Despite an obvious remodel, the interior is easy to envision as a white-wall gallery space, with exposed brick and high ceilings. In the pizza joint, two TV sets play a country music satellite station. I buy a Coke and sit at one of the tables. The spot feels quite lively, with Twins fans crowded onto the sidewalks, heading for the ballgame.
The Forum Gallery, located in the Textile Building at 119 N. 4th Street, was exhibiting sculpture by Stewart Luckman that evening. The Textile Building is now the home of the downtown Pizza Luce on the first floor, and Public Radio International occupies much of the rest of the building. There is a cavernous, unoccupied open space located on the corner of 4th Street and 2nd Avenue, visible through the window; it’s easy to imagine that space filled with the sort of large-scale marble sculptures Luckman (who now lives in Washington state) appears to have made during that time.
Mhiripiri Gallery was located in the Butler Square Building at 100 N. 5th Street in Suite 268, where you’d have seen paintings by Ellen Eilers (who, at age 94, still paints colorful landscapes of the Upper Midwest). When I walk into the Butler Square Building, I must look lost, as an overzealous security guard jumps up from his post and asks if he can help me. I ask for Suite 268, which he tells me no longer exists. At some point, 268 must have been renovated out of existence; it’s now a ghost suite located between Fluid Interiors in 200, and the General Store in 275.
The Minnesota Center for Book Arts (in 1989, showing the work of recipients of the third biennial Jerome Book Arts fellowship) was located at 24 N. 3rd Street. Of course, the MCBA is now located in a beautiful, spacious building on Washington Avenue. The space on 3rd Street is now the home of Nami Sushi. The facilities at the current-day MCBA are so expansive and well-appointed, it’s hard to imagine the center fitting inside this lovely, intimate restaurant.
A bit further up 1st Avenue, No Name Gallery (100 N. 1st St.), then only in its second year, was debuting work by photographers Rik Sferra and Sara Belleau that night. A few years later, No Name was run out of the area by the U.S. Treasury, which built a high-tech, sprawling campus right behind it. They eventually relocated to the old National Purity soap factory across the river from downtown. There they became known as No Name Exhibitions at The Soap Factory, and then, simply, The Soap Factory. Their original building, known as the Foster House, is now the home of Hess Roise and Company, a historical consulting group that’s worked on some notable projects around town, including the Foshay restoration. The exterior looks much the same as it must have in the late 19th Century, or the late 20th.
The Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota at 414 1st Ave. N. were on that night opening a group show of Native American artists. The building that housed them is one of those gorgeous, red brick warehouses right next to the Wyman. WARM was one of the earliest arts groups to set up shop in the area. WARM is still active as an organization, but their original building is now vacant, its windows papered over. It was obviously the home of a restaurant or bar recently, but I can’t for the life of me recall which one, and all identifying signage has been stripped away. I peek in the window, past the paper, and there are piles of dusty stools and cardboard boxes inside. A sign on the front door reads, “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.”
Below the Surface, at 27 N. 4th Street, billed themselves as a “printmakers’ atelier,” and September 9 was the space’s opening night. A cooperative printmaking studio that operated until 1999 run by a printmaker named Denese Sanders, the space was an open studio for printmakers to make work. While there, I reflect on some of the differences in the language of art practice then and now: a similar space opening today would likely never refer to itself as an “atelier,” but as a “collective” or “collaborative.” The century-old building was, until recently, the home of an upscale Indian restaurant, but it closed earlier this year after the building was foreclosed on. The restaurant seems to have made a hasty departure; a shredded neon green sign glued to the front door notifies anyone who cares to read it that the locked-up building contains equipment belonging to Coca-Cola, and whoever’s in there next better give it back.
Thomson Gallery, located at 321 2nd Ave. N., is noted in the body of Abbe’s article (“‘This year has been one of our busiest ever,’ said owner-director Robert Thomson”), but the calendar doesn’t list an opening that evening. Presumably they were open, though — I mean, it was a big night, right? Despite featuring a graphic for an apparently defunct group of crafters and artisans on the window (the website listed is inactive), the building’s windows are covered and the space appears to be vacant. It’s in a slight state of disrepair – boarded windows, missing bricks.
The entire block seems deserted.
In fact, I am surprised at how many of these spaces are now vacant. New stadium and nightclubs aside, walking this route now is probably closer in some respects to what it must have been like in the early 1980s than in the years immediately following 1989. Before coming out here for this “ghost crawl,” I fully expected to encounter an advertising agency or sports bar located in every one of these sites, crouching inside the shell of an identifiable one-time gallery. Instead, I come across boarded windows, dust, and derelict signage as often as I do thriving boutique businesses. Perhaps we’re coming around to the end of the cycle that began when artists twenty-some years ago discovered the infrastructure of the Warehouse District was cheap and spacious enough to make for a good home, and which crested when the developers and opportunists came in to take it all over. Maybe the cycle is just waning, putting us back at some point that seems more like a beginning.
Obviously, the Warehouse District will never be what it once was. However, in some of the spaces – the old Thomson space in particular, and the last I saw before heading off – I came across something very striking. The Thomson space seemed abused and cast aside, but it also looked full of promise — exactly like the sort of space an enterprising young gallerist might want to move into.
About the author: Andy Sturdevant is an artist, writer, and arts administrator living in South Minneapolis. He has written about art, history, and culture for a variety of Twin Cities-based publications and websites, including mnartists.org, Rain Taxi, Art Review and Preview!, Mpls. St. Paul, and Heavy Table. His essays have also appeared in publications of the Walker Art Center and the Jerome Foundation. He is artistic director and host of the monthly live-action arts magazine Salon Saloon, which launches its new season on October 25 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Andy was born in Ohio, raised in Kentucky and has lived in Minneapolis since 2005.