Living in economically ravaged Detroit in the 1970s, Neal Cuthbert was looking for a change. When a friend recommended Minneapolis, he replied, “I’ve heard of that, but where is it?” Attracted by the dynamic art scene, he moved here in 1980 and quickly became involved in Artpaper, a monthly magazine founded by Remo Campopiano and Lynn Ball as a newsletter that distributed listings to artists in the community. It evolved to carry critical discourse on local and national arts issues and to feature an array of writers and photographers, including Terry Gydesen, Jeffrey Kastner, Steve Perry, and Mason Riddle.
Cuthbert became the chair of the publication’s artists’ advisory committee, a group formed to help develop the publication’s editorial voice; later he served as director of development before becoming Artpaper‘s director from 1986 to 1990. From there and in his subsequent work he was in prime position to survey the scene as it developed throughout the 1980s. Now vice president of program at the McKnight Foundation, Cuthbert recently chatted about Artpaper and the Twin Cities in the ‘80s with Walker Visual Arts Intern Lydia O’Callaghan-Morrison.
Artpaper started out quite small. How did it expand and change over the years?
It started out tiny. But it grew very quickly, because it listed grants, jobs, commissioning opportunities, things like that, and this is all pre-Internet, so as a resource it was invaluable. Any visual artist who had any serious intention about their career subscribed to it. Its circulation expanded pretty quickly until we peaked in the mid-2000s. We were subscription-based and also on newsstands.
In October 1989, Artpaper ran an article calling for an art strike that would last from 1990 to 1993—during this period, artists and art institutions throughout the country would cease to make work. The strike mainly called into question whether being an artist was an acceptable response to the cultural issues present in the world at the time. Was this an idea many people were aware of? What were people saying about it?
The art strike was both an idea and an art project in and of itself, in a way. I wouldn’t say that it was really widely embraced [laughs]. We were promulgating it at Artpaper, because we thought it was an interesting and subversive thing for an art magazine to do.
We thought it was an irreverent idea because of the context. During that time one of things that shifted was, particularly in New York, that the national art scene became dominated by art that was very self-referential and very much about art being a commodity.
So, there was a lot of discourse about the rise of this particular art market; while there have always been some artist millionaires, now there were artists driving around in limos, and a art rock star kind of thing was developing.
A reaction to this [notion] that art was purely a commodity was part of the idea of the art strike. You know, it was Dada-esque. The Dadaists, in many ways, were a response to the French middle-class embrace of art as a commodity back in the early 20th century.
As Artpaper evolved, we started having reviews and criticism and feature articles, and then the two founders left, a new editor, Lane Relyea (who now teaches at Northwestern), came on board, I came on staff in the mid- to late 1980s, and we had a new crew putting out the magazine.
When Lane came on, the critical content of the magazine spiked up. Vince Leo, photographer and writer, also came on to help with the editorial content. Vince is now at MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art and Design] and is in charge of grad programs.
We had a team that was really focused on writers and great editorial content, and the magazine got more and more rich. We had a big stable of local and national writers, and our national exposure went way up, so our role in the discourse changed. Getting reviewed or featured in Artpaper began to matter in a different way. People around the country were watching which artists were featured and who was writing about what.
During the ‘80s, before the Target Center was built, Minneapolis’ Warehouse District hosted a thriving art community. Where did you spend your time, both personal and professional? Were there other areas of the city that were notable as arts-oriented communities?
The Warehouse District was the epicenter of it all—in particular, the New French Bar. There was a restaurant there called the New French Cafe, which was a really wonderful French restaurant, great food. It faced Fourth Street, and connected to it, around the corner and through an internal hallway, was the New French Bar.
The New French was just a bar and a row of tables and seats, and that was it. It was basically where a lot of folks in the visual arts community, and some dance and theater folks, hung out most nights, often until closing. It was the social center for the visual arts scene.
How large would you say the scene was? Were there many people in the Minneapolis community involved in it?
Yes. On Friday and Saturday nights it was standing room only and you had to work your way into the place.
With all those warehouses, and all those artists living there, mostly illegally, there were hundreds of artists in those few blocks. They congregated around the New French and you would always see people coming in or out of it. But there were a couple of centers: down the street and around the corner was the Wyman Building, which is where WARM Gallery was, and that was another huge social epicenter, primarily for women artists.
There were at least a half dozen galleries in the Wyman Building, which made it a particularly important place, especially since the galleries focused on local artists. Up First Avenue from the Wyman was where Intermedia Arts had a gallery for awhile, and a couple blocks away, in the middle of what used to be Block E was a great gallery I was involved with called Rifle Sport, which was above a bar and was another epicenter for a younger generation of artists.
The visual arts community had a few other scenes that were notable, and one was the university gallery milieu. This included the galleries at the University of Minnesota like the Nash, and University Gallery, which predated the Weisman; Macalester College Gallery; Bethel Gallery, and a few others. All these had active exhibition programs for local artists. So there was a very interesting setting for local artists.
The opening nights at the Wyman were the nascent beginnings of the huge Art-A-Whirl scene and all the things that are going on in Northeast Minneapolis now where thousands of people show up for openings.
Can you talk a bit about how the art scene in Minneapolis changed through the ‘80s and who the influential figures were at the time?
Sure. There were a couple of layers of influence. A huge influence was always the Walker and whatever they were doing. They would go in and out of showing local artists, but who they were showing was always a topic of interest to people.
[Then-director] Martin Friedman was there; and [curator] Liz Armstrong was there, who is now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Liz was very active in the local scene and was an important figure.
On the gallery front, you had Thom Barry, who’s still running a gallery. Todd Bockley, who’s still running a gallery, and certainly WARM in the Wyman Building. The decisions these galleries would make were hugely influential because they were an expression of what the local market valued.
Then there was the Minnesota Arts Exhibition Program (MAEP) over at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which was run at the time by Stewart Turnquist and Cynde Randall. While they weren’t making curatorial decisions themselves, they were very influential just in terms of who they knew, who they helped connect, the advice they gave, and great stuff like that.
The other thing that happened throughout the ‘80s was the pull artists felt from other parts of the country, the biggest market being New York. There were local artists whose careers just took off, and they’d be gone. People would develop within the Minnesota scene and would end up in New York or Berlin or someplace else.
How would you compare the art scene then and now?
In the ‘80s there was that epicenter—that dense, few-block area of the Minneapolis Warehouse District. For the past several years now, what’s been going on in Northeast is that you have this visceral sense of scene that’s developed. That’s one of the really cool things that’s happened. At the last Art-A-Whirl, there were so many buildings and any one of those buildings you went into was just chock full of artists and people. I’d say if anything there’s a lot more going on now than there was back in the 1980s.
I think one of the differences is it’s a little bit more spread out now and it was much more concentrated back then.
Then there was Artpaper back then too, which was chronicling a lot of this and became a reflection point and a shared document of record that doesn’t quite exist now. You get some of that at mnartists.org and other sites, but it’s a much more multilayered and evolved scene.
What were the main issues and controversies communities were dealing with during the ‘80s?
One of the real interesting issues that was present in the ‘80s was feminism. It was in the culture, and it was visible in the form of WARM Gallery. There was a lot of energy around WARM, and because of that there was a lot of reaction to it.
WARM was successful as a gallery and community center but for only part of the visual arts community. While there were always some male artists who resented or had a problem with WARM, the gallery’s impact was hugely positive.
A lot of the women who founded WARM have had and are having great careers and are among the leaders of the visual arts community; several are professors. So one impact of that WARM legacy is that there are a lot of really incredible women artists in this region.
There were other occasional controversies that would come up. They seem more minor now, but there would sometimes be arguments over who’s in what show. There was one show where people got upset because of a particular painting by Frank Gaard. For a time Frank was a lightning-rod figure, but that would shift to other people and topics. We at Artpaper would periodically have people annoyed with us for covering one thing and not another, or that classic tension between boosterism and criticism. There were a variety of different tensions that would get expressed and become tempests in a teapot.
In a sense many of the issues and controversies stemmed from struggles over resources and struggles over who and what got represented and by whom. These issues haven’t really gone away, but like the community, they’ve evolved.