First it was a call-center, then a restaurant, and then an insurance agency. This small storefront in south Minneapolis (3753 Bloomington Ave) added to its lineage in November 2005 when a group of artists teamed up with the Bat Annex, a Minneapolis anarchist collective, to open the Belfry Center for Social and Cultural Activities. This non-traditional space has several functions: art gallery, studio space, recording studio, school, meeting place, library, concert venue, and dance-ateria. I spent a lively evening at the Belfry soaking in an art opening, concert, and dance party.
Showing in the gallery that night was Artibella Avant, a persona created by local artist joAnn Blohowiak. Her work, a collection of non-representational paintings, was chaotic and evocative. Rich, textural surfaces were created through collisions of form and delicate hairlines of color. The layered, often complex images drew on gestural techniques of De Kooning and Twombly to form a cohesive presentation. It was the Belfry’s best show to date. Avant viewers were careful to watch their step as a yoga performance was taking place on the gallery floor. The performer, Emily Jane Snyder, wearing an outfit that can only be described as Punky Brewster meets Suzanne Somers, performed an entire yoga routine to live, meditative guitar music.
Like its predecessors, the Belfry is a socially driven alternative art space. Beginning in the late 1970s, New York artist collectives like Colab (short for collaborative) and Group Material formed to exhibit work in storefronts and other non-traditional sites. Their art had activist ties without a prescribed approach. The Belfry itself was created to appeal to new audiences and be an alternative to more traditional galleries. Its location, attitude, and mission are closely tied to leftist, radical politics. This exclusive company, however, translates into a truly accessible venue, made evident by the variety of attendees in the gallery. On its website, the Belfry states it’s “ looking for local artists who share our ideals of direct democracy and community involvement…(no baditudes please). We [want] to create a space that is interesting and exciting and accessible to people who are often intimidated or bored by the art world.”
Later that evening the band Chokecherry, a Minneapolis newcomer, played a show. Their energetic fusion of country, punk and folk music caught many people off guard. Delivering a taut set of sweet and caustic songs, the four-piece announced their presence to an inspired audience. Just before the show, a wrestling match broke out between two friends on the gallery floor. A couple walls were bumped as they tried to bite each other, but nothing was damaged. Artists are warned when showing at the Belfry not to display anything cherished. Art is respected in the gallery, but not at the expense of shenanigans. Following the concert, the dance party got going. Outkast, Salt & Pepa, & Sam Cooke provided the cathartic release to a healthy size group gathered in the front of the gallery. Behind the storefront curtains, Belfry goers spun, bounced, and yelled into each other’s ears while gripping their plastic cups.
By the end of the night, Bruce Springsteen’s “ Thunder Road” was blasting from the speakers and most everyone was singing along. I was feeling good. Those distinct, sentimental feelings that arise with the advent of alcohol, music, and 2:00 am had crept in. Sensing the night couldn’t get any better, I left on a high note. The dance party was still going as I closed the front door. From the sidewalk I could hear people continue to sing inside. “ Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night; you’re not a beauty, but hey you’re alright.” When did art galleries get so fun?