Archive for the Ah Minneapolis... Category

If you thought the news hasn’t been bad enough for the arts over the past few years, that was before the culture brought out the salt.

Consider item one: The amendment that was supposed to dedicate a portion of a dedicated sales tax to support the arts in Minnesota gets coopted by rich organizations of an, at best, nebulous artistic nature. This includes greedy history centers, a zoo, a public television station, and a juggernaut public radio empire (all of whom, unlike true arts organizations, have armies of lobbyists at their disposal).

Then, it is announced, some of the nation’s leading artistic organizations are announcing bad news. Many of these venerable institutions — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and other key components of the culture industry in New York City — lost between 30 and 50 percent on the value of their endowments in 2008. The main reason? Overly agressive investment strategies:

Endowment asset allocations [in recent years] moved away from the safety of fixed-income instruments, such as high-grade bond funds, to the volatility of domestic and foreign equities and even to “alternative investments,” such as distressed debt and venture-capital equity. This investment strategy paid luxuriantly during the good times, resulting in bloated budgets and massive expansions. Yet with only quarterly meetings, arts boards proved too slow to navigate away from the hazardous investments once the bad times began. In short, arts organizations adopted bad habits.

As the TC Daily Planet just announced a few hours ago, the Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota (or VACUM), a group I founded in 2002 (and led until 2005), has just announced it is disbanding.

For a sense of the history VACUM, as well as some insight into my feelings on its accomplishments, posted below is the letter I wrote to the group on reading the announcement.

Dear (now soon-to-be-ex-)VACUMers,

As this group’s original (some might say evil) step-parent, its namer, logo-maker, and its erstwhile co-founder (along with Jennifer Amie), I thought it might be appropriate at this point to say a few words of retrospection about it.

In 2002, after kicking around a few curatorial project ideas with several working critics in town, Jennifer and I took the plunge of calling as many visual arts writers as we could find at the time to the conference room of the Bell Museum, where she worked, on an unseasonably warm February weekend afternoon. Making a point of excluding no one and remaining open to everyone’s ideas, our intent was to investigate creating a critical cooperative of some sort, a banding together and pooling of resources and information that might help foster critical activity in town and act as a representative body for all critics. All in attendance seemed somewhat jazzed about these ideas, and some brought their own ideas, so we agreed to meet again and in time a group was formed.

The idea to start a critic’s association had been on my mind for several months in late 2001 and early 2002, during which I talked to similar groups (like CACA in Chicago and AICA in NY) and I searched my conscience to be sure I really wanted to take on such a chore. I recall sitting with Jennifer over a winter dinner, explaining my reluctance to add any more work to my busy schedule — because I assumed (correctly) that the bulk of the org’s work would fall on its nominal leader and also I assumed (again correctly) that that leader would probably be reluctant me. But, sure the cause was worthy, I assuaged my fears by making Jennifer promise that if we did this thing she would stick with it as co-leader/organizer (or whatever) and not abandon me. Jennifer lasted for about a year’s worth of meetings before she stopped attending and eventually gave up writing for publication.

Of the ten or twelve people who attended the meeting, fully half have fallen away through the years. Some have moved on to other towns. Some have given up writing. Some I’ve lost track of. Other people have come and used the group as they’ve needed to, then stayed or gone off to other things. A few rare others have stuck around through the lean and in-between, right up to the very end.

At its peak, real membership in the group (as opposed to the Yahoo group count) has hovered just above thirty, though meetings have never seemed to grow beyond the number of attendees at the first meeting. I myself gave up the leadership position of VACUM (I ended up disliking the term “president,” since we never had any formal standing as a body), in the spring of 2005. I was burned out and ready to become emeritus, though, because I truly cared about our efforts and about members of the group, I had to use the pretext of a move to Pittsburgh to extract myself.

In its first three-plus years, as was stated in the final meeting’s minutes, VACUM was remarkably successful. We gave each other mutual support; we mentored a number of young writers; we shared clips and critical information; and we met and mingled with artist groups in town (who, it turns out, were always happy to meet an organized group of critics). Then there were the programs we created from nothing and with nothing more than our collective effort. Sometime after the first year, we set up a lasting relationship with the MAEP through the “Trialogue” program of lectures on each of their shows. A year or so after that, we established the VACUM Attachment in the Rain Taxi. Further, it has also been suggested that VACUM’s greatest role has been providing connection and friendship between critics, who were formally not known for their tendency to mingle with each other. Significant relationships and passing dalliances, important mentorships and ongoing partnerships (as well as the opposite of each of these) are all part of VACUM’s legacy.

What I recognize now about VACUM is it came about during, and contributed to, a golden age of criticism in the Twin Cities. To list some examples of this: At the time of its founding and during its early years, Mason Riddle and Thomas O’Sullivan (two VAC-members) wrote art reviews as stringers for the Pioneer Press, and Judy Arginteanu (another member, though one who’s never attended a meeting as far as I know) and Matt Peiken (FoV) published regular art features for the paper. The Star Tribune of course had, and likely always will have, Mary Abbe, but it also published, back then, reviews by early VACUM member Doug Hanson. MPR had a weekly arts magazine with three dedicated arts reporters: FoVs Marianne Combs and Euan Kerr, as well as Chris Roberts. The City Pages regularly used to publish lengthy pieces on visual art (hard to believe, I know)—including reviews, features, and investigative reports by me, Patricia Briggs, and several other writers. Jennifer Amie wrote a regular column reviewing art shows on Mpls-St. Paul’s website. The Daily Minnesotan still had its vaunted weekly A&E section, and some alumni became VACUM members. The Pulse of the Twin Cities published, every single week, short art reviews by VACUM’s Valerie Valentine and by other writers. South Side Pride published pieces by VACUM’s Clea Felien, and the odd newsprint publication (Skyway News, etc) published the random arts writer, some of whom entered orbit around VACUM. Of course, there were also a constant cycle of well-meaning, short-lived, one-name publications — Object, Push, Ache, and several others that I no longer remember the name of — founded by idealistic 20-somethings who seemed sure they were going to singlehandedly revolutionize the art world; these, before they inevitably blinked out, published occasional member writings and contributed occasional VACUM members. Nationally, if you had interest, there were lots of publications to write for — including New Art Examiner out of Chicago, Dialogue out of Ohio, Art Issues out of L.A. — and some VACUM members did just that. Finally, when mnartists kicked off in 2002, right around the time VACUM was formed, for a time and up until recently the website published a wide range, and a significant number each month, of critical pieces. Many of the site’s visual arts writers have been VACUM members; some were steered to the site by their connection to VACUM. And some came to VACUM through mnartists.

What’s truly remarkable about all of this activity — some of you may have noted — is that, in the intervening seven years, it has all pretty much gone away. VACUM has proven unsuccessful in the face of all the insurmountable cultural forces chipping away at the perceived need for critical writing. And while a few venues have tried to fill in this gap — minnpost, a few blogs and web efforts (many focused more on marketing than fair and balanced writing), and, last but not least, ARP — the arts criticism cup now seems more empty to me than full.

Of course, we’re not alone in facing this constriction. Newspapers and magazines, publishers and writers are struggling all over the country. Just yesterday, one of the nation’s longest-employed newspaper critics, Alan Artner of the Chicago Tribune, was unceremoniously laid off. (He would not have been shocked; when I spoke to him last in the spring of 2006, he knew that his time would eventually run short, even though he’d been at it for nearly 30 years.) As I wrote in January of 2008 for mnartists:

“It’s easy to imagine a future time when there is no more art criticism. After all, daily newspaper art coverage, these days, is going the way of the mighty Wurlitzer, while new art magazines come and go more quickly than new iPod models. And the digital media replacing these old analog communication forms has turned out to be much more fickle and impermanent and generally incomprehensible than what once was….”

While I’m proud of VACUM’s successes, and I’m thankful for the sheer amount of dedication and effort that so many people have given to VACUM’s projects, at this point seven years later I realize I completely failed to accomplish my initial mission for VACUM: To bring about more and better art criticism in this town of ours. I have failed in particular in the goals of mutual support, of fostering critical efforts, of bringing people together. And, most egregiously, I have failed over time to make a clear case, to those in a position to help support us, in favor of criticism and in favor of VACUM.

I missed the meeting last week due to a prior commitment. If I had been in attendance at the meeting, I would have abstained from voting to scuttle VACUM, but I would have understood the reasons why people voted as they did. I can’t say I’m not disappointed in how this turned out, and in where we are culturally these days, but I don’t know how it could have turned out any differently.

In the aftermath, in the empty hole now left after VACUM, I only hope that a few people, at least, thought some of this was worth it. I wish you all well and hope to see you at a future Art Happy Hour, every 2nd Wednesday at the Bedlam Theatre, where we can at least continue the mission of getting shit-faced together in the name of art (www.arthappyhour.com; admin@arthappyhour.com; on FACEBOOK: “Art HappyHour”).

Yours,
Michael Fallon

Loretta Bebeau, a Minneapolis-based artist, emailed her thoughts recently (quoted below) in response to my post on What Artists Are Thankful For and my paean to Grizzled Art Warriors. She started by explaining there’s a “story” waiting to be written about her friends Marge and Ed Bohlander.

Marge is one of the few women who did air brush in the 70s/80s/90s. Ed is/was a fantastic metalworker. We have a friendship that goes back to Hopkins and the early arts activism in that town. (In fact they called me and asked me to show.) It’s not the big, hot space like Flanders or T.Barry, but it is a friendship and they know their art. (They’re from the same era as T. Barry.)

Bohlanders went to NYC for awhile and returned to Hopkins, MN. After a successful stint there, they bought the building on 36th Ave. South. Here’s where we pick up their story. After a string of health problems they are now returning to their orginal career goals……….. this is what happens to artists as they go through life. Should we prepare the younger group?

…We ask “where are all of those art students after the age of 30?”

Additional topics:
Where do the older artists show when they want to develop new work? new audiences??
Why is it so awful to be showing from a studio? especially when “galleries are pulling back” due to budget problems. Who is creating “chatter” to build public awareness of visual arts? Who sees the artist as someone over 30?
Does the mature artist exist “out of” academia??? Why should we be proud of them???

Let’s compare visual art with the music world. The enthusiasm of Elvis cannot be recaptured, the Beatles represented the 1960s, and visual arts also represents a time period that cannot be regained. Therefore, earlier, older art still is valuable and continuous chatter about visual art creates awareness of the value.
Let’s compare the athelete over 30 to the artist over 30. Where do the old ballplayers go? Better yet, where are the UofM musicians from Bob Dylan’s era??? Let’s compare them to the local visual artists from that era.

I don’t need responses to the above questions, my purpose is to get something stirred up…. brainstorming…was the old term. During the down times, visual artists have always created a new “drive” for community attention. The drive also raises community spirit and health, aimed at a community pride in their artists.
It’s the time for the 40 year olds…

Then she shifted to explaining the hard realities of her artistic life.

I just read the tales of the “Grizzled Artist.” So, you have it. Onceuponatime I could just skip into a corporate file/admin/secretary job and pick up cash. But this no longer happens over age 50; bright young 30ish people rule the world.

Hey, I have children in that group and want them to do good, but the reality of food and shelter is reality. Also, painting was a habit that sustained me during that nurturing part of life. Artmaking is/was a basic part of my daily thinking. What do we replace it with??? Should I rock back and forth in a chair, or sway to imagined music?

Now the medical community mentions that creative arts keeps the mind from falling into Alzheimers and dementia.

Do I continue to spend amounts of time and money making art that no one wants to see, or do I actually fix the plaster on the kitchen wall and buy paint for it??

Hope, that all too scarce commodity of late, made a brief, mild resurgence earlier this month, only to suffer setbacks to late-November fear and panic. (November is just that way, or so I surmise in my latest piece on the Thousandth Word.)

But hope, as we all know, even if it often gets beaten down and left for dead never goes away. (I remarked on this tendency too, in two recent pieces on the local arts, again for the Thousandth Word.)

But you don’t have to take my word about hope. One of my favorite recent arts commentaries—a piece from the Art Newspaper earlier this month called “Tough Times Will Provide Opportunities“—suggests too that hope springs eternal, even in a collapsed economy, even in a bottomed-out market, even in the dismal contemporary art world. “So what’s next? Is the future of the art market that bleak?” the article asks.

No, this will be a market for new opportunities. Major collectors are waiting for prices to come down 30% to 40% from their peak, a correction that was already evident in the latest round of auctions in London in October… Further pressure on prices is expected, and it will take some time before the market has reached equilibrium… Now the question is: which artists will survive the adjustment? We all know what the last crash in 1991 did to hotshot artists such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Francisco Clemente and Sandro Chia. Their markets took 15 years to recover, and in real terms (adjusted for inflation) are still considerably below their peak, but at least their markets survived… The primary market is also likely to regain the balance of power compared with the auctions. The auction houses have dented their credibility as money-making machines, and would-be sellers are realising that the liquidity is quickly evaporating. In a falling market, the focus will again be directed towards the galleries that have proved their commitment to their artists… In the end, a correction is healthy for the sustainability of the future art market. The interest in art will not disappear, art and artists will not disappear—if anything, a tougher environment will be more conducive to artistic creativity, and hopefully the market will go back to focusing on what constitutes the real value of art, as art history is rarely made in the auction rooms.

I’ve been reading and writing about Canada’s ongoing national back-turning on its artists of late, which apparently is a huge subject up there because it keeps coming up of late. This most recent story, from the Oct. 11 Globe and Mail, is interesting because it discusses an arts event that was highly praised in Canada—the recent triumphant visit of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to a sold-out Carnegie Hall—and describes how impossible it is, in our modern business-oriented economy, for an arts org to be deemed a success. “…the tour was an artistic and critical success,” writes Simon Houpt, “[but] those viewing it simply through a prism of profit and loss would call it a failure: The performance fee paid by Carnegie Hall didn’t come close to covering even half of the orchestra’s $466,000-plus costs.”

The author then looks closely at the upcoming budget for Volcano, a Toronto-based theatre company, which took the unusual step of opening its books to The Globe and Mail, and examines point-by-point how what people are willing to pay for art is vastly outstripped by the expenses incurred in mounting arts programming. The problem with art has long been noted by economists: The cost for the products of our economy become ever more based on the efficiencies associated with mechanization and mass production, so that a product like art that is impossible to make more efficiently (a painting will always take so long to make, a symphony always will involve so many producers) are regarded as too expensive to support in relation to cheaply reproduced good and entertainment (crappy cable TV, for instance). The arguments that people make against arts funding fail to take into account the simple human costs for art.

It’s interesting too to have read this story from the past weekend, from my own formerly artistically “enlightened” northern home state of Minnesota, just south of Canada’s southern border, about the impending doom facing pretty much all of our former artistic treasures. Art funders here, according to the story’s author Mary Abbe, are “bracing for rocky times.” Major arts orgs like the “Minnesota Orchestra, Guthrie Theater, Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Arts,” who are seeing their endowments rapidly shrink, are “braced for the worst.” At the end she quotes Jacques Brunswick, chief administrative officer of the Guthrie Theater, as he makes an (unconvincing) appeal: “It’s a rough time. I think the arts need people’s money now more than ever.”

And in response (in the Strib’s comments)?

Time to get back to the basics

When many are faced with homelessness, hunger and a lack of health care, it is time to get back to the basics. We have to pay off massive governmental and consumer debt that is strangling the country before we can make much progress. Also, we need to ensure our kids and even adults are getting adequate scientific and technical training so we can compete again in the global market. Given all this, the upcoming decides need to focus on basics rather than arts.

posted by rebeccalhoover on Oct 11, 08 at 7:29 pm |

Summer is usually a dry season for news about local arts. But the past month’s litany of surprise announcements of organizational failures, resignations, firings, and so on has pretty much come (you may have noticed) to dominate the postings on CAFA. I apologize for this, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to turn my attention more outward very soon.

In the meantime, today, I want to reiterate that a few days ago I laid even odds on the Minnesota Museum of American Art becoming the next victim of artistic failure in Minnesota. There are basically two reasons for this. First, as related in this story by Scott Russell, the museum is facing a “triple whammy of organizational stress” (40 percent reduction in reserves in the past four years and scant opportunity to grow income; the loss of its director after eleven years on the job; and the impending eviction of the museum from its current location). Second, the most commonly suggested solution to the problem–brought up by people over and over–is for the city of St. Paul (the current home-city of the MMAA) to step in a help bail the institution out. This, of course, is pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking by people who are unaware of how little real support the Twin Cities lends to the arts. In fact, leaving it up to local city government to bail out an arts organization is, in my estimation, akin to leaving it out in the cold to die. 

Perhaps, then, I should be getting better than even odds for my wager… 

Here’s a local media follow-up story to my previous post regarding the closing of the Minnesota Center for Photography (fragments are quoted below). The locals have been fairly quiet, on the whole, about the loss of this center–perhaps shell-shocked after a spate of bad news in the local arts community, perhaps resigned for much more to come. (If I were a betting person, I’d place even money on the MMAA to become the next artistic failure victim; this gives good reason for us to read Glenn Gordon’s homage, on The Thousandth Word, to the museum’s permanent collection show, now up at the beseiged museum.)

Some excerpts of the Strib’s story on MCP:

Arts group another victim of economy

Hard times force the closing of a cornerstone of the local art scene, the Minnesota Center for Photography.

Last update: July 30, 2008 - 11:52 PM

The Minnesota Center for Photography (MCP) is permanently closing its doors today after 18 years, a victim of tough financial times and staff departures.

Founded above an auto repair shop on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, the nonprofit organization grew into one of the Twin Cities’ most important showcases for photography, especially by Minnesota artists….

Four years ago it moved from dingy basement digs in Uptown to a sunny, renovated building in northeast Minneapolis — a move that signaled the emergence of Northeast as a gallery mecca not seen since the Warehouse District’s heydays in the 1980s.

As recently as January, MCP had a staff of five and a projected annual budget of $970,000. But its finances deteriorated in the past seven months as the board pared the budget to $650,000, executive director George Slade resigned, staff members left for other jobs, and one was laid off.

“It was sort of a perfect storm” of trouble, said Mark Wilson, co-chair of MCP’s board of directors. The board voted Monday evening to close. The remaining two staffers were informed Tuesday…. “The most distressing thing is that there is such a passion for the organization’s mission in the community. It got to the point where we didn’t see long-term sustainability and didn’t think it was appropriate to solicit more funds.”…

News of the closing startled but did not surprise members of the art community, where rumors of financial difficulties had circulated for months….

Corporate and foundation support remained stable at about $100,000 a year, Wilson said, but individual support plummeted following a three-year expansion campaign that ended last summer….

“I don’t want to blame anybody,” Wilson said. “We had a good run and a lot of people did a lot of really good things for us.”

The Minnesota Center for Photography announced today that it is, after 18 years, discontinuing “business operations at the close of business on July 31.” MCP was one of five great artist-member organizations in the Twin Cities; its mission was “To support and promote the creation and appreciation of photographic arts.”

The closing of the Minnesota Center for Photography is just the latest of a series of high-profile public melt-downs of local arts organizations. It is likely not going to be the last such implosion.

The letter, sent out 7/30/08 by MCP’s board, reads as follows:

It is with regret that we must inform you that Minnesota Center for Photography is discontinuing business operations at the close of business on July 31st. Over the past six months we have unsuccessfully attempted to adjust our budget and raise additional funds to pay down debt and fund continuing operations.

The Board made this decision with reluctance and after attempting whatever we could do to permit the survival of MCP.

On behalf of the many stakeholders in Minnesota Center For Photography, we thank you for your continuing interest and support of MCP’s mission over the years.

Very truly yours,

Chuck Koosmann, Co-Chair

Mark L. Wilson, Co-Chair

Mary Abbe of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s been busy of late. She’s the source of two of today’s Bullet Points of Failure (B.P.O.F.), both of which follow up on items I’ve been covering here on CAFA in recent weeks.

  • In Anxious artists’ fears quelled, protest averted with attorney’s answers, Abbe writes to follow up on the MAEP kerfuffle. Apparently, on July 24 a group of artists attended the MIA’s annual members meeting, attempting to mount a protest, only to see it wither “under the weight of parliamentary procedure… Board president Brian Palmer, a Minneapolis lawyer, defused the situation by answering each question with judicial precision and disquisitions on the museum’s legal responsibilities. The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program will continue unchanged and independent, he said. Questioners would need to ask the program’s coordinator why he resigned voluntarily if they wished to know.” And thus spaketh the passionate crowd.
  • In SOS: Same old struggles at the MMAA, Abbe reports further on a story reported here previously, the resignation of Bruce Lilly, the director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. “The resignation last week of Bruce Lilly,” she wrote, “the museum’s director for 11 years, highlights the St. Paul institution’s long-festering problems. Museum officials put a brave face on the situation, insisting that the organization would find a new leader, new quarters and more money. ‘It’s not easy, but the staff here is up to the challenge,’ said Natalie Obee, the museum’s business manager, who who stepped in as interim executive director.” Apparently, the museum has had a long cycle of debt–including an estimated deficity of $260,000 in 2007, on an annual budget of about $700,000–and is facing the loss of its current space (the second time it’s faced a move in the past five years).

(** = Bullet Points of Failure)

Having been away all this past week at a remote and top-secret rural retreat (no email, no cell phone, no Internet — ahhh!), imagine my chagrin at coming back home to find my local community on fire like Atlanta — at least as far as local artistic failure is concerned.

To clarify what I mean, here are a few bullet points:

  • As you will recall from reading CAFA, I have reported on multiple local defections, failures, and collapses of arts administrators and organizations in recent months. Just to give a recap, in the past 2-3 years, prior to this past week that is, Minneapolis has seen the loss of three directors of two major arts institutions, the defection of a State Arts Board director after only one year, and the removal or resignation of five-six major curators at top arts institutions. It has seen the collapse of one major artist-member crafts organization (the Minnesota Crafts Council), the near-implosion of Minnesota Film Arts (which mounts the Mpls-St. Paul International Film Festival), the collapse of a regional Tony-Award winning theater, and the near-failure and rumored impending collapse of countless mid-sized arts organizations. (Rumors that are so common that it doesn’t seem right to pass them on, lest it keeps said orgs from rebounding. Just as an example, however, I will mention that this organization is emblematic; after failing to pay rent for three months this fall/winter, its director resigned and 3/4 of its staff was let go, and thus far no replacement has been hired.)
  • As if that all isn’t enough, on July 16, the board of the Southern Theater in Minneapolis — a venue that presents works by local and national performance groups in town — announced it was placing its long-time (30+-year veteran) Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett on “indefinite leave.” By July 17, public responses to this news had come from a coterie of interested citizen/artists and from a long-time writer on dance in Minneapolis. The immediacy and intensity of the response from the public resulted in, on July 18, a response from the Southern Theater’s board, which cited the need to deal with “a huge financial deficit, a building badly in need of repair, faulty and problematic accounting practices, personnel issues, low staff morale, and complaints from artists” and the resulting need to restructure the organization.
  • Finally (finally!), a press release came across my desk on July 18 announcing the resignation, after eleven years, of Minnesota Museum of American Art executive director Bruce A. Lilly.

I can’t think of anything else to say at this point, other than to quote the words of Henry Longfellow: “All things must change to something new, to something strange.” Be brave, Minnesota, this will all pass.