Archive for the Minneapolis art town blues 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.

The management team of The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America has been undertaking a bit of soul-searching over the past two-and-a-half months, trying to decide if/how to carry on the work of chronicling all that dooms art to failure in this country (and world) of ours.

Considering that we’ve been at this task, on top of day jobs and other extracurricular writing projects, for seventeen months (i.e., ever since September, 2007), and considering how much worse things have gotten—in the economy and in the arts—since the time that we began this chronicle, we now find ourselves at several crossroads. First, while it’s been fascinating to look at all angles and facets of artistic failure, and while our audience has grown steadily (now averaging 1,500-2,000 visitors a month), we now realize, pretty clearly, that nothing we write, nothing we selflessly point out to artists, curators, critics, or the audience for art, is going to change the conditions that make art such a difficult pursuit in our culture. Second, in the process of dwelling on all the bad cards that’ve been dealt to the creative, the artistic, and the art-sympathetic, we ourselves have been growing increasingly more cynical and glum about the prospects for a more arts-friendly world. And finally, owing mostly to the first two points, we find ourselves simply burning out on failure, and, more importantly, we’re burning out on, and no longer particularly enjoying, art.

That’s not to say we are giving up this endeavor—at least not yet. It’s just that, at this point in history, with so much going wrong and so many artists and regular people anxious, overwhelmed, or cast at sea, we want to take a different tack with failure. We want to ruminate, occasionally at least, on more lofty things. So, having searched our souls, we here at CAFA are shifting our focus away from (except in the most crucial cases) a simple, dry chronicle of failure that dwells, depressingly, on all the things that are going wrong, and we are moving toward (hopefully) more poetic, literary, theoretical ruminations on what it is in the human condition and character that dooms so many of our most well-meaning endeavors to fail. What is in our make-up—spiritual, psychological, genetic—that leads us to (poignantly, doggedly) continue practicing something (like art) even though we know it is futile? And what does the abiding need for art say about the exquisiteness and beauty that lies at the core of humanness? This means instead of continuing to aggregate the latest bad economic news in the arts or to list the policy changes around the country that have a negative bearing on art, we will strive to tell the human story of (the doomed-to-fail endeavor of) art-making.

And so to start, we quote below a poem somewhat about this human predisposition to failure, heard last night in Minneapolis at a reading by Dobby Gibson. It is from his new book of poems, Skirmish, published by the small independent Graywolf Press.

Why I’m Afraid of Heaven

by Dobby Gibson

If you stood on Venus,
where the atmospheric haze
is so thick that it bends light,
it theoretically would be possible
to stare at the back of your own head.
Which would mean you’d never
again have the pleasure
of helping a beautiful woman
fasten the clasp on her necklace.
On Jupiter, a beautiful woman
might weight 400 pounds,
but so would you,
and you’d be far more worried
about suffocating to death
on planetary gas.
We’ve all desired what we can’t find here.
We’ve all left our gum beneath the seat.
In a bright department store,
a plastic egg gives birth to pantyhose.
In a dark dorm room,
a lonely freshman finally gets his wish.
The dog tries, and fails, to run across the ice.
After spending a lifetime
conscious of being alive,
why would anyone
want to spend an eternity
conscious of being dead?
In this bar, one of the world’s last remaining pay phones
hangs heavy in the corner.
Most days it waits in silence.
Once in a while, it just rings and rings.

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??

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 |

I promise to post new material to CAFA very soon (once funeral fallout has settled, grant deadlines have passed, and life falls back into its regular pattern), but in the meantime here’s an updated version of the material I linked to in my previous post.

The reason I reposted this piece, and the reason I’m resubmitting it here, is I added more thoughts at the end based on events that occurred on September 15. By this I mean, in particular, “…the country’s continued and deepening economic decline and slide into oblivion; its inexplicable and pathetic fascination with Sarah Palin; its continued and maddening political gullibility; and the suicide of David Foster Wallace, who once, appropriately enough, observed in his essay ‘Consider the Lobster’: ‘After all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience.’”

 If you’re lazy (like me!) and just want to read the new material, here it is, block-quoted:

AFTERWARD: SEPTEMBER 15, 2008: So it took ten long years—after giving it all I had to give—for me to fail in art. And while there are lot of platitudes that I could spout off here—about what one should do when given a bowl full of lemons, about what one should do if at first one doesn’t succeed, etc.—let’s be realistic for a moment. On July 15, 2008, I learned, plain and simple, that my expectations for art will never be met, that I will never be quite the success in art I hoped to be, that the arts community will never rise to the levels that I dreamed for it, and that I am lucky to have escaped.

I could point out that it took twenty wasted years, after graduating from college with a hopeful degree in art, for me to understand that a life in art is a doomed life, but I won’t dwell on this. Instead I’ll point out I’m not particularly unique in realizing the nature of the art world. The great German painter Gerhard Richter, for instance, said as much when he proclaimed: “Art is always to a large extent about need, despair and hopelessness.” The great American painter Jasper Johns said, about his early career as an artist: “I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn’t matter—that would be my life.” The American realist painter William Bailey said: “…Frankly, I believe that every painter is in a state of continual failure. The only constant in a painter’s life is failure.”

Now, in mid-September, two month after my grim nadir and a few weeks after the debacle of the lipsticked Pit Bull, while the days retract, gardens dry up, and a wan chill fills the air, I look back at all the drama and despair of the end of my arts career, and I am happy I am still able to breathe. I say this full knowing that the economic and cultural woes have only deepened since July 15. Lehman Brothers has tanked; Merrill Lynch has been bought up (even after nearly 100 years of independent operation); the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped on his day by nearly 500 points (the sixth highest amount in history); and David Foster Wallace committed suicide after battling with deepening depression (ironically enough while living the hometown of my brother, where I had just happened to be visiting at the time because of the death, at age 84, of my grandmother).

Yet despite the ever-darkening clouds outside my existential cabin, I am placid now, after having removed myself from the turmoil of a life in the arts. I’ve started a new, more sane, less soul-sucking, job, and I’m quietly, after two years and two months of dismay, coming to terms with my potentially misspent artistic life. If I had been, back on July 15, more level-headed and more prone to thinking for the long-term, I might have realized that—despite the individual failures of thousands of young people like me, despite the constant struggle and eventual capitulation of all of us in the arts, despite the endless climb against the raging current—it doesn’t matter really. Art goes on. Art survives and continues to be made, usually by the next generation who, in their energetic ignorance, relives the failure over and over again. Over the long term, individuals like me matter little in the face of the painful human compulsion to realize beauty from the labors of the hand.

If I were more resilient and long-suffering, or perhaps more talented or more cutthroat, all I’d have had to do is wait until these things that are ruinous to us now—in the culture, and in the art world—had passed, and we’d moved on to a more optimistic and hopeful time. Some of my more long-suffering artist friends have already spoken such words to me since July 15, the worry-lines of resignation on their faces giving lie to their optimistic words: “Music always gets made,” one said to me, “and it’s up to us—each of us—to come to the music.” Those who walk away from the music, he seemed to be saying, aren’t worth worrying about.

Maybe, I nod outwardly. But inside I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t an end time looming in the arts. Yes, people will continue coming to the art in their way, sticking with it or not on their own terms, finding their own equations for success and failure, and all will abide. But I wonder just how many more of these smart and capable young people who become fascinated by, and fall in love with, art—against their better judgment—have to ruin their life because of it. How many of us will continue to fall in love with such a life partner, passing twenty rocky years with her until we find out she’s been unfaithful since the beginning? Yes, maybe the music will go on no matter who is there to make it. But will the music have the resonance and beauty it’d’ve had if the culture had somehow agreed to make at least a minimal commitment of energy to it?

Truth is, there’s just no good way to spin a post-July 15 world. The only solace, perhaps, are words by the Irish critic and poet Edward Dowden, who said, “Sometimes a noble failure serves the world as faithfully as a distinguished success.” Perhaps July 15, 2008, simply had to happen so I, and perhaps you, could at last look at the artless world with new, and clearer, eyes, and realize that failure just is our lot in the arts. It’s just the way it is.

And while it’s sad that a person who’s dedicated so much time to art should be so bitterly resigned to failure now, perhaps this need not be a tragedy. Perhaps, in fact, this is a liberation and a blessing, a full license for me to investigate a number of new questions about art. Instead of wondering how I can survive the next week as an artist, I now can ask, with deep intention, why can’t the life of artists be better in this country? Instead of worrying about my next opportunity to exhibit or be on display, I can chronicle of the various aspects of failure in the arts in our time—with the view of someone who’s seen it and lived it—and expose the unaware to the depths of the problems faced by artists in America. I can take pause and wonder why can’t the beauty made of artists’ hands become a more integral part of the everyday life of Americans? Why aren’t we all working together—all of us, in all corners of the country—to prop up the arts and make our land more rich with beauty, with artistic ideas, with the well-crafted trappings of an elegant life? I can wonder exactly what it means that we’ve created a culture so antithetical to all the things that art stands for.

And so, with my hard-earned awareness of the precarious nature of a life in the arts I am driven now to seek potential answers about why, if art is doomed to failure, are we living creatures so attracted to its pain.

I’ve been distracted and out of town this week due to work and funerals and other everyday matters, and so I’ve had no original material to post on the subject of artistic failure of late. To make up for my distraction, here’s a link to a story that was posted this week on mnartists. It’s a story about my own latest bout with–what else?–artistic failure. Until next week…

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).