Archive for the Minnesotan Art Failure Tales (MAFT) Category

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 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…

On Tuesday, the Star Tribune announced, in a story titled “Upheaval continues at the MIA,” that yet another local arts leader, Stewart Turnquist, has resigned. Turnquist was particularly supportive of, and beloved by, the great mass of local visual artists. He was known for his calm demeanor, diplomatic nature, and ability to keep a program vibrant despite ongoing institutional attacks and growing lack of board support.

Here’s what Strib arts writer Mary Abbe had to say of this news:  “The departure of Turnquist, coordinator of the artist-run Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), signals continuing turmoil at the institute where management has been in upheaval the past five years. In that time, it has had three directors and lost at least seven curators and top administrators to other jobs, retirement or death… As word of his imminent departure leaked out Tuesday, artists worried that it signaled the end of the MAEP program, the state’s most prominent showcase for Minnesota talent.”

I came to know Stewart Turnquist well in my capacity as leader, between 2002 - 2005, of VACUM, a MN-based art critics association. He was instrumental in helping to set up a regular lecture series by our group at the MIA. A few years before I came to know Turnquist better, I described him thusly in a story about the organization he ran (the MAEP):

The meeting starts with opening comments by program coordinator Stewart Turnquist–a senior civil servant in this tumultuous democracy. He is a dapper and cheerful man–he reminds one of a favorite uncle–and has served as the program’s coordinator since early in 1977 (that is, for all but the program’s first year). “Hard to believe, but I’m your obedient servant,” Turnquist begins, after introducing the other members of the MAEP support staff (who are all employed by the MIA): program associate Randall, and program assistant Karen Harstad. He then launches into an hourlong, homespun slide-show recap of the past fiscal year–a state of the union address, or perhaps a state of the art.

In 2005, I wrote about an internal kerfuffle at the MIA — involving a prominent local corporation (which I dub the “Bullseye” corp) — that may have eventually helped lead to Turnquist’s ouster at the institute. At that time, Bullseye Corp had intervened in the scheduling of MAEP shows (the first time such a thing had ever occurred) — pushing back one MAEP show, and extending another — so as not to mess with the timing of a Bible Art show that BE Corp was financing. “What’s most strange,” I wrote, ”is Bullseye Corp, perhaps actually believing the rhetoric of its own advertising (which positioned the Corp as a purveyor of “higher end” and “hip” product as opposed to just plain old run-of-the-mill trinkets and crap) suddenly seemed to be having a lot of influence on artistic decisions at the institution.”

I’ll also add that, a few years ago just after I returned to MN after a short stint away, Turnquist confided in me the on-going struggle he was having to keep hostile fringe agents at the MIA (in particular, meddling board members) from attempting to reign in, or even dismantle, the one-of-a-kind artist-run exhibition program (the MAEP) that he had led for more than 30 years. I’m sure Stewart was not surprised at his fate at the hands of those who are now steering the big art ship. Still, I feel for this great and gentle local arts warrior, and I wish him well with this blessing:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Attached below is a piece, recently published on mnartists.org, that describes a public forum I attended on “The State of the Arts in Minneapolis.” In the essay, I attempt to dig a bit further beyond the usual propagandistic platitudes and oft-repeated old saws about art here in frozen Minnesota to examine what things are really like for artists and small art organizations here.

 

COMMENTARY: What is the State of the Arts in Minneapolis?

Commentary by Michael Fallon

Or, “The Future’s So Bright, You Gotta Wear Blinders:” arts administrator and critic Michael Fallon comments on the recent panel discussion about the state of arts in Mpls and makes a case for candor in our civic conversation on the subject
On the evening of June 12, the Minneapolis Arts Commission, “a volunteer body that oversees the city’s public art and promotion of the arts,” invited a panel of arts leaders (from a handful of the city’s most influential arts organizations) to participate in a discussion at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with the aim of taking stock of “the current state of arts in Minneapolis, and how to move it forward?” The commission’s website describes the night’s agenda as follows: “Minneapolis has enjoyed an arts explosion in the last few years, but how do we use that momentum and continue to build Minneapolis’ reputation as a leader on the national arts scene?” mnartists.org asked arts administrator and critic Michael Fallon to attend the event and report back with his impressions on the evening’s conversation.

IF YOU HAPPENED TO MISS THE FIRST FIFTEEN MINUTES of the recent panel discussion on “Minneapolis’ artistic future,” sponsored by the Minneapolis Arts Commission, you didn’t miss much. In what best can be described as an excruciating exercise of intensive local arts spin, early attendees to the event were treated to a host of thought-terminating clichés from Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson and from representatives of the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota Orchestra, Loft Literary Center, Guthrie Theater, and McKnight Foundation.

Just to give a taste, the event began with a vague (somewhat desperate-sounding) appeal from Johnson to the scattered 65 or 70 audience members: “Please know the city views the arts as an essential part and great promoter of our community.” The panelists then unanimously echoed their convictions about the significance of the local arts community. “We’re in great shape,” said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, an associate curator at the MIA (filling in for the previously planned speaker, the Institute’s new director Kaywin Feldman). “Compared to other cities, Minneapolis is very impressive in terms of art,” agreed Philippe Vergne, chief curator at the Walker Art Center. And thus followed a succession of many of the same, shop-worn old saws that local arts advocates are prone to tossing off (usually without supporting statistical proof) when asked about the arts here. This is just a sampling of the glib, oft-repeated claims that were reiterated in the night’s opening remarks: Minneapolis is the “most literate city in America,” has the “most theater tickets sold per capita outside of Broadway” and the “widest array of artist service organizations in the country,” not to mention the “deepest sources of philanthropic support of the arts anywhere.”

It would be a fine thing if the vaunted art-city status that Minneapolis grants itself were provably true, and if the lip-service served up regarding support for local arts actually had the solid basis in fact that people claim. Unfortunately, the truth, as it can be empirically shown, is less sunshiny than I’m guessing any of the evening’s panelists are willing to admit. Minneapolis—unlike many cities around the country (including its neighbor, Saint Paul) and, notably, unlike most other cities with a reputation for arts friendliness—actually provides little practical support to the arts. Minneapolis offers almost no city funding to arts organizations and artists (beyond the requisite occasional public art project) and has no staff dedicated to overseeing arts development or planning. But, as was not the case with the optimistic spin offered up at the recent panel discussion, you don’t have to take my word for it. This bleak assessment of the lack of practical arts support by the city of Minneapolis actually comes from scholar and economist Ann Markusen, author of a national study investigating how various cities support the arts. Here’s what Markusen uncovered about Minneapolis in her 2006 paper, “Cultural Planning and the Creative City”:

In Minneapolis … the City Council abolished its Department of
Cultural Affairs in the 1990s, leaving only a small Office of Cultural
Affairs with responsibility for public art and publicly supported arts
programming, moved under the umbrella Community Planning and
Economic Development Department. There is also a separate City of
Minneapolis Arts Commission, but it has few powers and little
political clout, and is in general ignored by the more powerful arts
institutions in the City [this has important ramifications, as explained
below]. Cultural affairs departments and offices have suffered
relative resource losses in recent decades as taxpayer revolts and
higher priority placed on everything from public safety to
economic development have squeezed their shares of the public purse.

Markusen further explodes the myth of Minneapolis’ abundant arts support through a point-by-point comparison of urban arts policies around the nation. As opposed to the other, more truly arts-friendly cities—Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and several others—revealed by Markusen’s research, Minneapolis has no dedicated arts funds to support local arts activities, no central planning mechanism or agency to manage arts development activities around the city or region, and there is little sympathy for the arts reflected in urban planning and economic development initiatives. It’s telling that, unlike what you’ll find in some cities, for the City of Minneapolis, cultural policy has little standing. There are few formal avenues for interaction between arts organizations or artists and city planning departments with regard to the management of land use or the city’s zoning laws, which do not permit the mixing of commercial and residential use. Such restrictive policies about urban zoning make it needlessly difficult for artists and small organizations to survive in the region; specifically, these sorts of policies tend, over time, to foil artists’ and small arts organizations’ attempts to create affordable live/work spaces. Further, Markusen explains, in Minneapolis, it appears that “larger arts and cultural institutions have garnered the lion’s share of city commitments in terms of land, parking garages, and support from state bonding funds.” Generally, allocating such a large proportion of civic resources to a few big arts institutions further leaves small organizations, neighborhood arts centers, and individual artists out in the cold. (It is important to point out here that the bulk of the panelists work for just such large organizations which have been among the few beneficiaries of the city’s narrow arts policies, and that may help explain their allegiance to the group-think about local arts.)

If you are beginning to feel your blood pressure rise upon reading all of this, you will begin to get a sense of how I was feeling after the first round of statements by the panel. Fortunately for my health and yours, however, it was at that precise moment that the panel moderator, Fox 9 news anchor Robyne Robinson, stepped in to begin directing panelists toward a more measured assessment and constructive discussion about how the city is doing regarding the arts. “We can sit here and repeat over and over how great things are,” Robinson said, “but then you hear these constant complaints from artists. If things are great, why is the discontent there? Do we just have too many artists and are unable to feed everyone?”

McKnight Foundation program director for the arts, Vickie Benson’s response to this question—voicing her particular concern about the well-being of individual artists locally—represented the first genuine moment of the night, and her remarks elicited an outburst of loud applause from the audience. “We can’t forget,” Benson said, “about the artists who live with poverty, who have no health insurance, and who face a lack of retirement money. We can’t forget about the artists who bring so much vibrancy to our community.”

Other panelists, at first, weren’t quite so willing to immediately validate the local artists’ disgruntlement. “We cannot please everybody,” said Philippe Vergne, slightly testily. “We make choices and, by nature, this is discriminating. Discontent of this sort is not just present in Minneapolis. It happens in L.A., it happens in New York. It is in the nature of what we do.… Desire is important. We need desire or art dies.” Jennifer Komar Olivarez of the MIA agreed: “If you look at the broader picture, our role is to set a certain standard, a bar for local artists to aspire to. We can’t be everything to everybody.” Still, Robinson, to her credit, persisted in asking about the city’s role in supporting smaller organizations and individual artists. She kept dancing around this point throughout the next hour or so of discussion, digging for a more human, more specific response, asking for panelists’ assessments of the current state of affairs which might go beyond feel-good spin. And, as a result, over the course of the evening the discussion grew increasingly realistic about the state of the arts in Minneapolis and about its immediate prospects in the current times and near future.

In short order, Robinson asked whether there were inflated expectations for large Minneapolis arts organizations as a consequence of the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of expansion many of them have undergone in the past five years. (Some panelists admitted there has, indeed, been some tension and growing pains in the wake of recent redevelopment.) Robinson also asked about the potential for large locally-based businesses—which have given tons of corporate money to support these expansions—to exert undue influence on arts programming at the organizations on the receiving end of their largesse. (Most panelists sidestepped the question, instead arguing about the relative merits of “blockbuster” shows. I feel compelled to point out here that I suggested evidence of such corporate influence on arts programming was already beginning to emerge in an essay I wrote more than two years ago.) Robinson—again, to her credit—pressed the point, asking if the panelists’ organizations ever worry about “selling out” in the wake of their recent expansions (which the panelists again, for the most part, side-stepped). Then, she followed up with a question about whether the small organizations in town have suffered from competition with the large institutions (ole!).

As the discussion progressed toward its conclusion, and these expert panelists became less and less able to answer the hard questions about the struggles of the larger art community in Minneapolis, I could tell that Robinson was beginning to circle the truth. When she asked about the financial challenges facing the arts community in the current economy and, specifically, about whether the big organizations had contingency plans to deal with the difficult fiscal realities of the times, the panelists all—to a person—gave grudging nods. “We talk a lot about it,” admitted Vergne. “It’s a very constraining moment…. We’ve been much fatter in the past, but at the moment we are on Weight Watchers.” The other panelists spoke about the various ways that their organizations have been readjusting their activities to cope with declining support and increased costs, even as they grapple with the high expectations that a tapped art public has for these highly visible (and expensive) institutions. Then Vergne continued: “We have to change the way we operate and change our rules of engagement. If we don’t, we become dinosaurs and die.”

And so, the curtain had at last been lifted, revealing a reality beyond our blind faith in the region’s art supremacy. Now, perhaps, a real discussion can begin.

Addendum re: Minneapolis’ Failing Arts Future (June 24): The New York Times noted today that the Dia Foundation has announced the hiring of noted Minneapolis arts booster Philippe Vergne to take over directorship of the struggling foundation. Vergne’s departure marks the fifth high-profile Minneapolis arts leader to leave the city within the past year. Others include former Walker director Kathy Halbreich and chief curator Richard Flood, state arts board director Tom Proehl, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts director William Griswold.

I’m just back from a whirlwind trip to Pittsburgh to check out the 2008 Carnegie International, and I’ve also been scrambling to get a few projects done this week, so I’ve been unable to post to CAFA for the past week. To make up for this recent blog-lull (blull?), below are a few quick Bullet Points of Failure for June–this miserable month of miserably (so far) gloomy weather.

  • Last night, at a dreary-wet, underattended Art Happy Hour (my side-project designed to counterbalance the constant depressive pull of failure from this site), I got to speaking with a local artist named Jim. He’d just come back to live in Minneapolis, where he is from, after spending five years teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is, it seems, a regular reader of CAFA (the first I’ve ever met, actually), so we got to talking about failure and local art, and he said something brilliantly perceptive: “Here’s what I think about Minneapolis now that I’ve been away and come back: I’ve never been in a place filled with so many brilliant, capable, and creative people who are going nowhere.”
  • I didn’t realize this at the time, but back in November, 2007–about the time I was starting up this blog on artistic failure–a Carnegie Mellon University art professor started The Museum of Modern Failure, as a project for a class called “Art in Context.” The idea was to celebrate people’s personal failures, and the “museum” was a black wall on which people post a wide range of “failures”: whether technological (the Hindenburg, the Titanic), unpopular inventions (Segway, Firestone tires, Comanche helicopters, the DeLorean), cultural flops (Milli Vanilli, Ebonics, the mullet), or so on. The concept was suggested by student Rachael Brown, a 22-year-old creative-writing major. She noticed that the store that would come to house the museum, located at 2628 E. Carson St., had a “history of failure… The most recent failure was Bookends, a used computer store operated by the adjacent Goodwill, where old Epsons and educational CD-ROMs had failed to keep the business afloat. ‘I just find it really humorous that blunders aren’t what we celebrate in museums, just big successes,’ Brown explain[ed].” In a perfect coda to the project, the temporary museum close just shortly after it opened, in December of last year.
  • My review of the Carnegie International, as well as a long Q&A-style interview with its curator Douglas Fogle, went live on another new side-project of mine–a blog of visual arts writing on the Rakemag.com site called The Thousandth Word. I didn’t realize it until later, but my take on this big blockbuster international survey exhibition reflected something about the clouds of failure that hang over these times:
  • The best work in the 2008 Carnegie International reflects intimate, eccentric, often uncertain moments even as it hints at deeper and vast problems in the society. This is art of the resigned, pitiful shoulder-shrug variety, not of the noisy (and perhaps useless) hammer-thud variety–such as what was on display in such blustery recent shows as, say, the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Many of the personal and intimate gestures of these artists are designed, in fact, to spill out over from the private mind into a public realm, perhaps like pond ripples or a zen butterfly’s wings flapping or other suitable metaphor.

bluered.JPG

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Just to check back in, below is pasted the most recent online forum post by Gabriel Combs, the artist who self-destructed (and went homeless) a few months ago.

Note: I haven’t seen Combs since just before he was evicted from his apartment. He was not particularly pleased with what I wrote about his experiences, so I don’t imagine he’d have any interest in meeting with me again. Therefore, unfortunately, the only way I have of knowing how well the now-homeless artist is doing is by reading the scant words he writes on this online forum. (And these words don’t paint a pretty picture.)

i sold my soul for a bowl of soup, and there was a fly in it.
cuts don’t heal
slow seeping blood
its death and it creeps

testosterone and adrenaline mixed with alcohol
my senses have gone animal. survival explicitly dictates it. its a fine line from here to hell, and i’m aware of every instinct, sight and smell. dreams are theatre and threatening and nostalgic nightmare with beauty and godpleasesomeonehelpmeplease. sleep face down arms crossed in a coffin with the process of suffocation. radiate light in the day, solar cell (prison) becomes anemic until after midnight shadows confiscate lack of contrast.

an ideal balance of alienation and abstracted nostalgia.

“i don’t care about my bad reputation
never said i wanted to improve my station…”

choooke…. my body is afflicted with this heartttttt…… brokenbreakcrookedandstraight

“runnin through the field where all my tracks will be concealed

and theres no where to go…”

nothing is making much sense. i don’t know where i am.

here are three 3″ x 4″ statik kinetic tortoise, now up on ebay for only .99 cents. i gotta get out of here soon…

(posted on mnartists.org by Gabriel Combs, May 18, 06:35 PM)

A recent story in the Mpls Star-Tribune, Hope flickers out for Oak Street Cinema, describes the impending doom, after three years of struggle, of a beloved repertory theater.

After two years of speculation and a public battle over its future, cherished art-film theater Oak Street Cinema is expected to be sold after the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) ends May 3. Its most likely fate: Demolition to make way for a housing and retail development.

The issue at hand appears to be the financial status of the small nonprofit arts org, Minnesota Film Arts, that owns the theater. The Oak Street Cinema was founded in 1995 by a group that renovated a 92-year-old theater near the University of Minnesota. Minnesota Film Arts, which has run the successful MSPIFF for more than 30 years, merged with the Oak Street Cinema several years ago. In 2004, new management at MFA allowed debts to run up–leading to firings, staff resignations, and a cycle of ever-deepening red ink.

Since the spring of 2005, the doors of the Oak Street Cinema have only periodically been open and staff remains in flux. In January 2006, MFA’s board said the theater might need to be sold, triggering a public protest by Oak Street founders and others. Still, the last public tax filing by MFA, in 2005, showed a standing debt of $145,000, and selling the theater was considered the favorite option to clear the debt and pave the way for a reorganization of MFA (so it could refocus its energy back on MSPIFF).

“The festival carries the long tradition of film in Minnesota forward,” said the current board chair of MFA. “We want to continue to focus on that tradition.”

As a follow-up on my previous post about artists hitting inevitable career/existential hurdles, I’m posting an email from an artist I don’t really know. She got my email address from the Art Happy Hour! site (that I run as a counterweight to all this Artistic Failure gloom and doom), and she sent me a copy of an email she had written to an exhibition coordinator voicing frustration about being rejected for an art exhibit at a hospital in Minnesota, suggesting for some reason it would be grist for conversation at the happy hour.

(The message is included below, with identifying details X’d out for purposes of confidentiality and privacy, because it provides an interior glimpse of the wounded psyche of an artist hitting an artistic hurdle.)

From: XXXX@msn.com
To: XXXX@allina.com
Subject: RE: XXX XXXX exhibit notification
Date: Fri, 11 Apr 2008 08:57:03 -0500

Thanks XXXX,
I’m going to keep this rejection letter as evidence of how difficult it is to show work in Minneapolis. The pieces were exhibited at Augsburg in 2004, and since that time I’ve had them stored in my studio. NO one wants them because they do take visual and physical space. New York art critic Eleanor Heartney juried one into a competition at the Plains Museum in Fargo, she liked the work. But otherwise, I still own it and store it, which costs me money.

The galleries in Minneapolis have responded with the same words that you have used. They note passion…but no thanks.

I fully understand your position and have other work, but this was a strong emotional period of my life that really demanded healing my heart. What does an artist do with it? My colleagues wonder why I’m not showing, and the answer is I’ve tried.

The full insult is when galleries look at a resume and assume that the artist has not tried to exhibit because other galleries have rejected the work. I do find that my ideas fit better on the coastlines of our country, but that demands shipping expense. If I behave myself and frame it under glass, then I’d have that additional expense, but that doesn’t guarantee acceptance.
You see my point??? Coffee shops won’t even show the work. I truly need your prayers.

best to you,
XXXX XXXX


Subject: XXX XXXX exhibit notification
Date: Thu, 10 Apr 2008 12:18:56 -0500
From: XXXX@allina.com
To: XXXX@msn.com

Dear XXXX:

Thank you for your interest in participating in The XXX XX XXXXXXX exhibit at the XXXXXXXXX XXX Health & Healing. I received many submissions, and was struck by the quality of work I saw.

 

I regret to inform you that your work has not been selected for inclusion in this exhibit. Your images are strong, the description of your experience moving, and I honor the healing that is a part of the artistic process for you. However, I had to make difficult decisions as I worked with issues of space availability and the desire to create a cohesive group show.

 

I thank you again for your willingness to share your work with the patients, staff and visitors of the XXXXXXXXX and XXXXX XXXXXXX Hospital. We very much appreciate artists, and the ways in which art helps to create a healing environment within our clinic.

 

Blessings on your continued artistic journey.

 

Warmly,

 

XXXX XXXX

XXXXXX XXXX Program Coordinator

Meeting Gabriel Combs again after nearly five years was a shock. All the former young-punk anger and wiry strength that I had seen when I first met him was gone, replaced by frail deliberation, lumbering gentleness, even a kind of solemn grace. “Can I offer you some coffee?” he asked apologetically when I arrived at his small apartment in the rough and densely populated Stevens Square neighborhood of Minneapolis. He seemed unwilling to look directly at me, turning his back to the sink of his tiny kitchenette. “It’s fairly fresh. I just need to heat it up.”

I demurred, and held up the bag of Middle Eastern food I had picked up on the way over. “I can’t drink coffee this late in the day,” I said, “but I am hungry. You guys want to eat?” (Another artist named Ray, who has long spread an itinerant life between an old RV and the couches of friends, was also present.)

They accepted the food without thanks, like prisoners do, and ate mostly in silence. I swallowed pieces of spinach pie and chattered nervously, trying to get conversation going. I mentioned I was specifically interested in their artist careers, and how had art had perhaps let them to their current stations. This got them both started on a littany recitation of the slights, insults, and the past treacheries they’d endured in their lives, jobs, art pursuits, and so on.

I didn’t take careful notes (I wasn’t thinking of this as a journalistic visit), but I learned a few indelible facts that I record here. Combs had been supporting himself by selling art on eBay for more than two years–ever since he’d quit a job at a photo processing place, supposedly because of “some bitch” coworker who was blaming him for things that had gone wrong at work. In a typical month, Combs makes 25-30 small art works to sell, working in series to save time and reuse colors between images, thus conserving supplies. He couldn’t say exactly why he started selling art on eBay as a “survival thing.” It just happened “by chance,” he said, as he was applying, unsuccessfully, for job after job to replace the one he’d left. “I saw some others doing it on eBay, and I thought I’d try. I just put it out there. I weigh it against all the jobs I’ve hated, and I like this much more. I just need to figure out all of the marketing strategies.

“I feel like I got pushed into this… but I’ve made a pretty good run of it,” he said of selling his art at $10-$20 a pop, mostly to collectors from Europe.

While Combs luck seemed to have run out finally, it lasted awhile. And his art got sent out all over–Germany, England, Spain… “A bunch of people in Spain have my work,” he said. “If I could go anywhere, I’d go to France or Spain. The street art there is just incredible.” But Combs doesn’t have money to get to those countries, let alone to sustain himself for any length. He hadn’t paid his rent since November, and in the weeks leading up to his call-for-help blog and forum posts in early February he had been dealing with the heavy-handed mechanisms of the legal system.

Prior to ending up at the photo processing place, Combs had attended school in Minneapolis for graphic design. I can’t recall which school he attended, as there are several for-fee schools here that purport to train the next generation of working designer. I don’t know the details, other than Combs left school with a degree and a sizeable debt, but he was unable to find work in the field. “I really liked graphic design,” he said. “Really. It just was impossible to find a job doing it.”

The littany of blame, excuse-making, and self-demurral tossed out by Ray and Gabe against all the people in the art and professional world who were keeping them from success reminded me of some recent blog-writings about work and creativity of another Minneapolis artist who seemed to have hit rock-bottom of late.

I’m making no money on music. I can’t get a gig. I can’t find a decent job. And I don’t have a social life because I’m too broke to do anything, and besides, I should be at home recording anyways… Taking a chemical won’t change who you are. It won’t change your brain. It definitely won’t make your life situation any better. It can only promote change. So I’m trying to see what I can change and how I can help myself. I’m just afraid that the answer is to “find a job.”

Any job that fits my qualifications does not fit my skills or personality, and vice versa. That’s the trap I’m stuck in. I’ve gone after jobs that “fit me,” and I don’t get hired, usually because someone more personable is just as available. I was able to slip in to jobs only to get treated passive-aggressively, and sometimes even used as a scapegoat. If I’ve ever had a job that did not fit this profile, it was low pay and small hours.

EVERY employer wants a “motivated, team-oriented, self-starter,” which I can be if I were running a gallery or something. I can’t be that while answering bitter emails from dissatisfied Target customers. And I can’t pretend I’m going to. What the fuck is the point of that?

I’ve always known this about myself and that’s why I fight against the odds and work my ass off in my spare time, making music, making art, promoting the arts, volunteering, running a zine fair, etc. hoping that it will pay off down the line. The fact is that it WILL NOT pay off…

Based on former experience, the best case scenario is that I will settle for something that will pay me to simply maintain my human existence. If I save anything, it’ll cover the hole that I create when I get pissed off and quit. My only life, it seems, is a flat line. It also seems my creativity has been dwindling since I stopped getting student loans and switched to paying them. I made a huge mistake. I invested in myself. I thought being educated would get me somewhere. I didn’t realize that you’re more prepared for the workforce as a high school graduate than as a college graduate.

Anyone who sees the way Gabriel Combs interacts with and approaches the world would quickly know that the root of his problems–his inability to keep a job, to market his art, to get along with others in a position to help him–likely lies solely within himself. It is a case where a person’s voracious creativity not only creates conditions for alienation and isolation, but makes the person blind to the reasons why he is shunned.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a good thing to see a person lose his vibrancy and vigor in this way–particularly when it’s a result of a voracious creative drive. Combs, compared to his old self, is a zombie now–diminished, hungry, lacking any spark of joy. It was vastly preferable to know him when even the smallest slight would provoke a shitstorm of rage and spew, when you were afraid that he might explode on you just because you looked at him wrong, and when you knew he was only seeing the world as a canvas on which he could make marks, literally and figuratively.

It was sad to see him like this, even if he told me he was hopeful and optimistic for the future, proud of his petty art sales, and eager to keep making art work. In the course of conversation, Combs brought up several times the name of Van Gogh, citing something he’d read in his letters to his brother Theo or talking up some aspect of his life. He also mentioned he had recently seen the Schnabel film about Basquiat. I wasn’t sure if he was identifying with these famous artistic failures, or if he was just acknowledging those who had previously traveled the path he was now setting off on.

“All things considered,” says Combs, “I’m a happy guy. What have I got to complain about?… I literally have nowhere to go. I could couch-surf, but I have no permanent place to go. If that’s what it is, then so be it.”

The latest updates on one of Combs’ websites suggest he was scheduled to hand over the keys to his apartment to a court representative on Monday–yesterday–at noon. Below is a picture he posted as the last image from his studio, just before it must have been carted away:

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Today, just a few hours ago, Combs posted the following on the mnartists forums:

i’m close to kmart on lake… i have’nt been on since friday, so i missed about the painting on saturday. officially without a home now, having handed over the keys yesterday at noon. anybody know how to get a dvd out of a macbook drive? i stuck the last harry potter movie in here and it does’nt know its there and won’t let it out… i hope it does’nt mess this thing up. i got a ton of drawing done, as i’d been holding back from it for quite a bit. lots of thumb nails for paintings to do. have to get back to painting i a little bit here, but had to check the net. ramen noodles and bread… spring should bloom nicely this year. gotta run…