In 2001, I moved into an art studio at the Northrup King Building, a former seed factory in northeast Minneapolis with the square footage of the Mall of America if not the Cinnabons.
Most of the complex was empty, and still largely is — a ghost town of gears and conveyor belts and offices littered with seed catalogs. It’s a mechanical maze, like the inside of a clock.
My shared studio is on the fourth floor, with a row of windows facing downtown and an admonition stamped long ago on the wall: PLEASE DO NOT SPIT ON FLOOR.
To stand in such a space at twilight, looking out at Northeast’s darkening steeples as the trains run past, rattling the windows like bandsaws, is to sense a ghost. To hold history in your mind for a moment before realizing the boss is gone, there is wine and cheese, and you can spit if you like.
The building’s first artists were squatters. The property manager and I once discovered an ad-hoc studio in one of the remote crannies. Apparently abandoned in a hurry, the room held racks of paintings, Artforum magazines from the 1980s, a scooter lying where it was dropped, presumably decades before. After looking around, the manager simply closed the door, as if the space were sacred, as if it were a time capsule we had no business opening.
When I first moved in, few people besides artists and their friends knew about the building, much less the smaller warrens of art studios nearby. Even fewer people were comfortable venturing inside. The first time I wandered the halls of Northrup King for an open studio event, I felt like an impostor, like the rent collector.
The event was an early iteration of Art-A-Whirl, a free-range tour of artists’ studios throughout northeast Minneapolis that will be held for the 21st time this weekend. It’s one of the few times of year when easels are pushed aside and the public is welcomed in.
When I first showed my photography at Art-A-Whirl, in 2002, I nearly threw up in my car on the way over. What if my work was terrible? What if it was so terrible I was asked to leave — or worse, forced to stay and defend it?
People buying art
Art has always been a tough sell, especially in the Twin Cities. In 1934, ahead of a local-art show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the museum noted, “It is perfectly obvious to anyone who has followed the course of recent artists’ exhibitions here that the majority of the public is definitely hostile to much of the work produced by Minneapolis and St. Paul artists.”
But when the city defined the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District in 2002, putting up signs and drawing up maps, artists were elevated. They were given a place of their own, and art-lovers knew where to find them. Art-A-Whirl came out of the shadows. And the crowds began flooding in.
Over the years, I sold my art to doctors and recent college graduates, to restaurant managers and retirees. I delivered photographs to mansions with vast galleries and to humble homes with hardly any space among the bric-a-brac. Some years I sold nearly every image on the walls of my studio.
Even in the age of Amazon and Etsy, when you could sit in your empty home and fill it with art from afar, carefully measured and keyword searched, the open studio tour retains its appeal — because of the artists, if not because of the art. We consumers demand to know the origin of things — the source of our salmon, the back story to our baked beans — and Art-A-Whirl offers the creators themselves: more than 600 artists prepared to connect the dots of their work.
Recently, the appeal of Art-A-Whirl has expanded beyond the studios. Bands have begun playing in parking lots and breweries have opened throughout the Northeast neighborhood, hosting their own Art-A-Whirl events. In almost every media preview of Art-A-Whirl, the music and beer now leads; the art is sometimes never mentioned.
But the art is still there. And there are still people with a gap on their walls or in their hearts — people I otherwise would never meet — who want to buy.
Two years ago, I sold the largest photograph I ever printed, a 36-inch image of a girl in China, to a seventy-something man who wanted it delivered to his home in St. Anthony. He insisted, as almost everyone does, that I see where it would go — over the couch in the small living room darkened by detritus and shades.
I worried about him, when I realized he was alone, whether he was spending money he didn’t have for one more item he couldn’t lift. I went out to the car for a hook and hammer, and returned to hang the picture for him.
Then he led me into the basement. There were paintings on every wall and hanging from the rafters, the work of his wife who had recently died. Art, he seemed to suggest, is what keeps us alive, even when we’re gone.
Of something this powerful, you could never have too much.
Tim Gihring is an editor for the Minneapolis Institute of Art and a former chair of the Minneapolis Arts Commission. He is a regular contributor to the Star Tribune and Minnesota Monthly magazine. You’ll find his photography during Art-A-Whirl this weekend in Studiopolis (studio 423) on the fourth floor of the Northrup Building in northeast Minneapolis.
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