Lileks: Pursuing art for subsidy's sake? OK, cue the bagpipes!

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2012 - 7:58 PM

The Pillsbury A Mill, known locally as "the one that didn't explode," has languished for years. Its gray, craggy, sagging walls await the right plan, the right moment, the right purpose.

Now a developer wants $2.9 million in tax-increment financing to turn it into housing -- oh, and if the city could issue $65 million in housing revenue bonds, that'd be ducky, too.

If you're thinking you'd like to live in an ancient structure where mustached men once toiled in the hellish heat of a summer afternoon -- a place where the dust was once as thick as a Sahara snowstorm and one errant spark could send everyone to kingdom come in chunk form -- there are some caveats.

The plan for the A Mill: subsidized housing ... for artists.

Hmmm. Downtown used to have lots of colorful, gritty buildings in historic industrial neighborhoods (translation: insect-infested, under-heated warehouses with snowdrifts of asbestos in the hallway), and they were great for artists. They were cheap, they had huge spaces for big projects like "Tetanus Medication," a 6-foot-wide ball of rusty nails.

You weren't supposed to live there, but people did, surviving on hotplate suppers and sponge baths from the communal toilet tank. It was noble and purifying and gave you something to look back on when you sold that severed goat head packed in Lucite to some gullible museum for $465,000.

Cities need incubators like this, but the condo boom meant that affordable quasi-legal artist housing was turned into residences. It's the curious cost of progress: So many people want to live down where the interesting artists live, so the buildings where the artists work are converted into homes. The artists go elsewhere and make that neighborhood interesting. Repeat the process until artists recolonize downtown, which emptied out when it stopped being interesting.

Perhaps it'll save time and effort to keep them close to downtown with the A Mill, but here's the problem: How do we know who's an artist?

Everyone can be an artist, after all. Doesn't mean they're a good artist.

That's OK; everyone has their own skill, and if you can't draw, sing, write, play an instrument or invent a cardamom-dusted cupcake that takes a whimsical approach to the genre while giving it a subtle Nepalese flavor, then maybe you're one of those people who intuitively understands machines or code or construction, and while that doesn't entitle you to subsidized housing, it --

Sorry? What was that about the cupcake, you asked? Oh. Well, that's the other problem. Everything is an art these days. Cupcakes. Scrapbooking. The Wall Street Journal had a piece on high-end kitchen appliances, and it gushed over an ice maker that will appeal to ice aficionados. There cannot be such a thing as ice connoisseurs. If there are, then there are artisanal ice makers. Handmade in small batches, slow-frozen! If someone says "making ice is my art," by which standards can we deny the assertion? There's the common-sense approach, which involves laughing and pointing, but no one's up for that.

What we now call "art" is often something we once called a "skill." We already have housing for people with skills, and it's known as "apartment buildings and houses."

Will the city decide who's an artist? Let's say you paint realistic pictures of ducks and golf courses. It's hard to imagine a city official looking at your work and asking, "Are these intended ironically? As a comment on man-cave wall-hangings, perhaps?" You'd be trapped: They're sincere, but a subsidy hangs in the balance. "Mostly ironic," you'd say. The city official raises an eyebrow. Mostly? Well, you're paying for utilities, then.

You'll also want to segregate by genres. Say you're an artist who gets a room in the A Mill. You meet the neighbor. He asks: What do you do? "Well, I paint exquisitely detailed miniature pictures on tiny fragments of sea shells. It's fun, but it requires steady nerves. What do you do?"

"I'm learning the bagpipe. Hey, let me introduce you to Bill down the hall. He's writing a Concerto for Cymbal and Timpani."

Here's a suggestion. Pack the Pillsbury A Mill with artists, give them a discount, but make two stipulations.

One: There has to be an annual showing so we can see what the bonds are paying for, and if you get five consecutive bad reviews over the course of five years, you're evicted.

Two: Everyone has to create at least one piece per year that includes the Pillsbury Doughboy.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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