Tricia Khutoretsky says the general attitude projected at Public Functionary, her art gallery in northeast Minneapolis, is “a campfire mentality.”

If that’s the case, she gets the badge for top scene-making camper.

Although she presides over only four or so openings a year, they’re always packed, craftily tricked out and happening. At her latest, the bright, busy graffiti-style paintings by artist Eric Inkala lining the walls were tough to get near, as the joint jumped with a wide-ranging mix of artists and their pals, neighborhood residents with kids in tow and DJ Sarah White laying down some bass.

“We do whatever we can to make it feel like a comfortable gathering space,” the curator said one recent afternoon as she curled up on a lounge. “Most galleries put the priority on how to display the art, with strong lighting and soft background music. We’d rather focus on taking away the kind of intimidating barriers that make people self-conscious, like feeling they have to whisper, and keep them from just getting immersed in the art.”

Most galleries, however, think of themselves as gathering spaces, so what makes PF different, aside from its unusual — some might say cumbersome — name?

“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “There are a lot of subtle elements in the mix.

“You just have to come and feel the energy.”

That statement might trigger an arched brow, but Khutoretsky emanates such a laid-back, charming positivity, it’s easy to see how she gets others on her wavelength.

Public Functionary came to be on the strength of her “just do it” passion and self-taught eye for up-and-comers.

While the gallery’s future isn’t certain, the story is a beacon of hope for the local indie art scene.

Kickstarted

The gallery’s quirky moniker is a nod to the nickname “Old Public Functionary,” bestowed on former President James Buchanan, whose name graces an adjacent street. It’s also a straightforward description of the image Khutoretsky has cultivated — something that functions as a semipublic communal space.

It was launched after she and two arts-involved pals, brand consultants Mike Bishop and Kate Iverson, combined forces and raised an impressive $30,000 on Kickstarter. Bishop is co-director with Khutoretsky, while Iverson, who provides marketing and publicity, is development director.

Nestled behind a railroad bridge, the squat gray brick building was originally a food shelf, then a photo studio. Looming trains regularly rattle past the windows.

“The setting gives it a feeling of being off on the edge of something and lends a radical touch,” said Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine, who came to speak on a panel for the gallery’s inaugural show in May 2013, featuring the work of Chicago-based artist Dzine. Saltz was having so much fun squishing quarters on the train tracks Khutoretsky had to hustle up the hill to drag him down so the discussion could begin.

Saltz was struck by Khutoretsky’s “can-do energy and dedicated drive. I love people in the art world who take matters into their own hands, who learn on the job in public, who don’t wait for the validation of whatever power structures are already in place. If she did it in New York, she’d be noticed like crazy.”

Khutoretsky is unabashed about having no background in art history, although she follows the careers of artists around the country and makes the rounds of studios in Minneapolis and New York.

“I haven’t gone down a conventional path,” she said. “I’m a self-taught curator who figures it out as we go along. When people say they don’t know anything about art, I ask them: What do you like or not like about this painting? If it makes you feel calm or happy, what more do you need to know?

“You don’t need to be a fashion expert to buy a $700 coat because you love it, and no one asks you to explain why.”

Inkala, whose show closes Saturday, grew up in Minneapolis but moved to Brooklyn five years ago. He was elated when reached there last week, because he’d found out that several of his paintings had sold. “I trust her,” he said of Khutoretsky’s curatorial eye. “You walk in that space and you could be in Chelsea. It’s so professional, every little detail is above the bar.”

Showing local and nonlocal artists is an important part of the gallery’s mission, Khutoretsky said. So is transforming the space, painting the walls a different color and adding mostly scavenged decor — a sub-Arctic ice cave or hobo bonfire here, an ornate chandelier there — to create a show-specific environment.

“The quality of the work she chooses is high for a not-for-profit gallery,” said Mike Mouw, a digital project manager for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts who has attended several Public Functionary events. “The design of each exhibition always feels fresh. Then there’s the social aspect. They stay open late and create a really nice atmosphere.”

Jerry Schaefer, a Minneapolis writer and art enthusiast, recently brought his 18-year-old granddaughter there.

“There’s usually a wide range of people, young and older, from those who know a lot about art to those who don’t,” he said. “As for the art, she’s not afraid to go out on a limb when she spots the quality and dynamics she’s looking for.”

Global past, Minnesota roots

Khutoretsky is married to DVS1, a world-traveling techno DJ who’s on the road so much the two rarely see each other.

She, too, has been an international girl her whole life. Born in Thailand to a German-American father from Minneapolis and a Thai mother, she attended school in various locales around the Middle East, wherever Dad’s business teaching English took the family.

When she came to Minnesota for college, she felt instantly at home. “I feel rooted here,” she said. “My grandfather actually worked in this neighborhood, at the old Grain Belt brewery.”

After graduating from Macalester in 2003 with an English degree, she tended bar in trendy clubs including Drink and Foundation and launched a pocket-size arts and culture magazine called Industry, getting dozens of volunteers to work for free. She shut the magazine down in 2006, then was hired by Camel cigarettes to oversee a North Loop party space called Beast House, where she was given “insane” budgets to book bands and create parties.

Working for big tobacco didn’t sit well with her goals. “I’m grateful, because it made me realize someone would pay me money for these skills,” she said, but she went back to school, earning a master’s degree in nonprofit arts management from St. Mary’s University in 2010. She went on to curate shows at Intermedia Arts and the University of Minnesota and develop the culture-connecting Iraqi American Reconciliation Project.

A lean year

Considering that Public Functionary’s annual budget is less than $100,000, with just a quarter of that coming from art sales, its polished image is quite a feat.

For now, the gallery puts on four exhibits a year and has limited hours. Khutoretsky acknowledges that after riding a big wave of introductory publicity, its second year has been financially tight and she has had to scale back some plans. She continues to work at other jobs, teaching arts marketing at St. Mary’s and doing freelance art curating for offices and retail spaces.

In early January, the gallery will put up a juried exhibit with the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (the folks who put on Art-a-Whirl every spring), featuring work by several neighborhood artists.

“Public Functionary is a big project, a real experiment,” she said. “Hopefully one that continues to be a platform for artists and encourages the art-collecting market to come back.”