River levels are dropping as the drought worsens throughout the state. It feels like there's no better time to pray for rain, because who wouldn't rather be singing in the rain — and purple rain at that.

"Many Waters: A Minnesota Biennial" peeks into more than 50 artists' responses to the topic of water. A multivenue exhibit on display in the exterior, windows and skyway of the Minnesota Museum of American Art and at NewStudio Gallery in St. Paul, it also seeps into "Overflow," an artist-organized show at the Q.arma Building in northeast Minneapolis.

"It feels pertinent, as we are experiencing record drought," curator Laura Joseph said while walking outside the M, which has been closed since the pandemic started. "There's not really a linear way to experience it, but you can't help think of how close we are to the river and all we can hear is the traffic and development."

In a window on Robert Street, Mona Smith's circular-shaped video "Cloudy Waters: Dakota Reflections on the River" plays on a loop, a watery reflection on the spiritual importance of water, and the trauma experienced by the Dakota people through Minnesota's history of genocide and forced assimilation.

Sandra Spieler's "Shared Table," courtesy of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre, is a collection of life-size puppets, including a noble buffalo, a tall-eared rabbit, skunk, blue wolf, bear, even a human, gathered around a table to share a sip of water. The work references Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," and this council seeks to be asking: What if this, too, disappears? The artist also recently participated in Water Walk, in prayer the stop the construction of Line 3.

Ruthann Godollei's "Go Ask Alice (Flint Water)" is a single etched apothecary jar with a tag "Drink Me" on it. Godollei uses the classic "Alice in Wonderland" reference to discuss the Flint, Mich., water crisis, which exposed people to high levels of lead in drinking water.

In the building's vestibule, Isabelle Carbonell's "The River in 24/7," a 24-hour recording along a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana known as "the Chemical Corridor," reflects on how the region's mostly Black population has been affected. The piece is impossible to listen to all the way through, which lends a certain existentialist aspect.

An aspirational biennial

To see the rest of "Many Waters," visitors must take a 20-minute drive to NewStudio Gallery, where 37 works by 28 artists take over a basement space at the architecture firm of the same name.

Tia-Simone Gardner's "Dark and Perfect Memory," a matte-gray-painted miniature steamboat with the words "F--- Mark Twain" written graffiti-style on the side, rests on top of a compass.

The steamboat is a romanticized symbol of the South, and also a nostalgia-inducing tourist attraction on the Mississippi River. By painting it gray, she negates these rose-tinted ideas, challenging Twain's romanticization of the Mississippi and its idea of "freedom." A different take reveals how the steamboat increased transportation of enslaved Black people, and how Black people died as river workers or slaves.

The exhibition was juried by a panel including Joseph; artist/writer Matthew Fluharty, executive director of Art of the Rural; Dakota Hoska, assistant curator of Native arts at the Denver Art Museum, and Jovan Speller, a visual artist and program director at Metro Regional Arts Council. The jurying process began in 2019 long before COVID.

While "Many Waters" is being called a biennial — which means it should happen every two years — its future is unclear.

"It aspires to be a regional biennial," said Joseph. "The M has a history of doing biennials" — including a series of Minnesota biennials, most recently in 2014.

The M has survived 13 locations since its inception in 1894. In June 2020, its board parted ways with executive director Kristin Makholm, who brought the museum back from the dead after successfully launching a $23 million capital campaign and renovations to the historic Pioneer-Endicott Buildings in downtown St. Paul. The museum will remain closed through the end of the year. The M is just beginning its search for a new director.

For the time being, Joseph is keeping the focus on water.

"It's an opportunity to take a snapshot of artistic activity for us," she said. "It's been nice to have a seat elsewhere."

@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437

Many Waters: A Minnesota Biennial

At the M: Through Oct. 2 in exterior-facing windows, interior vestibule and skyways of Minnesota Museum of American Art, 350 N. Robert St., St. Paul. mmaa.org or 651-797-2571.

At NewStudio Gallery: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 2303 Wycliff St., St. Paul. newstudiogallery.com or 651-285-2287.

Companion show: "Overflow," Q.arma Building, 1224 NE. Quincy St., Mpls. qarmabuilding.com.