The project began with a small but crucial question.
“They asked, ‘Can we tear out the closet in the basement?’ ” said landlord Tim Leach. “And I was like, ‘It’s OK, I just want to make sure the floor stays, and it’s all good.’ ”
This was no normal redo. Leach’s renters were transforming his south Minneapolis house into Yeah Maybe, a one-weekend-a-month art gallery.
It’s part of a wave of home-based art spaces opening in the Twin Cities.
They are labors of love, and vibrant hubs for experimental art and the creative community — but also a sign of the financial challenges faced by local artists.
Gülgün Kayim, director for arts, culture and the creative economy for the city of Minneapolis, said that most artists, but particularly artists of color and women, are paid way below the $23-an-hour median wage of skilled workers in the Twin Cities.
“So what do you do,” she said, “if you are an artist and you want to reach your audience, but you can’t afford rent or even square footage in an industrial building?”
Mark Schoening and his wife, Dawn England — transplants from Los Angeles — opened Porch Gallery in May 2016 at their ornate Park Avenue home as a way to contribute to Minneapolis’ creative economy.
“Living in a space surrounded by art and running this small art space has brought a creative energy to the house that I wouldn’t have imagined,” said Schoening, a Minnesota native.
He applied the skills he once used to design storefront displays for Forever 21 to create an inviting exhibit area in their front window. Four months out of the year, the front room is blocked off and artworks can be viewed from the porch.
Sometimes art overflows into the front yard — a giant sculpture of bananas was just there as part of an exhibit called “Ripe” — adding a public element that invites passersby.
“People stop by all the time,” said Schoening, who keeps the lights on from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. “People walking their dogs or riding by on their bikes come up on the porch.”
Spaces like Porch Gallery and Yeah Maybe are “democratizing art,” Kayim said, giving neighborhood residents access to artwork free of charge, while bringing “the churn of creative voices and their audiences into more immediate contact.”
But there is another element in play, and that is bypassing the traditional cultural gatekeepers at museums and commercial galleries. Artists increasingly are “taking control,” Kayim said. “They are not relying on curatorial spaces to dictate who is doing what. They are going out and doing it themselves.”
Walker Art Center Executive Director Olga Viso not only welcomes these alternative galleries — she often visits.
“The emergence of artist-run spaces in the Twin Cities over the last decade parallels a similar phenomenon observed in recent years across the country,” she said. “The artistic impetus to forge new models outside of conventional institutions harks back to the late 1960s and ’70s when many of the most revered artist-run spaces today first emerged.”
At Hair and Nails, a storefront gallery in south Minneapolis, living in and around art “is really our natural element, only maximized,” says artist-musician Ryan Fontaine. He and his partner, dancer-choreographer Kristin Van Loon, are upping the ante this month by opening a sculpture garden in the backyard between the gallery and their house.
At a recent opening, artists roamed the moist grass of the yard. The temperature dropped as the sun set, and they huddled in small circles, clutching cans of cheap beer or LaCroix. Tarps covered sculptures around the perimeter of the yard.
Like a teen goth dream, there’s a poetic ambiguity to the gallery’s name, which popped into Fontaine’s head during the last leg of a cross-country drive as he moved from the Bay Area to Minneapolis. Van Loon calls it a “red herring” — its plainness suggests a salon, but hair and nails are what continue to grow after a person dies.
Just a few blocks away, housed in an alleyway garage, is Sadie Halie Projects. Artists Jennie Ekstrand and Patrick Gantert wanted a space where people would come not just to see and be seen, as they do in New York, where Sadie Halie was first established in 2012.
Ekstrand, who is from Blaine, and Gantert, originally from La Crosse, Wis., moved to Minneapolis last year after they were feeling “done-ish” with New York. They felt that Sadie Halie — named after two dogs Ekstrand had while growing up — could truly contribute to the city’s art community, while in New York it was just one of many artist-run spaces.
Their garage “is a size that’s manageable if the artist wants to do something installation-based, or something they don’t normally do,” said Ekstrand. “That’s one of our goals — to have artists take a risk and not need to sell anything.” For Brittany Nelson’s 2016 show “Monuments to the Conquerors of Space,” they created a slanted floor with the help of a next-door neighbor.
Nelson said that at Sadie Halie, she didn’t “have to be concerned with commodifying my work in the same way as a commercial space.”
The gallery keeps costs low and recently won a $5,000 grant from the Visual Arts Fund, a program funded by the Warhol Foundation and administered by Minneapolis nonprofit Midway Contemporary Art, to help pay for shows.
Yeah Maybe, located in a big house in the Seward neighborhood, sometimes hosts out-of-town artists for a brief residency, thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Visual Arts Fund.
Although it’s usually a fun learning experience and a way to get to know new people, “sometimes it can be challenging to live around artists making their work — spray paint, fumes, noises,” said co-founder Conor Dowdle.
Shows are staged on the first floor and sometimes in the basement. Programming is very experimental, with openings on Saturdays followed by public critiques on Sunday. Then the show is taken down.
The name Yeah Maybe reflects the open-minded spirit of its co-founders.
“We like showing really new works that are in process,” said Maddie Butler.
“And the combination of affirmation and ambiguity — like we’re excited to do it but maybe it’s not gonna work out,” said Lauren Flynn.
“That hazy middle ground is something we were really feeling,” said Dowdle.
On a more practical level, most of these spaces are covered by homeowners’ insurance, though the art itself typically isn’t insured. (Hair and Nails, though, has a commercial policy that covers liability, theft and damage.)
Having the work in close proximity has an added benefit, said Gantert of Sadie Halie:
“It’s easier for us to monitor things, given the sometimes extreme weather conditions we encounter in Minnesota.”