Construction cranes loom over Walker Art Center, while Bobcats sculpt dirt in the muddy lot across the street.
We’ve seen this movie before.
The action is at the Walker and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden this year, but similar events have unfolded at dozens of Minnesota cultural institutions during the past 30 years.
Since September 1984, when I became the Star Tribune’s first writer assigned to cover the visual arts full time, the local art scene has experienced extraordinary growth and change. As I retire, I look back on those protean years with some amazement and, no doubt, a bit of nostalgia.
Even long-range planners didn’t predict most of what evolved at museums, in artists’ lofts and neighborhoods or in the art scene in general. They couldn’t have. Peering ahead? Well, obviously, change and surprise are inevitable. Beyond that, all is guesswork.
Back in the mid-’80s, a minimalist, brick-box Walker and the adjacent Guthrie Theater shared a hillside overlooking a parched baseball field. Across town, the Minneapolis Institute of Art was still settling into a 1974 modernist addition that wrapped around the original 1915 neoclassical building. And what is now the Weisman Art Museum was an anonymous gallery crammed into little rooms on the top floor of the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium.
Raw loft spaces could be rented cheaply in the empty warehouses and light-industry buildings in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District and St. Paul’s Lowertown. So artists moved in, threw up some drywall and set to work and live in their improvised quarters.
Some of these urban pioneers realized that their sweat-equity improvements in the properties would attract shops, restaurants and other creative enterprises that might price them out of the neighborhood. So they formed co-ops and bought buildings or negotiated long-term leases enabling them to retain footholds in the soon-to-be-hip neighborhoods they’d invented.
All that felt new then; now it’s an old story that foundations and federal bureaucrats have institutionalized and redubbed “creative place-making.”
Since then the Guthrie has moved downtown, the Walker and the Institute of Art have expanded several times, and the baseball field morphed into the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The garden opened in 1988, was enlarged in 1992 and is now undergoing a $10 million upgrade.
The Weisman moved into its own glamorous Frank Gehry-designed building on the Mississippi in 1993 and then bumped out a Gehry expansion in 2011.
Elsewhere in Minneapolis, the castle-like American Swedish Institute added a contemporary wing in 2012.
St. Paul, too, got into the big-building business, with the handsome History Center opening in 1992 and the Science Museum in 1999.
Specialist places have also appeared, thrived and become national models in their fields — the Museum of Russian Art, Northern Clay Center, Highpoint Center for Printmaking and the Textile Center (all in Minneapolis) among them.
Suburban art venues have built snazzy facilities: the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, the Bloomington Center for the Arts (which last year renamed itself Artistry) and the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wis. Plus smaller places in Hopkins, Edina and elsewhere.
Doubtless inspired in part by the Minneapolis example, sculpture has sprouted everywhere, most notably at Franconia Sculpture Park, a working-artists venue near Taylors Falls, and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, now developing its own world-class collection.
Farther afield, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum debuted in Winona in 2006 and is garnering national attention with a stellar collection of water-themed American and European paintings.
Hits and a miss
Not all of the expansions have been entirely successful. Walker’s $135.6 million shiny metal addition pushed its nose out over Hennepin Avenue in 2005 in a self-described effort to turn the center into a “town square” that would buzz with visitors at all hours. Instead, the Hennepin entrance proved uninviting and the building’s maze of stairways, sloping hallways and cul de sacs left visitors scratching their heads in befuddlement. Gallery attendance stagnated, and, after several tries, the in-house restaurant closed.
Walker’s current construction project, pegged at $23.3 million, is an effort to correct those problems by creating an entry pavilion and restaurant on Vineland Place, clarifying interior circulation and visually linking the building’s underground parking garage to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden across the street.
The Twin Cities gallery scene has likewise experienced constant churn. At its peak in the late 1980s, there were more than two dozen art galleries within two blocks of 4th Street and 1st Avenue N. Hundreds of artists lived and worked in former industrial warehouses and lofts in the area and hung out at trendy restaurants.
With the advent of the Target Center arena in 1990, sports bars began to displace the art crowd. Facing tougher economic times, galleries soon closed or scattered farther north or south to Lyn-Lake. No similar concentration of galleries ever coalesced.
Nevertheless, veteran Minneapolis galleries, including Weinstein, Groveland, Circa, Flanders and the co-op Form + Content, have retained their audiences and markets through all the turmoil.
Artists are a resilient bunch, too. Ever enterprising, they’ve turned semiannual open studio events into weekend-long festivals including Art-a-Whirl in northeast Minneapolis and the St. Paul Art Crawl, both drawing thousands of gawkers, if not buyers, every year.
Despite the harsh odds against making a living as a practicing artist, talent finds a way. Over the years, I’ve been endlessly impressed by the good work I’ve encountered in artists’ studios and their persistence in making it.
I’m ever grateful for having had the opportunity to scramble down an embankment in St. Paul’s Mounds Park, high above the Mississippi River, and follow painter Mike Lynch to see the vista of St. Paul that he depicted in a monumental painting for the Minnesota Department of Revenue. And for the chance to speak with Monica Haller about her Veterans Book Project, through which veterans of recent U.S. wars tell their stories. And to see Warren MacKenzie handle clay in his Stillwater studio, and to hear Alec Soth call in from China to answer a question about his photos. And, of course, the State Fair Fine Arts show is a highlight of every year.
Writing about art for the Star Tribune for 32 years has been a privilege and a pleasure.
Thanks to the generosity and time of curators and artists, I’ve learned a lot about Minnesota’s creative people and institutions and have tried to share that info with readers.
That has meant writing about everything from royal treasures to Chinese tomb sculpture, graffiti, medieval tapestries, 3-D printed sculpture, Charles Schulz cartoons, Japanese ceramics, custom-made guns, Renaissance-era prints and drawings, American Indian designs, modernist furniture, civil rights photos, Impressionist paintings, and poop-in-art. Yep.
Now I look forward to seeing you in the galleries, with or without pen in hand. Thanks for reading!