Walking through the skyways recently, I spied a pile of pamphlets stacked outside a City Center storefront. I crouched down to skim the words "Goethe-Institut" printed in small letters. Then I peered into the shop itself, where two video screens featured aerial shots of Stalinist architecture. Wait, was I still in Minneapolis? Or somewhere over the Atlantic?

"People are on such a mission" when they pass through the skyways, said Sandra Teitge, the German curator behind this unusual downtown Minneapolis spot. "You have to stage something quite dramatic in this space to interrupt their flow or mission of getting to the office, lunch or a meeting."

Goethe in the Skyways is a pop-up gallery designed to shake up the skyway ecosystem, one interactive art exhibition at a time. Sponsored by a consortium of German institutions — the nonprofit Goethe-Institut, the government-run German Foreign Office and the Federation of German Industries (BDI), which represents the interests of trade associations and companies — the gallery marks the "year of German-American friendship" with monthlong residencies and exhibitions, with most artists hailing from Berlin's hot art scene.

The gallery launched in October with works by the artistic/documentary duo Korpys/Löffler, borrowing filmmaking techniques from the modern surveillance state. Then came an eye-catching exhibition of colorful posters by Minneapolis artists for the 2018 midterms. In November, Berlin's Franziska Pierwoss visited the space to set up dramatic Hollywood lighting for a reality TV shoot starring three Minnesota families and their candid observations about the Thanksgiving holiday.

Currently, the Berlin-based, South Ukrainian-born Anton Kats is turning the gallery into a radio station/recording studio. Inspired by family members who served as WWII wireless radio operators, Kats plans to stage open rehearsals with Minneapolis musicians, eventually producing vinyl recordings of their work together.

"I really like transitional spaces," Kats said recently, seated at a table in the minimalist gallery space. "Mostly I appreciate that [the skyways] have a randomness to them."

Why the skyways

Born in Soviet-controlled East Berlin, Teitge is no stranger to Minneapolis. The independent curator landed here in 2013 when her husband, Wiley Hoard, accepted a job in the city (Hoard is a grandson of the late John Cowles Jr., former publisher and chairman of the Star Tribune).

"It was the hardest move I had ever made," Teitge recalled. "I found Minneapolis to be an extremely difficult place to infiltrate, a hard nut to crack. People are very reserved."

An art world veteran with an impressive résumé spanning Europe and New York (Berlin Biennale, Venice Biennale, MoMA PS1), Teitge opted for the "survival mechanism" of launching an artists' residency program during the three years she lived here. Still going strong, FD13 offers short-term Twin Cities residencies to interdisciplinary artists from around the world.

Her work with FD13 solidified Teitge's reputation in Minneapolis and the larger Midwest arts community. Among the many professional connections she made was Petra Roggel, director of the Goethe-Institut in Chicago. Both Germans living abroad, Teitge and Roggel bonded over their shared interest in art.

In 2016, Teitge and her husband moved to New York, then back to Berlin. After a few months in Europe, they both had new jobs, a new apartment. Teitge was pregnant with the couple's son. Then the phone rang.

"I heard I could open up a Goethe pop-up in Minneapolis," Roggel remembered. "So I asked Sandra if she'd like to come back. It took her only three days to decide."

Sure, it was a great professional opportunity. But Teitge also hoped to exploit a certain fascination with Minneapolis, an interest first sparked by FD13 resident Julia Kouneski's "Skyway Performance" from 2015. The curiosities of the Minneapolis skyways — that sense of the 1960s "futuristic city" — struck a chord with Teitge. The setting for her Goethe-Institut pop-up was a no-brainer.

"I could have been in Northeast," Teitge said. "But I very consciously chose the skyways."

New life for Goethe

Best known for its German language classes, the globally minded Goethe-Institut partnered with Mexico on a year of friendship in 2018. The nonprofit staged similar programs in India, China and Russia over the friendship program's 10-year history. This year, in addition to Minneapolis, it has pop-ups in Seattle, Houston and Kansas City, Mo.

Named for the late 18th/early 19th-century German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the institute used to have outposts all over the United States. But they were closed "because of budget cuts," Roggel said. "Since then, we are always missing these institutes."

Goethe in the Skyways helps the nonprofit test the waters, gauging interest in reigniting some of its programming. Gallery visitors will find piles of pamphlets about German language courses and other forms of cultural exchange. "Do people remember?" Roggel wondered. "Or is this completely new to them?"

Meanwhile, stepping into the skyway pop-up feels like entering one of Berlin's hip galleries. Teitge and her family plan on returning to the vibrant German city when the Minneapolis program wraps in October 2019. But for now, she relishes the opportunity to experiment and observe as the skyway crowd interacts with the gallery and its art.

"The contemporary art world is predominantly white, educated — elite essentially," Teitge said. "And I love that about the skyway — that it is not."

Alicia Eler • 612-673-4437