A tour of the new Soo Visual Arts Center begins at the front desk. It is, in essence, a cardboard box. Actually, it’s a “corrugated plastic” box, according to executive director Carolyn Payne, who’s padding around her new workspace in metallic high-tops.
The desk looks like an avant shipping package gone modular. FedEx meets Ikea. “I’m a little concerned about what to do with my coffee while I’m sitting here,” she deadpans.
It’s hard not to see the desk as a symbol of the gallery. What would a move — or a brief stint of homelessness — be without a cardboard box?
After 13 years on Lyndale Avenue in Uptown, 2.5 years after the death of its founder Suzy Greenberg, and amid one of the most impressive upswings in art-scene memory, the hothouse gallery is uprooting. This Saturday, it opens three exhibitions at its new space in on Bryant Avenue, just off the Midtown Greenway.
Still, Soo VAC remains Soo VAC. Almost the entire interior of the new space — including the tile-mosaic pastiches of Magritte and Da Vinci in the bathrooms — was designed by artists. Opposite the cardboard desk will hang a splashy/exotic, oversized watercolor by Lindsay Smith. And the desk itself? That’s Will Natzel. In 2013, the Owatonna, Minn., artist filled the gallery’s front room with an oppressive maze of giant cardboard tubes. People either loved it or hated it. But it was sculpture with a capital S: invasive, butting in, forcing audience engagement via ducking and high-stepping.
This is what Soo VAC does: It lets people — often unknowns — install giant cardboard worms. Or, as Rollin Marquette did in 2014, a massive curtain made with ersatz human flesh. Or, as Jaime Carrera did for Easter 2013, a Cheetos/Jesus-themed performance called “Cheesus.” Or they just let art vets like David Lefkowitz mount a knockout show.
“We’re not big on résumés here,” says Alison Hiltner, who runs the space alongside Payne.
Since Greenberg’s passing — a change that would torpedo most nonprofits — Soo VAC has quietly become the best gallery in town. Shows involve names you don’t recognize, and types of work you’d never imagine — and might actively hate. There’s a sense of discovery and surprise, but without the dopey brashness of an “experimental space,” or the false glamour of a hype scene.
Last year’s three best local painting shows — Nate Burbeck, Benjamin Rogers and Garrett Perry — opened at the Soo back-to-back-to-back. And after first exhibiting there, artists have gone on to win 25 McKnight fellowships and 25 Jerome grants. The place should issue rookie cards.
Payne attributes the success to two factors: Soo VAC’s policy of universal open calls for all exhibitions (literally anyone can submit work for consideration), and a tight-knit curatorial panel made up of four artist-members who decide what gets in. Both are rarities in the gallery world.
“We are most definitely not a ‘post-studio practice’ kind of group,” says Bruce Tapola, a panel member and professor of art at St. Cloud State University. “Actual old-timey skills don’t offend us. I’m pushing for the panel members to get matching ‘Makerz B4 fakerz’ tattoos.”
Our Soo VAC tour returns to the corrugated desk, all hidden compartments in lightweight frame. Modest but sturdy. Payne tells me that it will light up from the inside. Here’s hoping the new Soo does, as well.
Soo Visual Arts Center
What: Grand reopening and three new exhibitions.
When: 6-10 p.m. Sat.
Where: 2909 Bryant Av. S., Mpls.