Guest post by Eric Asboe
As a curatorial department of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program (MAEP) is “dedicated to exhibiting and supporting artists living and working in the state of Minnesota.” Begun in 1975, the MAEP is a creative partnership with the MIA, “founded by a group of regional artists interested in creating an innovative exhibition and programming space. What began as a year-long agreement has been extended into an ongoing relationship between the Minnesota artist community and the MIA.” An elected artist panel representing the Minnesota arts communities selects artists from open calls who exhibit within the MIA. The MAEP is an integral part of the MIA’s broader efforts to “enrich the community through art,” expanding beyond its galleries, engaging audiences in ways that effectively utilize the assets and strengths of its collection, while continuing to question how that collection can continue to enrich Minnesota artists and visitors in new ways.
The current MAEP exhibitions embody and transform the MIA. In Posture is Everything, Kristina Estell gathers sheets of molded silicone across a series of armatures. The armatures seem to have caught the simultaneously flowing and visibly weighted silicone, interrupting the gravity we suddenly notice more intensely. On closer inspection, the silicone has been carefully layered, applied, and manipulated by hand. The manipulations of the silicone and the human presence they reveal disguise the fact that the area of the silicone sheets is exactly the area of the MAEP gallery floor. Estell subtly lures the visitor into examining the materiality of the museum, inviting visitors to question what they see and the environment in which they stand.
Allen Brewer‘s exhibition Verbatim begins with the MIA collection. MIA visitors were asked to describe any piece they liked in any way they chose. From those descriptions, Brewer created new works, continuing to solicit and create work throughout the exhibition. The conceptual framework leaves Brewer a lot of room, but, in the exhibition brochure, Brewer explains he preferred to work with “objective definitions, like ’round’ or ‘black.’ Words such as ‘beautiful’ are unusable to me.” Brewer playfully uses the objective words of the descriptions to create his works (e.g. the colorfield of “Lucretia” described by Sandra, the rigid shapes of “Linear Still Life” described by Katie Van Zante). The new works are diverse, and they show Brewer’s close attention to the nuances of language and the difficulties of defining aesthetic experiences.
With the MAEP, the MIA asks and lives through difficult questions about the role of artists and arts institutions in the future of the arts. How can contemporary artists work within encyclopedic art museums? Through nearly forty years and over 180 MAEP exhibitions, the MIA has been dedicated to exploring the role it can play in enabling contemporary art, and it continues to be a unique model to other institutions. With free admission year round and a broad appeal through its collection and programming, the MIA exposes its many visitors of all ages and locations to vital contemporary Minnesota artists.
What role can local artists play in a global museum? MAEP exhibitions are far more than an experiment in thinking locally. The exhibitions are dynamic; the artwork is excellent. More importantly, by supporting an artistic peer selection process, the MIA helps build a community of artists, specifically in and with the resources of a major art institution. Alan Brewer’s exhibition pushes the question further. When I met with him in his MAEP exhibition, he stopped to talk to a visitor, an older man who had written a description. They discussed his description and possibilities for recreations. The transformative power of that individual conversation and the way Brewer has empowered all visitors to the MIA to engage in completely new ways with its collection demonstrates to me the MIA is not just asking how local artists can shape a global museum, but, more importantly, how we can all shape the museums of the future.
Last weekend, Northern Spark, the all-night arts festival of the Twin Cities, a project of Northern Lights.mn, happened for the third time, 8:58pm Saturday to 5:26am Sunday. It is impossible to capture a festival with over 75 projects, multiple sites, and tens of thousands of visitors in words that do all of it justice. Those visitors, however, were the key to and strength of the festival as a whole. The visitors were the focus of many of the projects, whether learning (screen printing, letter press, cyanotype), watching performances (music, dance), or engaging on an individual level (soundscapes, sunrise boat cruises). Inside and around the Saint Paul Union Depot, the projects called for more than passing engagement. Hundreds of people joined in Christian Jankowski’s Rooftop Routine, twirling hula-hoops. I saw multiple families camped at astronaut spirit academy, with children asking to return late into the night. The air in the Union Depot Carriage Way, under the main plaza, was thick with spray paint from hundreds of taggers participating in Underpass of the Eyes of Freedom. Piotr Szyhalski’s sprawling, riveting performance, Permanent Labor, invited visitors to celebrate “the round of production and consumption, of making and using.” The layered movements and labors of the performance, washed by waves of drumming and singing, were a stark contrast to the people waiting in the long lines for the nearby beer tent and food trucks for a different type of labor.
In a very different context than the MAEP, Northern Spark asks difficult questions about the place of arts festivals in the landscape of contemporary art. How can an arts festival shape our vision of a city? Northern Spark was focused in the Lowertown area of downtown Saint Paul, an arts and cultural district with artist live/work spaces, Saint Paul’s only art museum, and the Mississippi River hidden on its border. The creation of a new light rail line through the middle of Lowertown, increased focus on creative placemaking, and the expectations of what an influx of the creative class might do are shining a bright light on Lowertown and downtown Saint Paul generally. Northern Spark’s presence in Lowertown this year, the number of people who attended, and the economic impact of those visitors will continue to play a part in the area’s ongoing development.
Can an arts festival attract more than artists, and can an all-night festival move past spectacle to real engagement? In the largest single event of the festival, thousands of people stood in the rain to watch Chris Larson’s Celebration/Love/Loss, a full-size replica of a Saint Paul home designed by Marcel Breuer burned to the ground. The house was simple and beautiful, and the burn was awe-inspiring. (This video shows the house before burning, but this video shows how massive the flames really were.) Some of the quieter, less explosive projects, however, truly showed the possibilities of engagement. The all-night Singing From the Sacred Harp, organized by the Minnesota State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, brought home for me just how the conversations, techniques, and tools of an all-night festival can last far beyond that night. Sacred Harp Singing encourages people of all experience levels to sit together in an inward facing square to sing four part hymns and anthems without practice. During my first Sacred Harp experience, I was told that the most important part of singing is how loudly you sing. Since that time, I have rarely experienced anything as moving as a room full of strangers singing together perfectly, and the power of Singing From the Sacred Harp at Northern Spark was similarly palpable. The square of chairs was tucked away at the top of a little used stairway; all of the passers-by stopped in rapt attention at the beautiful music, the wide smiles, and the astonished laughter of the singers, even though it was well past 3am.
Eric Asboe is an artist, writer, and cultural worker. Asboe’s creative works prioritize process over product and explore the boundary between practice as improvement and practice as way of life. Forthcoming projects include ubuwebtopten.com. He currently lives and works in Minneapolis.