The Twin Cities can feel like a flyover art market

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Last March, the David Petersen Gallery threw a party to celebrate the end of its exhibition, "Softside." It was a final glimpse of featured artist Joe Smith's monochromatic painted sheets and blankets, which hung like abstract banners throughout the space.

As he soaked up the waning moments of the show, Smith talked about the boost he got from it.

"I think that some of the work will probably be in New York in a month or two. That's exciting," he said.

Smith was referring to a prestigious New York art fair sponsored by NADA, or New Art Dealers Alliance. The David Petersen Gallery had been accepted into the fair, which meant international exposure for Smith.

"Also, I just got a show in Berlin. [It] kind of helped that I had this show, and so the opportunities have increased over, in a very short period of time," he said.

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This is how David Petersen envisioned things would go. He used to be an art instigator, running alternative spaces such as Art of This or even showing work out of his apartment. Now he runs a modest, almost hidden Minneapolis storefront art gallery. But he's using it to address what he sees as a huge gap in the Twin Cities visual arts scene: "A commercial art infrastructure has been lacking here for some time."

The David Petersen Gallery is elbowing its way onto the national and international scene, specializing in art that's on the vanguard of what's new. It's often challenging work, without a built-in audience or market. Petersen sees his job as developing a roster of these envelope pushing artists, from Minnesota and beyond, and representing them over the long haul.

Gallery owner David Petersen
David Petersen, owner of the David Petersen Gallery in downtown Minneapolis, at the opening of the recent "Softside" exhibition.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"Trying to connect this work with curators, collectors, and with writers, whose reviews are widely read, trying to create dialogue with people both here and abroad," can be a challenge, he said.

The Twin Cities had a much stronger commercial art market back in the 1980s, when a host of galleries sprung up in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis. Across the country, the art market was booming, and a flood of collectors poured into places like the Wyman Building to spend an evening gallery hopping. It was a destination, and a reason sculptor and University of Minnesota art instructor Chris Larson was lured back home after graduating from art school.

"You know, my whole class moved to New York," he said. "I decided to come back because I saw quite a vibrant scene here in the Twin Cities, and when I got back everything had shut down. That was '92."

That was just after the moment when the Target Center had gone up, and skyrocketing rents forced many galleries in the Warehouse District to close or relocate.

"Out of the rubble came really amazing opportunities driven by artists like Midway Contemporary Art, Soo Vac opened up, Soap Factory, Franklin Art Works, Intermedia Arts," he said. "So the void has been filled."

What Larson describes is the non-profitization of the visual arts scene that's occurred over the last two decades or so. Some of the spaces are cooperatively run by artists. All of them depend on philanthropy and individual donors to stay open. Some argue that having a strong non-profit visual art sector has given the public access to a broader range of work, and artists more exhibiting opportunities. But if you have healthy non-profit spaces, does that mean you can't have a successful for-profit scene?

"A lot of local artists do better outside of Minnesota than they do in Minnesota."

"It seems to me that the non-profit support, the foundation support of the arts, visual arts, shouldn't crowd out the opportunity for commercial careers," he said.

Gregory Fitz, the director and curator of the Law Warschaw Gallery at Macalester College, yearns for more ways for local artists to dial into the contemporary art market. Part of the issue, he says, is what people are willing to spend on art.

"There seems to be some cap, up to a few hundred dollars: 'This is a lovely thing to have. I'm going to treasure it forever,' and then after that, it becomes few and far between," he said.

"It's amazing to me that work that costs the same price as a really beautiful piece of furniture, let's say less than $10,000, I don't understand why there isn't a little bit more of a market in a town that seems this wealthy," he said.

Maybe it's because we're still catching our breath at that $10,000 figure. Either way, it's something a lot of local galleries and artists confront.

Jennifer Phelps, director of the Burnet Gallery at Le Meridien Chambers Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, one of the most art-enriched accommodations in the country, says local patrons making significant art acquisitions often overlook Minnesota artists.

"A lot of people tend to buy artwork outside of the state," she said. "I think some of that is because maybe they don't realize the high quality of artwork that we have here. I mean, a lot of local artists do better outside of Minnesota than they do in Minnesota."

"It's kind of a catch 22 because part of that is also the fact that there aren't galleries for these people to exhibit contemporary art in, so they have to go outside of the state to have a career," he said.

Artist Chris Larson is a case in point.

"I have a dealer that represents me that's in Berlin, so the majority of my sales happen in Berlin," he said.

"By and large, because we are not ostentatious consumers, we don't want to show what we have."

Some local artists talk about the need to be recognized outside Minnesota before Minnesotans will pay attention to you. Larson thinks there's truth to that, but he's not sure why.

"I've had situations where the collector's not bought my work here in the Twin Cities, but when I've had shows in New York they would buy out of the show in New York," he said. "I think it's just...maybe it's the prestige, I don't know."

Whether you're an artist or gallery, being successful selling art in Minnesota is extremely tough, especially if what you offer is on the more adventurous side. The former Montgomery Glasoe gallery, run by founder Kim Montgomery, made a go of it in downtown Minneapolis from 1992 to 1998.

"We weren't a non-profit but we were a non-profit," she said. "That's what it becomes when you try to run a for-profit gallery here."

In Montgomery's view, the non-profit art space model in some ways makes the most sense for Minnesota, because of the philanthropic generosity here. People are accustomed to supporting art that way. She also has an explanation for our frugal art buying habits.

"By and large because we are not ostentatious consumers, we don't want to show what we have," she said. "There's not this drive to buy sort of the most current, and put it up on your walls."

Montgomery thinks a more rigorous critical culture in visual art would improve the local commercial environment, because people are more likely to buy pieces that have been written about and recognized. She and others believe it also wouldn't hurt if we had a gallery district like we did in the 1980s.

"We are not concentrated, and I think that's to our detriment, because it's really hard to make more than one stop," she said. "And so, people just don't make those stops."

Minneapolis gallery owner David Petersen is aware of the challenges of being a for-profit gallery in a largely non-profit world with no gallery concentration and somewhat reticent art buyers. He also believes strongly in public support for art in Minnesota.

"At the same time my response is, you can also buy art work," he said. "Support artwork by buying it."

Because buying artwork, says Peterson, is itself a philanthropic act.