A Tale of Two Cities

On April 19, 2011, in Blog, by BHQF


Traveling by car across the country the terrain along the main highways all begins to look more or less the same; the first thing to change is the weather, closely followed by the companies and businesses noted on billboards, in store windows, at gas stations. A difference between either coast and the states that lie quietly between them is that specific market interests are rarely dressed up as anything else — the delusion of diversity that one might be provided on East and West is wiped off the plate and what you’re left with is the cold hard conundrum that entire cities are supported, sponsored, and employed by major corporations. Just as the American automotive company exodus from places like Detroit resulted in the fall of an empire — politically, culturally, and otherwise — arrival in a city like Minneapolis that has a red bull’s eye or Pepsi’s faux yin-yang splashed on every surface prompts us to wonder what would be left behind if these corporations decided to ditch out and head for other waters?


One answer: artists.


We arrived in Minneapolis first, pulling the car directly into the streets of Dinkytown, at the brink of the University of Minnesota campus. Here, for the first time since we hit the road, was proof that the iconic media representation of American colleges — mascots, school colors, headbands and matching sweatsuits, complete with fraternity and sorority houses decrepitly in a row — was inspired by something quite concrete. Yet, while the U of M has all the trappings of a Vince Vaughn/Will Ferrell-genre flick, the ties of the school to an intricate network of creative communities was palpable. The streets and campus bulletin boards were plastered with announcements for art events, open calls, and public programs. That first night, like shy freshmen, we dropped our things off in the dorms (quite literally, as the “University Inn” was more “university” than “inn” in its cinder-block construction and larger-than-life de-whiskered Goldy Gopher, styled with a U of M scarf) and hit the streets.


Minneapolis sprawls out in all directions making it easy to forget that it does not stand alone. Right across the way is Saint Paul, the quiet sister whom, if you’ve ever spent an extensive amount of time with either, makes the two seem more fraternal than identical. Minneapolis has asserted itself as the bold, outspoken, more direct of the two; it is in Minneapolis that one finds the majority of mainstream concert venues, the famous Walker Arts Center, The U of M and MCAD (surprisingly, the more conservative of the two institutions), a prominent smattering of galleries and independent creative spaces, and, most importantly, the artist-sometimes-known-as-Prince’s house. Saint Paul, on the other hand, is the home to a cluster of private academic institutions and liberal art colleges, many of which have BFA, Studio, and Education programs integrated into their larger curriculum.


On Saturday we checked out the MN MADE program at The Walker Arts Center, a program described to us by a local curator and educator as an effort for The Walker Arts Center to corral some of the local creative current into what would otherwise be an untouchable collection of canonized materials, the majority of which hail from places beyond the Twin Cities. It was good to see a large institution working with the surrounding community. In the peripheral space of the galleries, local artists and artisans were provided table space to sell their wares; inside the auditorium were rotating panels with such self-help titles as “How To Quit Your Day Job and Do What You Love” (how does one do that, anyway?), and “How to Buy In, Sell-out, and Spread the Word”. A local artist and musician speaking on the panel explained to us afterward that, in truth, she has no intention of quitting her day job, “My so-called ‘day job’ [of fundraising at a local college's Annual Fund] has taught me a lot; I’ve been able to build on my own creative projects using the skills acquired there…I’d be stupid to quit. The trick is to find something you’re good at that in someway intersects with what you love, and that’s what I am aiming to do, that is how we gain mobility as artists.”


Later that day we hit up the In-Flux Auditorium back on U of M’s campus, sprinkling the room with balloons and Teach 4 Amerika university-style pennants. As members of The Brass Messengers surfaced and began to warm up, we found ourselves with a room packed with novelists, musicians, poets, and painters — all showing up to rally along with us, in true “[BHQ]FU” spirit. After the talk the majority of the group stayed, pulling in their chairs for a circle pow-wow: “What’s the point of going to school at all?” several mused aloud. “To get married,” another participant joked, following up with a turn to the serious: “If we’re going to look at the school systems, we need to start looking at what role they play in social systems — like marriage. People go to school to meet other people. You shouldn’t have to pay for that.” — “FU”, indeed.


The conversation continued the next day, first during studio visits with a handful of U of M BFA students (a rather distinctive group, many making eloquent publicly engaged projects) and then later over Cokes, doughnuts, and cigarettes at the Minneapolis-based Soap Factory. There we discussed the operations of BHQFU in contrast to the older and wizened Experimental College of the Twin Cities — two collaborative models of alternative education that, as the conversation unfolded, discovered many overlapping points of inquiry: How do we avoid becoming too insular in collaborative projects? How best can we democratize our audiences within a new project without sacrificing momentum? What is the difference between “teacher” and “student”? In what way is the value of local assets determined geographically (for New York, we thought perhaps real estate, for Minneapolis, “Definitely transportation. Being able to get around in the Twin Cities is a luxury,” said one participant)?


The duality of this project – in every city doing two different types of programs as a means to strike a balance between public performance and, to follow, a more intimate gathering of folks ready and willing to discuss their relationship to art, education, and the meeting of the two – took on a different meaning during our visit in the Twin Cities. The notion of “twinning” as a means of melding two spheres, or, often, the mirroring of two spaces as they change form over time, can certainly be applied to the histories of these two cities. However, twinning also takes on a new meaning if one applies the methodology to the oft assumed symbiotic relationship of the art market and academic art institutions; in the current state of systems the two are not mutually exclusive. MFA programs enhance codependency of graduating artists entering the world beyond onto the “generosity” of the market and, if not welcomed into the elite “chosen” to be brought out into gallery spaces and onto auction blocks, artists are left to scramble for grants and funding, forced to compete with one another for resources that, small in scale, cannot possibly carry the responsibility of providing life-long sustainability.


Thus, the questions of “What is an artist’s education for?” and “How can we imagine new educational possibilities for ourselves?” in the Twin Cities began to swirl around how to empower and educate artists towards greater economic agency. If we are going to be asked to write grants, to build budgets, to defend the objects we produce and bring into the world, perhaps the best training lies outside of the MFA classroom, wherein the training for these kinds of endeavors is limited. While the MFA system has taken the most cynical approach to capitalizing on an artist’s desire to be self-sustaining and self-reliant by exploiting the human fear of failure in the building a multi-billion-dollar business, oddly enough it seems that the system fails to actually train artists to be titans of industry, business men and women capable of not only making art but also making a living. Being savvy does not have to compromise one’s creative integrity; an artist’s relationship to economy ought not to be first their leap into the hot oil of the art market, but rather something that comes way before that tipping point.


As artists we cannot consent to becoming indentured to our debt; the responsibility falls to us to make use of the tools provided us to continue growing as an influential work force within American cultural and social capital.



One Response to A Tale of Two Cities

  1. After us the deluge.

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