New Bohemians

The Warehouse District was once the SoHo of Minneapolis. Now, a new wave of boosters aims to put the art back in the city’s heart. Are they too late or just in time?

THE PROOF THAT GEOFF BREMNER and Keith Wolf really were there, in the helter-skelter heyday of the Warehouse District arts scene, is that they cannot recall many particulars. It was the early 1990s, and for a decade or more the abandoned industrial spaces northwest of the downtown Minneapolis business core had housed dozens of galleries and upwards of 250 artists—arguably the greatest concentration of creative activity the city had ever seen. The Wyman Building alone had 13 galleries, and, during the art crawls that regularly drew a couple thousand people to the area, bands would play on every floor. Wolf recalls a warehouse party in which a photographer chased (consenting) naked people through the halls. Bremner, who worked nights as a security guard at the old Metro Studios, remembers The Replacements and other bands practicing—and reveling—in the building. The detritus of those days is probably still there—bottles, guitar strings, maybe even a work of art or two. But the rooms are silent once again.

These days, Bremner and Wolf are part of the team heading the Wolfmotell branding and advertising agency, a small, dynamic firm that embodies today’s Warehouse District. It is above a bar along First Avenue and surrounded by marketing and design firms. Older but still artsy, Bremner and Wolf run their shop in army jackets and T-shirts. Rock music surges through the work stations. In a way, the creative enterprises that now fill the neighborhood are simply spiffier, more commercial-minded descendants of the artistic initiatives they displaced. But Wolf and Bremner miss the wooly old days, the anything-goes energy. Most of all, they miss the art. So this summer, they’re bringing it back the way they know best—with all the strategy and buzz of a branding campaign.

Their initiative, called Brick by Brick, seeks to revive the area’s artistic spirit, first by celebrating it and then by encouraging galleries and artists to return. Since June, lampposts along First Avenue have been hung with banners sporting the work of local artists, including Amy Rice, whose stencil paintings have become nationally known. The banners will be auctioned at Future fundraising will support the second, more nebulous goal: enticing artists and galleries, with grants or other means, to increase their presence in the area. (Ironically, Brick by Brick is sponsored by Target Center and Block E, entities that epitomize the neighborhood’s new, more commercial spirit.)

Photo by David Ellis

Wolf and Bremner believe their timing is right. Several new galleries have recently opened in the Warehouse District. Major ad agencies—Carmichael Lynch and Colle+McVoy—have relocated there, renewing the neighborhood’s creative reputation. And the housing boom along the Mississippi River has brought a new pool of deep-pocketed customers. But the moment is also right, Wolf says, because time may be running out.

In 2010, the new Twins stadium will open in the Warehouse District, likely giving rise to more sports bars in the area and once again sending the neighborhood in a new direction. “We have a lot of bars and nightclubs in the Warehouse District, and that’s great,” says Wolf. But he worries that the arts scene may become irretrievably lost amid more beer and butt-shaking. And what would happen then, if the reason for the area’s cool reputation—the artists—disappears completely? “We’re just trying to bring the balance back,” Wolf says. “Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than good art.”

IT’S AN OLD STORY: Artists move into a neglected neighborhood and make it cool, only to be forced to flee from rising rents. But in the case of the Warehouse District scene, many artists say a single phenomenon hastened its demise: Target Center.

Numerous galleries and artists’ lofts were demolished to make room for the Target Center and adjacent parking ramps. After the arena’s opening in 1990, sports bars such as Rosen’s and Champps, moved in while artists’ hangouts—the New French Bar, Chez Bananas—eventually closed. Many artists fled across the river to northeast Minneapolis. That area can now claim the most galleries and artists’ studios in the Twin Cities, and, in 2003, a portion of the neighborhood was officially designated the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District by the city council—signaling the city’s intention to ensure the area’s viability as a place for artists to live and work. The idea that artists would trade this protected status, however tenuous, for the Warehouse District seems unrealistic to many observers.

“There’s no way we can compete with Northeast,” says Jim Conaway, a painter who works in the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art, a 24-studio complex in the Warehouse District that is often held up as example of the arts surviving in the area. He watches the stadium construction and the strip clubs moving in around him (at least five within a few blocks) and wonders how long the Traffic Zone can continue to draw patrons and hold off developers.

Photographer Howard Christopherson, the owner of Icebox Quality Framing & Gallery in northeast Minneapolis, was among the artists pushed out by Target Center. In 1986, he had moved into the Century Camera building, where artists were squatting in old offices. Just a few years later, the building was demolished, a parking lot put up in its place. Christopherson then helped pioneer the arts scene in Northeast, which he calls “a perfect home for the arts” as it’s able to support both new and established artists. The Warehouse District, he says, can support “blue-chip” artists—those whose fans will seek them out—but it doesn’t have studio spaces that experimental or lesser-known artists can afford, much less the free parking or the critical mass of arts activities needed to draw people. And you need both levels of artists, he believes, to create a vital scene. “If you’re going to grow the arts, it has to be like a greenhouse, with both little plants and big plants,” he says. “I think it would be impossible to have that greenhouse in the Warehouse District again.”

The dozen artists who opened the Form + Content Gallery in the Warehouse District this winter disagree—they believe they are those smaller plants amid such big ones as the new Guthrie Theater, the Loft Literary Center, and the Mill City Museum. Howard Oransky, a Form + Content artist whose day job is director of planning for the Walker Art Center, says he considered Northeast as a possible location for the gallery but found it oversaturated with artists. “I wasn’t excited about being gallery number 39,” he says. The Warehouse District, on the other hand, reminds him of SoHo in its artistic infancy. Artists were then just one part of a broader business and cultural landscape—a scenario Oransky believes is both more interesting and more sustainable than a neighborhood chock-a-block with artists.

Camille Gage, a fellow Form + Content artist, says the gallery’s success so far has confirmed the group’s hunch that the Warehouse District is ripe for an artistic revival. “You can’t go back, but hopefully something can reignite here,” she says. “We believe we’ve tapped into something that’s really about to happen.” Thomas Barry, one of the best-known gallery owners in the Twin Cities, also believes downtown Minneapolis is recovering its creative swagger. After closing his Warehouse District gallery in 1999, he recently re-opened in the area and is helping out with Brick by Brick. “I can appreciate Northeast,” he says. “But the pulse of the city really is downtown.”

ON A SATURDAY NIGHT in the Warehouse District, high above the miasma of body glitter, bass beats, and innuendo spilling out of a dozen nightclubs, an artist sits in his studio, alone with his paints, his muse, and the knowledge that he may soon have to move out. For decades, Scott Seekins has been a downtown fixture, known for his outfits—all-black in winter, all-white in summer. For most of that time, he has worked above Nate’s Clothing. The landlords have been good to Seekins, offering him below-market rent. But now they’re selling the building, making Seekins a bellwether of the Warehouse District arts scene: If he manages to keep his studio, it may indicate the potential for other artists to move into the neighborhood. If he goes, it will be the end of an era: Seekins is likely the last artist both creating and showing art in the Warehouse District.

 Seekins’ studio is a throwback to the Warehouse District’s bohemian heyday—his floors are bare wood, the walls covered from floor to ceiling with artworks in his signature, self-referential style: a cartoonish scene of him marrying Britney Spears, him as an onlooker at Christ’s crucifixion. In his homemade closet: a handful of white suits, a handful of black—nothing else. His art, in many ways, is his public persona, requiring him to be seen by as many people as possible. His appeal wouldn’t be the same if he were in Northeast, promenading through a deserted industrial area.

Wolf and Bremner know they need to act fast, that the longer the arts scene is gone from the Warehouse District, the harder it will be to revive it. “You have to start somewhere,” says Wolf. “If the scene has been gone too long, who’s going to remember and want to bring it back?” MM

Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.

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