Poster Children

The Highpoint Center for Printmaking rides the unlikely resurgence of a centuries-old art

THE HIGHPOINT CENTER for Printmaking, in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood of Minneapolis, could be mistaken for a museum: a spare, high-ceilinged room containing eight anachronistic presses for lithographs, woodcuts, and etchings—mediums popularly associated with Rembrandt, Dürer, and other artists as dead and gone as wood-block type. Yet the place could not be more alive.

On a recent weekday morning, several dozen schoolchildren from Hopkins mixed inks and scraped linoleum squares with metal tools, chattering as they carved out images. Some 3,000 kids got their hands dirty here last year. In the evening, Highpoint opens up for dozens of co-op members, visiting artists, interns, and adult students. And on periodic “Free Ink Days,” several hundred people walk in for no-cost printmaking lessons.

Five years after the studio opened in 2001, Highpoint was operating at capacity. These days, it’s busting at the seams, even as other midsize arts organizations in the Twin Cities have shuttered in the past year, including the Minnesota Center for Photography, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, and the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Center administrators hope to raise $3.5 million to renovate a much larger space with a design by James Dayton, the architect behind the striking new MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis. In fact, when Dayton got wind of the expansion plan, he cold-called the center, offering to work for a lower-than-usual fee. “I sort of bullied my way into the project,” he jokes. By November, after less than a year of fundraising, the center had raised enough money to buy the new building and begin renovations in anticipation of a grand opening this fall, despite a less-than-favorable economic climate.

How has a center for such old-fashioned arts quietly attracted so much interest and money? For one thing, there are few other places to do this kind of work—Highpoint is unique in the Upper Midwest. And with the spread of technology, printmaking has emerged as a bastion of hands-on creativity, a rise not expected to end anytime soon. “As we’re inundated with digital processes and cutting-edge technology,” says Carla McGrath, the executive director of Highpoint, “there may be more interest in handmade objects and the old technology of printmaking.”

Highpoint’s success can also be credited to its diverse functions, which help subsidize the educational programs: A co-op studio for experienced printmakers and a publishing arm—Highpoint Editions—which produces prints with visiting artists for the contemporary fine-arts market. The artists and Highpoint split all sales, and the high quality of the center’s work has ensured a steady stream of the some of the best-known contemporary artists in the world: David Rathman, Julie Mehretu, Santiago Cucullu, Jessica Rankin. Works printed by Highpoint are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Walker Art Center; and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Highpoint was begun by McGrath and Cole Rogers, a master printer and now the center’s artistic director. They met in 1999, when she was running the Art Lab for children at the Walker Art Center and he managed the print studio at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. (The pair clicked romantically as well, tying the knot a few months before launching their nonprofit.) They spent two years dreaming, scheming, and renovating the Lyndale Avenue space before opening. “That broad base of interest has been important,” says Rogers. “We don’t just serve one demographic.”

It’s a characteristic that has served printmaking throughout its history, which has encompassed not just art prints, of course, but illustrations, posters, and many other media. When Highpoint holds an exhibition, its openings often attract a mixed crowd, from art students to advertising executives. “People say, ‘I don’t know anyone here,’” says McGrath of the events, “and I think that’s a good thing.”

Even many of the internationally known artists who’ve found their way to Highpoint are new to printmaking. “It’s an exploratory process, and that’s better in a lot of ways” for the sake of creativity, says Rogers. He recently completed a set of large-scale prints for Rob Fischer, a Minnesota native who exhibits his sculptures around the world. The two figured out a way to print on sections of salvaged wood flooring from gymnasiums, a material that turns up frequently in Fischer’s work.

“They push the medium and they push the artist,” says Susan Inglett, a New York art dealer who co-organizes the Editions/Artists’ Book Fair, the premier exhibition for contemporary printmakers and art-book publishers. “They’re good problem solvers.” Which they have to be, given their enthusiasm. “They say yes—and then figure out a way to do things,” Inglett says.

So far, five of Fischer’s Highpoint prints have sold at $6,000 each, in the range of prints by Chagall and Miró. And yet that’s a fraction of what Fischer’s sculptures cost—which is not a bad thing. Amid skyrocketing prices for painting and sculpture in the contemporary art market, collectors have begun flocking to the relatively affordable niche of prints. Prints by Picasso, Motherwell, and other historic names are being gobbled up. Artists on the rise, such as Fischer, are also drawing attention. For Highpoint, it’s been a financial and marketing boon.

Even shipping and installing prints is cheaper than with other fine arts, enabling Highpoint to hold annual exhibitions of international work. And compared to what painters and sculptors pay for private workspaces, Highpoint can offer a fully equipped co-op studio at a bargain rate. Yet printmaking’s affordability, Rogers insists, isn’t a reflection of its value—it simply increases access. “I’m glad that what we offer is inexpensive,” he says. “If times get tight we can still serve people—schools and artists both.”

The new center, which will be more than twice as large as the existing space, will feature a ground-floor gallery and such amenities as a private courtyard for artists. And yet McGrath believes the center’s ultimate value will continue to be measured by the uninitiated, the experience of “people who haven’t made anything with their hands in a long, long time. They come here and pull something off the press and the look on their face….” Her voice trails off and her eyes twinkle, betraying just a hint of pride.

Julie Caniglia edits the magazine of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.