IT IS HARD TO SAY whether Yuri Arajs’s show of artwork by homeless people, in December 2005, succeeded because or in spite of its location next to Hooters in the Mall of America. If the burgers-and-bosoms chain offers an American fantasy, then Arajs presented an American reality, even if most of the work did not dwell on the creators’ circumstances, ranging instead from colorful portraits on burlap sacks (by a former Robert Mapplethorpe model who bottomed out on drugs in the New York art scene) to abstracts that wouldn’t look out of place in a slick downtown gallery. Arajs’s point was to show the artists as professionals, and he juried the exhibition to ensure it wasn’t just a pity party. Yet no one could have predicted the result: About 65 percent of the art sold, more than twice what a successful gallery show might move.
If the legend of Arajs the Impresario was born that month, it was mere confirmation of the golden touch he’d displayed since cofounding the Outsider Art Center, the Minneapolis nonprofit behind the show, as well as its companion gallery, Outsiders and Others, in 2003. He was the Iron Chef of curating, pulling together such unsavory art-show ingredients as work by lawyers, the mentally ill, and children—and selling the heck out of it. “I showed work by a 2-year-old and sold it,” Arajs says proudly, “and not to family members.” He’s sold wildlife art on spoons, art on discarded windows, and crop art—everything but crap art. “I’ve seen a lot of poop art,” he allows. “But I’m pretty sure I’ve never shown it.”
Arajs has managed these feats in an art market better known for its love of pensive landscapes, inoffensive abstracts, and wildlife art. When he arrived in Minnesota 13 years ago, there were no galleries or institutions dedicated to unconventional or outsider art, as there are in Chicago, New York, and even Iowa City. More than anyone else, Arajs has changed this.
“I would venture to say there are a hundred artists here whose careers have been helped by Yuri,” says Amy Rice, whose curious, nostalgic stencil prints, sometimes printed over winsome poetry, were discovered by Arajs several years ago. She’s since shown her work around the country and in England, and has three solo exhibitions this spring in three different states. “Before I met Yuri, I was showing in Palmer’s Bar and the Hard Times Cafe”—two dives on Minneapolis’s West Bank—“and I was pretty proud of it. He’s opened up our city to whole new ideas of what art can be.”
Since closing Outsiders last spring, Arajs has upped his own ante by launching Placement Gallery, which he moves from one short-term space to another—to cut costs, but also to emphasize that good art can happen anywhere, anytime. Placement focuses less on outsider art than simply bold, playful, and visceral images created for their own sake. But it still seems as bad a business idea as selling toddler art. Who, besides Arajs, could move an edgy art gallery into the Gaviidae shopping center in downtown Minneapolis, surrounded by high-end women’s clothing—and succeed?
The one artist Arajs always refused to show at Outsiders was himself. Even by Arajs’s liberal definition of “outsider artist”—anyone self-taught—he’s an insider.
Arajs grew up in New Jersey, visiting New York City museums at least once a month. “I was brought up with the best of art in my face all the time,” he says. He received a graduate degree in printmaking from the esteemed Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. His art, then and now, often portrays landscapes with a minimalist twist; it could hardly be more formal.
He moved to Minneapolis in 1994 and eventually became the gallery director and co-coordinator of visual arts programs at Interact, a Minneapolis nonprofit that facilitates the making of high-quality art by disabled people. It was there that Arajs began admiring the unusual techniques employed by artists who were never taught the “right way” to create. “There are definitely mental roadblocks that come with traditional art training,” says Arajs. “God knows, my degrees haven’t made me any money.”
The idea that any value might be found among the work of self-taught artists occurred fairly late to the Western art world, which for all its vaunting of the avant-garde is in many ways nearly as entrenched in tradition as the Vatican. It wasn’t until the French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet visited mental asylums shortly after World War II in search of unusual art—later collecting similarly unexpected artworks from housewives, postmen, and other everyday people—that dealers began acknowledging the potential of so-called outsider art. Dubuffet dubbed it Art Brut, and he believed that this expression, untainted by artistic influence or monetary motive, was not just the equal of traditional art, but superior.
Through his connections at Interact, Arajs made inroads into many of the same populations Dubuffet explored—the mentally ill, the disabled, the homeless. In 2001, he also helped initiate the Visible Fringe, a juried art show complementing the theatrical Minnesota Fringe Festival, where he exhibited many artists who were serious about their work but too quirky to crack the gallery scene. By the time Arajs opened Outsiders and Others with Beth Parkhill, a marketing consultant, he knew there was not just a pent-up population of nontraditional artists here, but an audience for their work.
“We filled a void,” says Arajs. And likely helped create the demand, too, by educating gallery-goers on outsider art’s tradition and current vogue, which boomed after Christie’s became the first major auction house to sell such works, in 2003. Outsiders’ legacy lies in the success of the artists it launched, in similar new venues such as Altered Esthetics in northeast Minneapolis, and in Arajs’s expanding ventures. In addition to Placement Gallery, Arajs curates exhibits at numerous chic restaurants, including Barbette, and shows his own work at CafÃ© Maude in Minneapolis.
“There’s a market here for people who don’t want Pottery Barn furniture and the Ikea bookshelf in the corner,” says Eddie Hamilton, who was painting in his basement and showing almost nowhere until Arajs discovered his work, now in collections across the country. And if you want a certain kind of art—art that expands the very idea of art—you call Arajs. “He’s the guy who has all that stuff.”
At an Uptown Minneapolis coffee shop, Arajs is the only person examining the art on display. “This is good work,” he says, leaning over tattered tables for a closer look at the small, cartoon-like drawings. “Have you heard of her?” It’s the kind of find that Arajs loves to make, and he makes them all the time—in restaurants, basements, even in the most hapless submissions. Not that he isn’t discriminating. “It’s fascinating to see him look through a body of work,” says Rice. “He’s never rude about it, but I can tell when he looks at something and is thinking, ‘Next!’ He never fails to find diamonds in the rough.”
Arajs has mentored many of the artists he’s discovered. Last year, he awarded the first Yuri Arajs Artist Development Grant, which includes portfolio reviews and career planning. But he’s careful not to patronize—at Outsiders, he insisted on jurying shows even by disabled people, treating their work like anyone else’s. To him, good art is simply good art; nothing else should matter. And bad art: Well, few things are worse. He displays only the best nontraditional art in a professional setting—even his temporary spaces are clean, comfortable, and welcoming. You don’t have to “get” the art or even like it, but you will understand its value. Context is everything. A little savvy marketing—such as taking the art to the Mall of America—hasn’t hurt.
And while Arajs may be a wisecracker, he is never less than serious about selling art. In turn, artists used to being looked at askance have entrusted their work to him. The late Lillian Colton, for instance, perhaps the country’s most accomplished seed artist, never agreed to sell her pieces in any gallery except Outsiders, despite numerous offers.
It’s difficult to gauge, however, how much more the market for nontraditional art will grow in the Twin Cities. At nearly any given time, Hamilton is showing his work in several galleries and restaurants around town, but most of his sales are to people outside the state or to recent transplants—implying that many locals still don’t get it. Ever the optimist, Arajs sees this as opportunity.
“This kind of stuff is everywhere,” he says, returning to the art on the coffee- shop walls, “just waiting to be discovered.” It simply needs someone to put it in front of us.
Tim Gihring is a senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.