In 1999, a woman from Chicago walked into Kellie Rae Theiss's Minneapolis art gallery and asked where she could get a copy of a gallery guide for the area. "She was astounded when I told her there was none," said Theiss
Experiences like this one convinced Theiss that the public profile of the Twin Cities' art community needed a drastic overhaul. So the next year, together with gallery owner Shelley Holzemer, she founded the Twin Cities Fine Arts Organization (TCFAO). In just two years, the organization launched Art on the Town, an eight-day visual arts event that included coordinated activities at commercial galleries, museums and nonprofit art centers throughout the Twin Cities. The second-annual event is set to kick off this month with more than 75 participating organizations, up from 50 last year.
"We all wanted an event that would showcase the gallery and museum scene with emphasis on our individual identities," said Theiss, who is the organization's president. Non-TCFAO members are welcome to take part, and all events are free and listed in "passports" handed out to the public. At each establishment visitors can get their passports stamped; with seven stamps, they can enter a drawing for prizes.
"[Last year's event] brought just a ton of people through who hadn't been comfortable going to galleries before," said Sally Johnson, who runs Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis. "There was a way to break the ice--they had their passports in hand, ready to get stamped. Many had never been here before. And they came again." Groveland put on artist demonstrations, while other organizations had special receptions, dialogues with artists or simply featured their current shows during the event.
TCFAO has also put together a gallery guide brochure and a Web site at www.twincitiesfineart.org. Annual dues of $280 get each member a listing in the gallery guide and one page on the Web site.
This solidarity marks the second time in recent history that the Twin Cities art community has joined forces to revitalize its visual arts. The mid-1970s saw much networking among foundations, government, corporations and museums. Grants for individual artists multiplied, foundation-supported exhibition programs began at both the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center, foundations underwrote a monthly visual arts magazine (that has since disappeared), and corporations stepped up their art buying.
Throughout the '80s, the visual arts were accessible in a concentration of galleries in the Warehouse District near downtown Minneapolis. But the district's popularity led to gentrification and rising rents that put financial pressure on galleries and other low-budget art venues. In 1990, the arrival of a new sports and concert arena hastened the departure of all but a couple of galleries. Although today numerous galleries are dispersed throughout the Twin Cities, with the eclipse of the Warehouse District scene, the visual arts seemed to fall from public view.