DECEMBER 20, 2017

With a history of investing in education and cultural institutions, the arts scene in the Twin Cities gravitates towards social justice and community engagement. We have an enormous nonprofit infrastructure here, with many foundations eager to support artists and the many large cultural institutions as well as smaller arts nonprofits. We also have scrappier artist collectives, artist-run spaces, and experimental models premised both creating art and nurturing community.

One such collective, Electric Machete Studios, formed organically in the early 2000s, when the hip-hop group Los Natives planned an anti-Columbus day show at the music venue 7th St. Entry. The annual event included visual art, and as it grew over the years, moved to the nonprofit arts space Intermedia Arts, where it was renamed “Dimensions of Indigenous”. The artists involved eventually decided to start their own collective and, after a series of pop-up events, found a permanent venue on St. Paul’s west side two years ago.

EMS’s small storefront space has been an ideal venue for creative events. I visited last year for a show that featured Latinx art on view, live music performed by local singer Maria Isa, tamales for sale, and an experimental puppet performance taking place in the basement.

Electric Machete Studios

Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra with her work at Electric Machete Studios. Photo by Drastic/A.Stanzak and M. Parades.

Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra, one of EMS’s founding members, says the collective was formed to give visibility to the Latinx artists involved and to make art accessible. The founders established  a public benefit corporation, in part because they wanted to avoid the pitfalls of being a nonprofit beholden to funders. “We had a reputation for being the fresh underground thing… [but that] closed us out of traditional funding,”  Crisanta de Ybarra says  We were trying to take a political stance-  we didn’t want to participate in the nonprofit industrial complex.”

“It’s so challenging to maintain a collective art space in our current political era where foundations can really make or break an org,” says collective member Jessica Lopez Lyman, who joined shortly after EMS acquired their current space. “As anti-capitalists who want to think about alternative economies.  The crux is what you dream about and value versus what you have the physical capacity to do.”

Unfortunately, the experiment creating a collective outside of the nonprofit system had some pitfalls, mainly that running a physical space has drained the collective’s resources. “We are going through a major transition right now, realizing that we have to have to participate in the system if we want to be working artists,”  Crisanta de Ybarra says. “We are working artists but we had come to a difficult place where we weren’t able to apply for grants.”

In September of 2017 Intermedia Arts, which was a hugely important nonprofit space in Minneapolis and a leader in the Twin Cities in its support of artists from marginalized communities, closed  for financial reasons. Though EMS had discussed closing its doors and going back to a pop-up model, people in the community told the collective members that EMS was too important to lose as a community space for artists of color and indigenous artists, in light of Intermedia’s closing.

“What’s happened with us is a pattern I see with other colleagues in the community,” Crisanta de Ybarra says. “We are creating these organizations and spaces, but we end up getting sucked into a lot of administration that we don’t have capacity for.”

As they look toward a possible future where they would re-incorporate as a nonprofit, EMS continues to hold programs and events, like an indigenous figure drawing series, as well as an upcoming ceramics show, both of which are done in collaboration with other Twin Cities groups.

tantrum art collective

Tantrum Artist Collective: Katrina Knutson, Joy Spika, Megan Longo, Ivoire Foreman, Keegan Xavi, Sayge Carroll, Nicole Amaris, Julie Graves and Michele Spaise. Image courtesy Tantrum Artist Collective.

Another artist-run collective in the Twin Cities, Tantrum Artist Collective, doesn’t have a physical space, but they do hold shows at different spaces around the Twin Cities, including a recently opened holiday show , at 4149 Chicago Ave S.

Like Electric Machete, Tantrum’s history aligns with the now-shuttered Intermedia Arts. Intermedia once ran a popular program called B-Girl Be, focused on providing visibility to women involved with street art, hip hop music and dance. In 2010, a local artist named Michele Spaise curated B-Girl Be, and the people involved in the show- many from the queer community— decided to go out on their own and create a collective, according to member Katrina Knutson. They were inspired by a New York street art collective group called the Younity Collective, which was itself inspired by Be-Girl Be events, Knutson says.

According to Knutson, many of the Tantrum members are teaching artists, so often they collaborate on different projects in the schools and in the community. For example, in the spring, a number of members will be hosting a screen printing and street painting event for a larger public art project along Lake Street, hosted by Pangea World Theater.

“Tantrum has a high degree of political unity,” Knutson says. “We all feel strongly about social justice and community building. We’re not just artists.” That emphasis on message, on building community,  equality, and collaboration is central to their work as a collective, but the group  also struggles with the financial side of things. “None of us are are the best at promotion or finding sponsorship,” Knutson says. At the same time, “similar visions and ideals can amplify your message,” she adds.

There aren’t necessarily rules about how an artist-run space has to run. Rosalux Gallery in Minneapolis and AZ Gallery in St. Paul are two examples of collective-run galleries owned by their members. There are also other art spaces and galleries that are run by either a single artist or couple.

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Hair + Nails storefront during PRV’S by Lindsay Rhyner. Image courtesy of Hair + Nails

For example, the Hair + Nails Gallery in Minneapolis, is run by choreographer Kristin Van Loon and Ryan Fontaine, a visual artist. Van Loon, who has for years run the performance programming at a small theater connected to the local bar Bryant Lake Bowl, was encouraged to buy the storefront space by a dance colleague who found she wasn’t up for running her own space. Van Loon bought the building (which also included a house, where she now lives with Fontaine), and the two run the space, with Fontaine showing his own work several times a year.

For Fontaine, running a gallery is a relief, as an artist. “I make a lot of work,” he says. “It takes the pressure off of having to convince other people to present my work— I know I’ll have a show.”

Already being part of the arts community in the Twin Cities means that Van Loon and Fontaine have no trouble finding work to present, and they also, as artists, want to give  others  both the freedom and support to present their work as they envision.

“I know for myself what feels really good, what feels supportive, what is frustrating when venues drop the ball on certain things,” Van Loon says. “It’s a real motivator to treat others the way I would want to be treated.” Even when artists are less than ideal to work with, that informs them about how to engage with presenters.

In addition, because Fontaine has a background in trades, he feels comfortable changing up the space when needed. “One of the appeals for me of having Ryan do a couple shows a year is how much he figures out the space each time,” Van Loon says. “After he does a show, people see the basement anew each time, because he really works it because he’s grown so intimate with the space.”

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Erin Smith from Live Noods at Hair + Nails. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Fontaine and Van Loon try to strike a balance between creating a community space and adhering to quality. “We want it to feel like a community space but we’re never going to show art that we don’t like,” Fontaine says. “I feel like you can present serious art in a forum that doesn’t feel alienating. That’s an experience I’ve rarely encountered in the art world.

Van Loon says she feels incredibly lucky to own the space where Hair + Nails is located, an opportunity that’s not always the most feasible. Like many mid-sized cities, Minneapolis, and to a lesser extent St. Paul, sees the rental market get tighter each year. Artists scramble to find space to live, much less space to work and show their art. We’re in an era where there are no easy answers to making an artistic life sustainable. Luckily, artists tend to be nimble, innovative people, who know how to make a lot out of not very much.

Fontaine and Van Loon try to strike a balance between creating a community space and adhering to quality. “We want it to feel like a community space but we’re never going to show art that we don’t like,” Fontaine says. “I feel like you can present serious art in a forum that doesn’t feel alienating. That’s an experience I’ve rarely encountered in the art world.”

Sheila Regan is a performer, playwright and journalist living in the Twin Cities. As a writer, she works most often with MN Artists, City Pages and TC Daily Planet and also contributes to, Classical MPR, Minnesota Women's Press and Hyperallergic

Electric Machete Studios & Gallery
777 Smith Ave. St. Paul MN 55107

Tantrum Artist Collective

Hair + Nails
2222 1/2 E. 35th St, Minneapolis, MN 55407

Hair + Nails
2222 1/2 E. 35th St, Minneapolis, MN 55407

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© THE RIB 2017
© THE RIB 2017
© THE RIB 2017