Minneapolis, MN—August 2006
One summer day, we finished setting up our first traveling exhibition. We were hosting the works of We Protest: Iowa Speaks Out. Earlier that spring a group of artists used an open call as an opportunity to voice their discontent around the war in Iraq. They showed up to a local institution in droves, and packed the Hearst Center full of protest art in a bold statement. They then took the exhibition on the road, bringing it to Minneapolis first. It was a poignant display, and one of the most beautiful we’d hosted to date.
Esther Cheng crafted a vibrant watercolor featuring peace lanterns. Margaret Whiting used law books, graphite, and wood in her work War Was a Stranger to All Justice. Kent Shankle took a more direct approach in a digital assemblage featuring President Bush, guns, and the flag. The works came together in a remarkable statement. The room was clean and balanced, the artwork somber and decisive.
A day after the exhibition was set I was at the gallery working on the tags and brochures. The rain tapped against the windows as a warm summer storm rolled in. I walked around the gallery space. Watercolors, paper sculptures, oils, over thirty mixed-media works telling the story of protest and advocating for peace. I paused for a moment before heading back to the computer to get more work done.
That’s about when the storm hit hard, and the part where things got scary in a hurry. I heard a large cracking sound come from the storage room, followed by the sound of rushing water.
Minneapolis friends may remember a crazy summer storm in 2006. No tornadoes, but a weird, greenish hue to the sky and rain coming down so hard against the strong wind that made it seem like it was raining sideways. Flash flooding in the railroad underpasses created chains of lakes from street to street.
The building of Altered Esthetics’ first location was about a hundred years old, maybe older. An awesome space, but some of the structural elements needed a little TLC—including the roof. While we had reported some minor leaks earlier in the spring, they had all been fixed. But clearly something else had given way, and it gave way right into the gallery storage room, where it proceeded to rain over boxes, supplies . . . and archives.
I ran to the back faster than I knew I was able. I grabbed the artwork first and moved it as fast as I could to the room that wasn’t flooding, placing it high on tables and out of harm’s way. Back and forth, grabbing whatever I could as the water came down in sheets in the back room, not unlike the tears cascading down my cheeks.
I called one of our board members, Kate, frantically for help. “The storage room is flooding! Are you close by?!” She ran over in a flash to help me salvage everything we could before returning to her own space. I am fairly certain her dad came to help us too. I don’t quite remember. It’s a wet, tearful blur.
Like my snowy accident, it could have been so much worse. We worked so fast we wound up losing only two works, and the artists were very understanding. Had the storm hit even one day before, we would have lost the We Protest exhibition in its entirety. But the timing was key. Sometimes it takes a storm of one kind or another to catalyze action. In this case, it was moving away from a space we’d clearly outgrown.
The watery experience from the storm flowed furiously into my subsequent decision to vacate soon after. As luck would have it, a space had opened up down the street, in a more active building with a salon and other artists throughout. It was a large, open room on the first floor. The rent was more than what we were paying now, but the timing couldn’t have been better. That storm was the trigger for us to move to the Q.arma building, a place we’d call home for the next eight years.
Lesson learned: if you don’t handle problems properly when they’re small, breakdowns are almost inevitable and run the likelihood of seriously screwing things up.
This post is adapted from It’s Never Going To Work: A Tale of Art and Nonprofits in the Minneapolis Community with illustrations by Athena Currier. Post graphics by Jamie Schumacher. ©2018 Jamie Schumacher.
It’s Never Going To Work is a light-hearted, illustrated book that offers real-life insights on founding a community space and nonprofit. It provides tools, tips, resources, and camaraderie to community organizers and anybody attempting something new.