By 2007 we had switched to a monthly exhibition schedule at Altered Esthetics, and I loved the organic nature of the shows’ development. For example, I was casually chatting with my friend Kevin Showell, a wood carver also located in the Q.arma building. In conversation we noted how his past few works had animals walking precariously along cliff edging, or along treacherous mountains. As it turns out, he was going through a rough period in his life at the time. We thought it was fascinating that so many artists, either consciously or subconsciously, deal with struggle through their artwork. Our conversation evolved into the Art of Sacrifice exhibition. Each work was a manifestation of the artist’s passion, some obvious and some between the lines.
As Altered Esthetics grew, we became a bit more organized about the curatorial process and more inclusive as people became interested in helping with exhibitions. We started an exhibitions committee that was open to anybody. It included board members, artists, curatorial interns, volunteers, and guest curators. The more we grew, the more fun the collaborative curatorial process became. Before, each exhibition was its own animal, but by this point the process was entirely and consistently collaborative.
The exhibitions committee would start planning early for the upcoming year, the first meeting usually just brainstorming and conversation. We’d meet at the gallery on an evening, bringing snacks, refreshments, magazines, and concepts. There were no wrong ideas. We had everything pitched from “A tribute to Scott Baio” to derogatory four-letter words for females proposed by some of the bolder feminists on our curatorial team. Oftentimes there were common threads in these suggestions, and we’d spend some time grouping topics by rough category. People would continue to add topics as they were so inspired. We took notes on the list and returned about a month later, the committee being tasked to research the topics that were discussed. What was the current art conversation happening around a given topic? Was it overdone? Was there something we could contribute to the artistic conversation? Were there natural partners we could work with to execute the topic more fully? When we returned the following month, we spent some time in discussion. Sometimes there were natural evolutions, and occasionally new topic ideas had come to light.
We took our favorite topics, roughed out how the year might look, then voted. The process and conversations around topics were always interesting, and often hilarious. For example, the tribute to Scott Baio evolved into Fanboi, an exhibit centered around fan art. We did a lot of cool things depending on the theme. For Tales from the Black Lodge, our David Lynch tribute, we created a little Black Lodge in the alcove at the gallery, complete with red curtains loaned to us generously from Minneapolis’s Jungle Theater. For (scientific) aesthetics we worked with artist Jon Erikson to transform the whole gallery into a beautiful library, complete with tapestries and books all around, creating an even more warm and cozy environment out of the gallery space.
Sometimes the topics were so popular that we’d be overwhelmed by submissions—and excellent works at that. As our mission was to provide a voice for artists, we did everything we could to accommodate a well-rounded, diverse group. In quite a few instances we had larger exhibitions, and the flexibility of shared space in the building gave us the opportunity branch out into the upstairs gallery space, dubbed “Q2.”
But it wasn’t rosy for all participants. I once had an artist ask me why I placed their work next to “bad” artwork. To be honest, I wasn’t sure which art they were referring to—the work to the right or the left? I wouldn’t have described either as bad! Art can be so subjective, and we often had emerging artists showing right alongside more established artists. Th e emerging artists wanted to get their voices out there and show something connected to the theme of the exhibition. From what they told us, the more established artists were often equally excited. For so long they were developing works according to what their clientele liked, what sold at art fairs, what they thought was “safe.” As my friend Sue Christensen so fabulously put it, Altered Esthetics gave her the opportunity to show art purely for art’s sake. What a wonderful compliment.
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.