Minnesota Fine: Travails of an Art Admin
[this post is continued from Minnesota Fine: Hell in a Handbasket–Ed.]
I remember going to my work-study job for the first time in undergrad, about 2003, in Northfield, MN. I biked out to an elementary school, designed and built in a style that I would learn was all the craze in the 1970s: completely open floor plan, lots of exposed brown brick, library in the center. The teacher I would be working with had a haircut straight out of Friends and I remember thinking, “oh right, this is what the Midwest is.” Suddenly the normalcy of my childhood shrank into the distance as I realized “Middle America” was much larger and more monolithic than I had ever known. The part of me with agency and recognition and direction was suddenly no one, just another cog in the Grain Belt machine. There is something about it that, to this day, makes me want to wear a pink dress and glitter everything just to make people look.
The thing that frustrates me about Minnesota is that so many people are convinced they are doing ground-breaking and awesome, meaningful things, way-cooler-than-anything-you-could-think-of-doing and at-least-as-good-as-anything-happening-in-the-other-cities (i.e. New York, because doesn’t everybody compare themselves to New York and find themselves much better?) In Chicago at least people had a sense of perspective. There’s two kinds of people here: those who self-righteously believe Minneapolis to be the best place on earth, and those who are really smug (or, my friend suggested, “pompous”) that Minneapolis lacks everything that might mark it as a culturally-relevant metropolitan area.
Minnesota. You bewitching ghoul. You give me everything. A Studio, Exhibitions, Ceramics Nerds, Bike Paths, A Job (while in a not-for-profit which doesn’t pay the best but doesn’t pay poorly and gives me the richest experience anyone could ever ask for), a man to fuck me senseless, and another to call me every night. And yet I still feel, too frequently, alone–an “independent woman” I call myself when glossing over this fact. I’ve been told it takes 10 years to feel like you have a community in Minneapolis; 10 year that I am convinced are not worth it.
I am going to buy a car. Over the past two years I’ve been conscious of the fact that I’m avoiding putting down roots here. I’m not converting to a Minnesota-based wardrobe (cotton duck, fancy freezer-stored denim, plaids, $800 brown shoes. Red Wing. Wool.) I’m not getting to know the topless bartenders at the local gay haunts. I’m not a “regular” anywhere except the independently-owned coffee shop next to my work, and really only there because it’s convenient; the coffee is pretty bad. I’m not exploring and reviewing every new restaurant that decides, inexplicably, to sell $26 entrees. I’m not learning about the candidates in my local races, attending neighborhood meetings, packing macaroni salad to the Whittier Block Party, or being really proactive about the numerous potholes and shitty streets I bike over daily in the parts of my commutes through depressed neighborhoods and transit corridors. A car feels like roots and a waste of money. How long do I really expect to be here? How much money can I throw away, per year, on this luxury item? Last week I went to catch the bus and two men sat down in the bus shelter. They each opened their plastic bottle of vodka at 8:43 in the morning and tossed the caps on the ground. Fortunately, I realized, they wouldn’t be drinking on the bus, they just needed a place to sit. I’ve tried to be the middle class white guy making the socially conscious choice to ride the bus in the winter and bike in the summer, but after three years I’m throwing in the towel.
Perhaps a car is just what my social life needs. Would I be more likely to attend gallery events if I didn’t have to climb the mountain of guilt to get a ride, or be the one person who needs 45 minutes, instead of 10, to get across town? Will it make it easier to hang out with friends, or just easier to gain weight without my daily exercise obligation? Am I to blame, or is it just this “city?”
Let’s talk about money. I am so close to paying off my credit card debt and starting to save that chunk of change to GTFO. I almost did it in June. Then I had to share part of a car repair. And go to New York on a poorly budgeted, but desperately essential vacation and visit to friends. Now August is the golden month, provided I capitalize on some pottery sales. And stop charging things. Such as clay. And jeans. I spend too much money on food. Jesus Christ I don’t know how to tell you how much money I spend on fucking food. Completely irresponsible, but symptomatic of my priorities right now. Work. Studio. And what passes for relaxation, but sometimes feels more like hiding from awkward social encounters under the guise of watching Netflix. Which isn’t really pop culture.
OK, job though. “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Finish grad school, then go work in the middle of nowhere for a few years before moving to a city?” my friends queried when I was in NYC for a luxurious 9-day vacation. (My watch band still smells like gyro sauce from that stand in front of the Cooper Hewitt, which is still closed.) Truly, my job is the greatest and I’m in a rut of being promoted every six months—trouble for someone hoping for a dead end to send him to another city. I’m fortunate to be learning the ins and outs of art administration and education from a talented director, involved board, and awesome colleagues. Shortly after I began this essay/rant, I was given the reigns of our education programs. When our head technician moved to Qatar, it made sense to restructure and more directly take on part of her responsibilities while hiring a new technician-cum-emerging artist. After a year working with a superb team of young techs—dedicated makers, educators, hard workers, learners—we restructured again when I took on the management of our artist grants.
Ordered business cards with the word “czar.”
OK, to be fair, sometimes after I get back from a trip out of town and realize we’re spending 8 hours/week talking about the highest price we can pay for 24 new lockable casters, or the best place to store the vacuum carafes that serve coffee twice a year, I think “This? This is the important job that’s keeping me here?” The uneven floors and unknown plumbing that were surely built by someone who wanted artists to fail. It reminds me of an essay I read in grad school about the “we’re all family” excuse that my family is also guilty of, as we taste the baked beans with our fingers, or unstick one body part from another with our greasy hands. “We’re all family now,” I can hear us saying to every casual guest who is visiting our internationally-known art center. “Just ignore that bucket collecting water from the failing roof. What do you mean you saw cat shit in the studio?”
Two feelings: completely overwhelmed. Seeing the newest piece of my job coming down the road, all I could think was that it felt physically heavy. The burden, the risk. Another program. New skills. I don’t even wear clean shoes most days. I only own two bowties, and one of them only cost $10. Do I have the skills to hand off other tasks to my people, my team, my helps, my “subordinates”? How do you evaluate that? Will this be my undoing? How else could this look? Doubt. If I don’t do artist grants, what does that mean? It’s such a clear good fit: the connection with our other resident artists, our facilities. A grant guy who knows shit about the ceramics world, what artists need, what’s trendy, WHO’S trendy. Funding priorities, capital improvements. Is your mouth watering?
But feeling #2: trust. Trust enough to send casual, snarky emails to my colleagues mostly. But also to make long(er)-term plans and budget requests and know that they’re right, that they’re possible, that my opinion as an artist and administrator is just what counts, what matters, what the org needs at this point. To talk about programs on behalf of our programs, our artists, our teachers. To chat about future conferences, exhibitions, lectures, and applications, and to know that maybe nothing—or maybe something great—will come. And that this was just what was missing, what I didn’t see three years ago when I came here, when I had these goals and dreams in my back pocket and nowhere to take them. And was, consequently, an impossible to manage little dingus, my lack of experience shining brightly.
Part of that being organizational transition to new staff, which is completely understandable. And part of that being learning, and putting into practice what people always say: you have to listen and get to know a place before you can suggest change, much less have the skills to see it through.
It’s so different to be inside vs outside an organization. Before I was on staff, all I knew was that our website looked tight. Maybe a little dated, but good for them to sticking to those retro 90’s HTML tables. Everything was clearly edited and presented in an authoritative sans serif online (still Times in print) and a functional archive that could probably use a few more images. Now all I see is that we don’t have enough closets for the brooms.
When I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wasn’t thinking of parquet and priceless works of art. All I could think was the tiny hole of a room they stuffed the docents into, and the jam-packed resource center for art educators next door. How long it would be before they removed that scuff from the staircase-that-no-one-ever-used-anyway-and-why-is-it-even-there? I just heard on a podcast last week (because I hear everything on podcasts) that people don’t like inconsistency, so it’s exciting to be working to address the disparity between the image of a significant cultural institution with the physical reality in which educators and artists actually work. How can we deliver, in our space, the wide-open white pages of a new graphic identity? How can we represent the vibrancy of our community without alienating the segments that are more traditional? How can we be a contemporary art center without giving up our crafty roots, and the legitimate needs of the craft artists we serve?
God, I hate pottery.
I want to go to the lake. It’s July. It’s 75 degrees every day lately. I’m feeling burned out and I’m being encouraged to take days off. Vacation, I believe they call it. My inclination is to take that time in my studio to complete some deadlines and other sort of obnoxious obligations that I’m supposed to feel fortunate and passionate and fulfilled about, but that I mostly see as a mediocre step on a tentative career that is doomed to end whenever I lose access to a kiln and realize I’ll just be a pretty good arts administrator my whole life and maybe a sort of mentor based on the life lessons I’ve learned from porcelain.
But I don’t really have anyone to go to the lake with. And as I learned from that Buzzfeed article about how to party in Paris and never get hungover, the worst thing you can do is show up alone. Even though everyone tells you that you just have to put yourself out there and go enjoy life and be open to meeting new people. Well, I’m calling bullshit on that. My life got a lot less anxiety-producing when I realized the common attitude here is “if I don’t already know you, you’re probably not really worth knowing” and I’ve come to believe the same thing.
And there are a lot of people here that I don’t know.
I’ve been really into frozen yogurt lately, because it is awesome. I got into it this summer initially as a little joke/obsession with one of my best friends in Minneapolis, a temporary resident artist from New Zealand via the UK. Did you know you can check the flavors online before you even get in the car, and then decide which yogurt boutique to go to, based on where you can get both Pink Grapefruit (her choice) and Birthday Cake (mine)? And something exists in the world called Graham Crack Arabeschi, which is basically mushed up creamy deliciousness. Anyway, I was having fro-yo last week with some new friends (my cobbled together family of resident artists from the wider world: an Estonian and a Canadian; I have to trade them out whenever their residency is over, but so far have had good luck.) when the yogurt attendant, Jamani, wanted to talk about race relations in Minneapolis. He’s 18, a black first year student at the U, just moved here from Madison, Wisconsin, which he couldn’t say enough good things about.
Basically, race is really fucked up here, which is what I have felt since moving here, but haven’t had my experiences confirmed by others. Jamani loved Madison where everyone got along and hung out/worked together like, you know, mostly normal people; part of what I miss so much about Chicago, granted that race is fraught anywhere. But here everything is different; everything is a big deal. Which leads to raised tensions on all sides of the color line, coupled with shitty institutional shit—kids being transferred out of schools in white neighborhoods, schools taking advantage of parents without good English skills or support networks. Gentrification stuff; violence. There is such a disparity between the incredible opportunities of a strong East African community and the ignorant assimilationist attitudes of an overwhelmingly white population. My bus route passes by several Native American community centers, right in the middle of Minneapolis, a telling reminder of displacement in the Midwest and of the economic and health crises that have followed. Standard bullshit that belongs in the last century and the good Minnesota Democratic-Farm-Labor voters want to believe is over, is somehow different here.
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