PRINT March 2008


regional nonprofits

TEN YEARS AGO, urban theorist Saskia Sassen wrote that cities “that are strategic sites in the global economy tend, in part, to disconnect from their region.” She was speaking in strictly economic terms, but as Pamela M. Lee and others have observed, the process of globalization in the cultural realm has largely marched alongside capitalist business ventures. Today the structures of the art communities in New York and London have more in common with each other than, say, New York has with Detroit or London has with Leeds. The international art world (however one defines that nebulous term) seems willing to make occasional exceptions to this economically dominant order in the name of “radical hybridity,” bringing additional international exposure to artists in far-flung locales. But art communities in cities that are neither fully woven into the new, transnational economic network nor considered culturally “other” enough can struggle in the wake of this stratification.

Certainly, the commercial sectors of these less prominent art communities are finding it harder to keep afloat due to the increase in long-distance buying by local collectors (thanks to the Internet), the rise of art fairs, and the escalating competition for artists. Yet the past decade has witnessed small, nimble nonprofit organizations stepping in to undertake some of the endeavors typically associated with for-profit ventures. They offer production support to young artists, helping them realize ambitious projects at moments in their careers when larger institutions are unwilling to do so, and they devote exhibitions to artists not yet on the radar of the art world’s metropolitan centers. Commercial galleries play a central role in the New York art scene, but a tour of nonprofits in other large North American cities indicates that many of the gallery’s functions can be assumed by other spaces and institutions.

Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis is one such nonprofit venue. When Midway opened in January 2001, few might have predicted that it would soon present a spate of US-debut solo exhibitions by internationally noted artists. But in the past few years, as the gallery has expanded, director John Rasmussen has organized ambitious shows with artists such as Michaela Meise, Jesper Just, Lene Berg, and Matias Faldbakken, all of whom at the time of their Midway exhibitions had appeared in group shows and biennials throughout Europe but were not well known in the United States. “Most of the projects that Midway does at this point are commissioned,” notes Rasmussen. “We help underwrite the costs of production and all of the costs of exhibiting the finished works.” These solo projects are interspersed with group exhibitions curated by outside organizers, including independent curator Tanya Leighton and critic Bruce Hainley.

Yet this programming approach has had a curious result: As Rasmussen puts it, “We may be better known outside the Twin Cities than inside.” To address this, he has begun to weave Midway more tightly into the local community. In the past year the gallery has begun working with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of Minnesota to present artist talks, symposia, and other programming, which allow students and members of the public to meet the stream of artists who pass through the city in conjunction with exhibitions. Midway has also opened, adjacent to the gallery space, a research library of art periodicals, monographs, and exhibition catalogues—an attempt to redress the lack of ambitious art bookstores in Minneapolis. “What keeps me here,” says Rasmussen, “is a sense that there’s a real need for a place like this in Minneapolis. The mission—to support emerging and underrepresented artists—is really fulfilled in a place like the Twin Cities. Minneapolis is a quiet place where people can come and experiment.” For example, Midway presented the first collaborative exhibition by artists Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker, who now work together as Guyton\Walker.

Whereas Midway cultivated an international presence nearly immediately, Presentation House Gallery, in North Vancouver, British Columbia, developed its wide-ranging exhibition program over the course of many years. Founded in 1976 as part of a larger cultural organization devoted to the local community, the gallery amended its mandate in 1981 to focus on (primarily Canadian) photography. That eventually broadened to include film and video, and then even further as the gallery increasingly tracked international developments in contemporary art. One recent exhibition, organized by Helga Pakasaar, paired Simon Starling’s self-interrogating film installation Wilhelm Noack oHG, 2006, with Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s 1930 film Lichtspiel, Schwarz-Weiß-Grau (Light Display, Black-White-Gray). Reid Shier, director and curator of the gallery since 2006, also inaugurated a thrice-yearly magazine-cum-artist’s book, Lynn Valley, issues of which have been designed thus far by Richard Prince, Johannes Wohnseifer, Jonathan Monk, and Annette Kelm.

For the past two decades, the gallery, which is housed in a century-old building, has also brought ambitious historical photography exhibitions to Vancouver. “In an obviously explosive and shifting technological and social terrain,” Shier says, “the gallery’s wide historical purview is especially valuable.” This has included, in recent years, exhibitions of photographs of Mexico from the early twentieth century, Akbar Nazemi’s photographs of the 1978–79 Iranian Revolution, and the work of Miroslav Tichý, Lisette Model, and Vancouver street photographers who were active between the 1950s and ’80s. Shier is particularly concerned with “how those shows are contextualized, through publications, reviews, and word of mouth,” which he sees as especially important for the younger Canadian artists exhibited alongside. Indeed, PHG remains close to the local scene: Last autumn, Vancouver artist Mark Soo curated “Been Up So Long It Looks like Down to Me,” a group show that encompassed a range of media and explored the concerns of Soo’s own Conceptual practice.

Venues similar to Midway and PHG are scattered across North America, from the newly established Power House Memphis, with its once-a-season solo exhibitions featuring artists young (Alec Soth, Josh Smith, Wangechi Mutu) and established (George Condo, Bruce Nauman), to the twelve-year-old Institute of Visual Arts (Inova) at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, which has a decidedly international program. Numerous such institutions also offer residency and fellowship programs for international artists. However, Artpace, opened in San Antonio in 1995 by the late collector Linda Pace, is perhaps one of the few that has maintained a specific commitment to local artists. Each two-month residency brings together a Texan artist, an artist from elsewhere in the US, and one from abroad; since 2001, each has been selected by an internationally renowned curator. Unlike many such programs, Artpace’s artists are required to stay in San Antonio for the duration of their residency. The experience seems to have fueled the creation of some Texas-specific artworks: Guitar Drag, 2000, by 1999 resident Christian Marclay, depicts a plugged-in guitar being dragged behind a pickup truck along dusty roads, its bruised screeches emitting from an amp tethered to the truck’s bed. The video refers to the racially motivated murder in June 1998 of James Byrd Jr. in the East Texas town of Jasper, a crime that was still in the news during Marclay’s residency.

In addition to presenting the work of residents, Artpace also operates the Hudson (Show)Room, which features exhibitions of other contemporary artists, such as Nathan Carter, Andrea Bowers, and Frances Stark. Matthew Drutt, director of Artpace since 2005, notes that the space often mounts shows that take the local context into account: “I bring artists here to create work specifically for the space. They’re here for five to ten days, well before the show is installed, and have full access to our resources.”

Smaller and less structured is the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), a fellowship program founded by artist György Kepes in 1967 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Currently run by director Krzysztof Wodiczko and associate director Larissa Harris, the organization regularly brings artists to the MIT community: Its visitors are monthly guests who present their own work and propose longer-term projects; affiliates are granted access to the center’s resources as well as a stipend and studio; and fellows receive full funding (some from the university, some raised independently) to produce new large-scale, on-site projects. Fellows from the past few years have cut across disciplines, from puppeteer and theater scholar John Bell to artist Marjetica Potrč to urban-issues collective Center for Urban Pedagogy. According to Harris, recent fellows have been interested in issues of expertise, power, and access to knowledge. This is certainly true of 2005–2006 fellow Michael Smith’s video Portal Excursion, 2005–2007, in which the artist’s sad-sack alter ego, Mike, rekindles his autodidactic streak—but not his sociability—on discovering MIT’s free online course materials. Smith’s video will be presented this month at the Whitney Biennial in New York.

CAVS consistently fosters contact between its long-term fellows and the broader MIT community; each of the artists meets extensively with professors in departments such as engineering and computer science, and Bell is even teaching a class, titled “Performance, Art, Technology.” Harris explains, “We’re at an educational institution, where people do research—they have time, offices, and resources. The same goes for our artists.”

As with the other organizations discussed here, and dozens like them, CAVS singularly addresses its particular nexus of regional concerns and international perspectives. As Harris notes, “You have to make yourself into a little capital of something. The most important thing is the community, not its location.” The solutions these organizations improvise, especially the ways in which they make use of local resources outside the realm of the commercial art world, provide a counter-example to the “ideal” community formation projected from the art world’s metropolitan centers. The significance of this should read beyond the local: By paying attention to such efforts, those in art capitals might learn ways to escape the tunnel vision that arises from constant exposure to the market.

Brian Sholis is editor of