Artists for the last couple years have witnessed venues for showcasing their work and performance in Rochester close one by one.
First it was the C4 Salon, a proving ground for young and emerging artists, which closed two years ago. Then SEMVA Art Gallery was forced out of its Peace Plaza site by rising rental costs (a new downtown location is set to open this summer). Now the Rochester Art Center seems to be teetering, as falling foot traffic and declining revenue have forced severe cutbacks in staff.
Lately, fortune seems to be frowning on more than just organizations, the community itself keeps taking knocks. Take the fire that started in a European car shop, for example. It also damaged 535 Gallery, closing yet another venue for exhibiting local artists’ work.
At the same time, efforts to secure city support for a downtown arts center, such as the Rosie Belle Performing Arts Theater or at the Main Street Armory, have gone nowhere.
A sense of crisis has settled into Rochester’s arts community. But also perhaps a new energy.
Last week, the arts and entertainment 507 Magazine hosted a roundtable of area artists at Cafe Steam. We wanted to hear what it’s like to be a painter, an actor, a poet, or a photographer in the area. But what set out to be small gathering turned into a summit as more than 40 artists and art advocates showed up Thursday.
It revealed a fascinating, divergent portrait. While on one level, arts organizations seem to be faltering at the institutional level, it revealed an energy at the grassroots level, galvanized by a sense of crisis and possibility.
"There’s an amazing amount of talent in town, whether its dancers, poets, theater, visual artists, but there isn’t a lot of space for us," said Amarama Vercnocke, a visual artist and a member of Gallery 24. "It blows my mind. In this room, there’s probably 300 years worth of collective experience combined. And that is powerful."
For many of these artists, the biggest question was why. Why doesn’t Rochester support its artists like some other city governments do? Why don’t Rochester area artists have a dedicated multi-purpose space for performance and the visual arts, to share ideas, to collaborate, and to create?
But there was also soul-searching and self-criticism as well. Arts leaders appeared to recognize they could be a more effective political force if they were better organized and spoke with one voice on some issues, but not to the point of homogeneity and conformity.
Currently, many area artists have been gathering at Cafe Steam and at Forager Brewing Company. One artist said the disappearance of dedicated art venues, such as the Creative Salon, had depressed art activity. Some saw the vacated, long-debated Armory as a possible solution. The city council is looking to take up the issue again. Others mentioned the Rochester Art Center as a possible venue.
"It would need some renovation," said Andrea Costopoulos, a visual artist. "That huge hole in the middle of the building is a complete waste of space. The RAC isn’t serving the community in its present state, so why not repurpose it?"
But there were other artists who argued that while a location was important, what was most critical was the art. Artists may be at the mercy of city officials when it comes to this or that location, but artists ultimately control what they make, write and paint.
So just go out and do it.
"I think it’s just a matter of not worrying about the location, but worrying about the content, worrying about what we’re putting out," said Dylan Hilliker, an area musician. "And a lot of that promotion just comes from all of us seeing what’s going on. I think a Facebook share goes a long way. If you see something going on, share it on Facebook."
c4, mixed media artist
Honestly, I don’t think it’s anything new. I used to work at the (Rochester Art Center) five, six years ago. The arts community in this town has always operated in a sense of isolation. There’s not been a lot of support from non-artists or local government support.
Artists need a gathering space. There’s really no one space where even the visual artists can come together.
Let’s go back to the (Rochester) Art Center. That is the elephant in the room. I say we have a contemporary arts museum. We don’t have an art center in Rochester. It’s run as a contemporary art museum. It’s for having events, first. The second thought would be art. My point is, if you look at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, you will see the numerous classes they set up. After the systemic failure of the last 12 years of the art center, it’s become clear that the building isn’t made right. It was never designed to be an art center.
Rochester Art Ensemble, poetry
I think what impedes the ability to create art is not necessarily the lack of space or even the lack of venues. It’s when the onus is put on the artist to become the organizer, the administrator, and the promoter. And when you take on those jobs as so many of us do everyday - and we have - you’ve only got so many hours in a day. Wearing so many hats is one of the biggest impediments. Also, watching arts organizations - I’ve been in this for a little while - their main concern is, one, their physical plant, and two, their administration. The artist falls far down on the list of priorities.
c4 and Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative, visual artist and poet
It goes beyond not having a place to perform or put your art. It deteriorates our community. After the Creative Salon (C4) closed, we didn’t have a space to gather together as one. Just anecdotally, looking at my artist friends around me, people started to do less work. We weren’t as inspired. It was a place where our ideas were able to come together, and when we lost that, we lost part of our community.
I want to challenge that return on investment logic. You know the quote in Hamilton the musical, ‘We’re young, hungry and scrappy.’ I think we can do more with a lot less. The first year of Absolute Theater, my organization, we did eight shows. We paid every single person, whether you were a stagehand or an actor - that doesn’t exist here in Rochester - while raising $20,000 for Elder Network and the Boys & Girls Club. We were doing that with seven percent of the art center’s request. What could we do with 10 percent?
I’m kind of nomadic in a Midwesterner sense. I was born in Rochester, then raised in Stewartville and Winona, and for some reason, came back to Rochester. It seems like every other place besides here makes it a point to make sure that art is not only present in the community but also thriving. A prime example is Winona, where the mayor gives out certificates of approval applauding local businesses that support the arts community. Why doesn’t Rochester have that?
Rochester Art Ensemble, dance/jewelry
Funding in the arts - I know that it is always a problem. Although I want to point out that in Minnesota, we have some of the best arts funding in the country. I know we are also struggling, but there are places like SEMAC (Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council) or the Minnesota State Arts Board that are resources … The other thing is, it would be amazing if all of us could come up with a way to support W.A.G.E, Working Artists and the Greater Economy, to educate people. So much of what I do when I’m hired to do a commission for a choreography or to make a piece of jewelry is educating people about pricing structure. You just can’t have this dance for free. I know we talk about this all the time: Part of making art is educating the public as to how much art is worth.
Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative
What’s important now is that an RFP (request for proposal) for making the Armory an art venue is before the council once again. People have been working on that for years at this point. I don’t know when it will come up for a decision in the Rochester City Council. Last time it did, we had a great turnout at the council meeting and that had an impact. We were very close that night.
painter, founder of Gallery 24
I started Gallery 24 two years ago, and I wanted to talk about how we as a community need to make changes. I heard someone say we can’t have them do it for us. And it’s true. We need to do the footwork. We have to make it happen. And in order to do that, we need to collaborate. And we need to be together as a group. I feel like we are so disconnected when we should be supporting one another. We can’t wait around for people to do it for us - like the Rochester City Council. We can’t wait around for government to do it for us. We have to do it.