“A very social business:” a conversation with Suzy Greenberg and Carolyn Payne of Soo Visual Art Center
Originally published on August 1, 2010, as part of Constellation 9.
“I don’t want people to think of SooVAC as Suzy’s gallery—it’s really about the community, about all of us,” says Suzy Greenberg, Executive Director of Soo Visual Art Center. SooVAC’s long-standing commitment to serve as a hub for local and emerging artists and to engage art lovers and the community alike certainly lend credence to Greenberg’s words. But hearing her tell SooVAC’s story on an air-conditioned July afternoon also reveals how deeply the philosophy and sense of purpose that have kept SooVAC going for close to a decade are the result of Greenberg’s vision and leadership.
Running a non-profit organization dedicated to providing a space for visual art appeared, in my mind, as a quixotic endeavor. But talking with Greenberg and Carolyn Payne, the Managing Director, made one thing clear very quickly: Rather than fight windmills, the two clearly know what they are up to.
In 2001, after five years of “planning and plotting,” as Greenberg puts it, SooVAC started out in the same building it still calls home. In fact, only little more than a week ago, on July 10, 2010, SooVAC celebrated its successful move to a slightly more modest space in the same building with a new neighbor, the design studio Zeus Jones, next door. The business model Greenberg has been relying on for nearly ten years—buy the building, rent some of the space, and use that income to pay for maintaining the gallery space—is clearly working. But then, Greenberg, an artist herself, had the advantage of growing up with a father in the business of selling art commercially.
This long-standing familiarity with the art scene only indirectly affected SooVAC’s conception, though. Greenberg knew what she wanted her space not to be—a haven for the snooty, elitist, and arrogant. The space for art she envisioned was accessible, open, and community-oriented. Rather than create what she calls “a destination spot,” her goal was to create a comfortable environment that was part of a neighborhood with an already flourishing arts community. SooVAC joined Intermedia Arts and pArts gallery in South Minneapolis, followed by Highpoint Center for Printmaking, which was also established in 2001. Greenberg’s vision for SooVAC, which she named after the old Soo railroad line, was an alternative art space that truly could bring art to the people.
“When I was working at the Walker as a guard,” Greenberg remembers, “there was a Robert Ryman show…. A lot of white canvases. Being in the gallery all day, I would hear the comments people made—‘I could have done that’ and the like. And I thought—you really need to have someone explaining this work to people, so it can be fully appreciated.” The realization that the language of contemporary art sometimes needs translation and explanation prompted her to emphasize the openness and accessibility of SooVAC. “I wanted it to be a space where people would feel comfortable to ask questions. Not the New York model of galleries,” she adds with a chuckle.
Running an alternative art space, Greenberg was free to show work she considered “interesting and innovative” rather than consider only the kind of art she thought might sell. When I ask what exactly makes a piece “interesting and innovative,” Greenberg is not hard-pressed for words: something challenging and thought-provoking, something that invites dialogue and raises questions, that comments on the world and offers a fresh way of looking at something. “We want to show work we have not seen elsewhere,” she explains—and immediately qualifies, “as far as that is in fact possible in an arts community as small as the Twin Cities.”
Rather than support a “stable” of artists, SooVAC has tried to build relationships with a wide range of artists, connected only by their Minnesota provenance and the quality of their work. “If someone has a really good cause but the work itself is bad, we would not show it,” Greenberg clarifies her priorities. The long-standing focus on work by local and emerging artists is about to change, in part because of the layout of the new space: One of the two separate galleries, named SooLocal, will continue to house work by emerging and local artists, whereas the gallery in the back , which currently houses Untitled 7, a group show juried by Scott Stulen, will be devoted to more flexible programming. Only in April 2011, 10 years after first opening its doors, will SooVAC host its first solo show by a non-Minnesota artist, Robert McCann, who hails from Michigan.
Reflecting on SooVAC’s impressively long history, Greenberg acknowledges the changes in the arts community she has witnessed. “There are more opportunities to get your work out there now,” she says, “in a lot of very interesting ways.” Audiences, too, she thinks have become more comfortable with looking at and engaging with work. As one of SooVAC’s recent visitors put it: “I no longer have to be in the center of the room.” “I never really thought of that before,” Greenberg says, “but it makes so much sense.”
Carolyn Payne, SooVAC’s first Managing Director, has been instrumental in shaping SooVAC’s future by reaching out to new communities, starting an in-depth self-study and audience survey, growing the board, and building new regional affiliations. Her enthusiasm for SooVAC is tangible, as she talks about a recent fashion show SooVAC hosted, and SooFuze, a juried show of art created by Minnesota teens, currently on view at SooLocal. Future plans include broadening the range of mediums SooVAC shows.
So, what is the secret to SooVAC’s successful almost ten-year history? Perhaps the key is the love both Greenberg and Payne profess, not only for art, but for numbers, math and accounting. Or perhaps it is the tightly knit three-person staff—Greenberg, Payne, and Alison Hiltner, the Gallery Manager. Or, more likely, it is the understanding of SooVAC as a place for the community to come together, talk, ask all sorts of questions regardless of how appropriate or inappropriate these questions may be, and share a lingering passion for visual art. “It is a very social business, after all,” Greenberg concludes.
Images from recent shows at SooVAC:
1) Kayla Plosz
2) Jehra Patrick
3) and 4) Greg Gossel