Art For Our Sake

Written By: Jenna Westrick Constellation 23 3.1.13

By Jenna Westrick

Social engagement.

It’s a topic that artists and art spaces alike must consider. Whether the goal is money, social change, or both, art cannot exist within a vacuum if it hopes to serve a purpose. With our modern attention span being tugged in countless directions, art cannot remain contained within static, isolated walls for long. It must be relevant to its society, and keep pace with the people it serves.

It makes good sense for art spaces to involve community and promote accessibility to their material whenever possible. But that ever-elusive question of how constantly keeps coming back to stump creatives. How do you keep their attention? How in the world are you special?

Rather than reviewing an event that has already passed, I’m writing about an impending possibility. The possibility of a new Minneapolis art space that holds the word “social” at its very core. Somewhere you can always find that remarkable Friday night. A progressive space that exists purely to offer something more to its community.

… a space you might say functions for the public.

Public Functionary is

a new space opening in the modest yet stylish Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. It’s philosophy seeks to openly facilitate an interrelated community and a progressive social culture… all driven by contemporary art.

With the enticing teasers that Public Functionary has revealed through their already-addictive online presence, we get the sense that something major is happening in our artsiest part of town. Something must be working if the people behind it managed to successfully fund a $30,000 Kickstarter, right? In under a month, the space generated this immense amount of funding through an entirely social platform, primarily by proposing its philosophy. In the opinion of the communal mindset, it is a philosophy sorely missing from our Twin Cities artscape.

In line with their socially-driven perspective, occasions at Public Functionary will be anything but an average night out on the arts scene. Take their debut soiree for example… an event that happened before the space technically even had finished flooring.

Colorant Gleam, as it was so distinctively dubbed, was publicized as ‘a multimedia art party’. The worn warehouse walls of the gallery and its glittering partygoers were drenched in a haze of neon-tinged light. A fireplace of fluorescent tubes served as the centerpiece of the space. Attendees relaxed entranced around its elemental glow, eyeing up the eclectic crowd and inspired setting alike. Others drew on an interactive chalk mural covering one of the gallery’s walls, and more posed for an iPad photo booth. I even had a brush with local celebrity as Scott Seekins himself watched me pull a screen print of the gallery’s logo.

As Public Functionary Director and Curator Tricia Khutoretsky said of the event, “In a non-traditional sense, Colorant Gleam was a soft opening… a welcoming of the public into our process. We really want people to feel connected to the space as just that, a social space that belongs to them as much as the artists who exhibit their work on our walls. The night had such a positive energy because it was honestly inclusive.”

The goal of Colorant Gleam was for the audience to preview and interact with the raw, physical building and the soul of the space. Goal accomplished. Set up as an artistic “funhouse” of sorts, there were opportunities around every corner to encounter a new facet of the building. The novelty and sheer fun of the activities organically encouraged participation, conversation, and laughter with those around you. The evening had that rare invigorating charge that simply makes your month. If this was any indication of what’s to come at Public Functionary, then I’m resolutely on board.

And what about the art?

Just because Public Functionary aims to be a social space doesn’t mean the curatorial team will compromise on artistic excellence. In fact, its creators hold an unwavering belief that great art and accessibility can in fact go hand in hand. Art for our sake does not diminish said art.

Valid points are made on both sides of the long-standing argument about high art vs. art for the public. The belief that public art with mass appeal is steeped in kitsch and lacking in ideology often holds truth. However, our most highly regarded exhibition spaces tend to feel guarded, presuming that anyone entering the sacred walls must be an encyclopedia of artistic knowledge. A wider audience undoubtedly feels excluded and unmotivated to delve in, being offered little insight on the obscure and un-intuitive ideas presented. No one can deny that there are countless barriers (real and perceived) between art and observer. As “nice” as we claim to be, sometimes our homey art scene truly feels like a closed community, distinctly divided into insiders and outsiders.

The concept of Public Functionary counters these obstacles, making way for inviting, educational, communal experiences and quality artistic content. The physical gallery itself is a step in the right direction. Set in a casual upgraded warehouse, the structure of the space counters common notions of what a museum or gallery should look like. With glass garage doors, many windows, and an outdoor patio setup on its loading dock, the architecture has a breezy, open feel. Rather than a closed off fortress on the borders of town, the gallery is set immediately within a humble Northeast neighborhood. The goal is for neighbors and visitors to feel un-intimidated and authentically welcome to enter the space.

>p>Public Functionary’s inclusivity is also infused into its curatorial practice. At the risk of offending other Minneapolis galleries’ steadfast preference for the local, the space does not solely program from a recurring pool of talent. It also searches outside of the Twin Cities – outside of Minnesota – outside of the Midwest – sourcing its content worldwide. With an overarching goal to foster connections that begin to put our arts scene on a more national scale, Public Functionary will predominantly curate a lineup of ‘outsider’ artists. Its founders feel that there is plenty of space and support for Minnesota-bred artists within our cities’ borders.

It will no doubt be a tough balancing act to foster support for the local community by showing art from elsewhere. Critiquing and subverting the long-standing trends in our State of the Arts could quickly make Public Functionary an unwelcome outsider. Real progress or evolution that they may achieve could threaten others in the field, slowing support and growth. The gallery risks possible exclusion or rejection by the rest of the arts community, which has a more familiar philosophy. However, Public Functionary believes that a metaphorical two-way street must be built to bring our artistic community into a new and more lasting era. I strongly agree.

Moving forward.

The chief goal of events from here on out is to engage the audience with the art, fully and authentically. Through events and activities that engage the audience in honest dialogue and playful interaction, Public Functionary hopes to spark creative critical thought. The audience and the art become one. “We would love for Public Functionary to be known not only for showing amazing art, but for creating impactful art experiences. It is as much about the art as it is about what activity is inspired by the art,” claims Khutoretsky.

Take for example Friday nights at Public Functionary, which will always be open late into the night during an exhibit’s run. Part gallery, part destination hangout, the space will consistently be transformed with live music, inventive cocktails, and scores of groundbreaking interactive programming ideas. Tricia elaborates: “We’re working on changing the idea of the ‘opening reception’ because openings are not everyone’s cup of tea, yet galleries seem quiet, inactive, and intimidating the rest of the time.”

Admittedly, sometimes a Saturday afternoon spent alone within those familiar white walls can feel semi-spiritual, reveling in another’s vision and finding reflections of yourself. Being alone in public can simply be therapeutic. Public Functionary will be open plenty in this more traditional way; they’ve just carved out extra room for social interaction. Put into practice, this model will take some unconventional forms. For example, lone visitors to the gallery on a quiet day will find surprises such as an entirely mobile office, with staff situated on rolling tables and chairs. This allows for open engagement with visitors seeking dialogue, or space and solitude for those who aren’t. The goal is to seamlessly and innovatively merge art’s two worlds: the individual spiritual commune and the social public encounter.

Another attempt at engagement centers around documentation. Most of today’s art is not valued solely for its aesthetic attractiveness or even its technical skill. Instead, the concepts behind an artwork are what give it life and meaning. These ideas may foster a connection between art, artist, and audience once revealed. Furthermore, an artist’s identity goes far beyond the few sentences occasionally offered up by galleries in a traditional artist statement. More is needed.

To help bridge the gap between audience and art, Public Functionary will provide a variety of documentation related to their exhibits. According to Khutoretsky, “Modern art engagement is about creating the content to share with the public. Our documentation process includes studio visit write-ups, written artist interviews, high quality exhibit and opening reception photography, artist videos, and other creative media. All of this is archived and preserved on the Public Functionary website and made available for the public to explore or for our artists to use, share, and self-promote.” This dynamic offering of information also seeks to make the art fully comprehensible to its viewer.

With its unconventional nature, it would be remiss to avoid discussing the challenges faced by the new space. Success is by no means guaranteed as the Public Functionary team works to fulfill their ambitious mission. First, the actual real-world application of accessibility is difficult to achieve. As noble as intentions may be, the audience may never actually perceive a space as truly welcoming. Long-standing conceptions of the art world will be hard to change. Extensive investigation into the space’s surrounding community is no doubt required, along with in-the-field research and interaction with the area. Who lives in the community? Do they care about art? What can you offer them that they don’t already have at hand?

Ultimately, Public Functionary’s effort at differentiation could backfire. As they carve out their niche within the landscape, pinpointing a recognizable identity will be difficult. Too many new ideas can be a downfall if supporters in the community do not fully understand what it is they are supporting. The new philosophy must not only be understandable, it must be acceptable. In some sense, it must align with people’s current conception of a gallery enough to be sustainable. The audience in the Twin Cities community must feel excited enough to want to engage over the long term, so that the space may achieve its more enduring and lofty goals. If our Cities are not ready for what the gallery has to offer, then it cannot accurately serve its society and it will not succeed.

So back to the ultimate question:

What makes Public Functionary different? According to its founder, “Public Functionary is different because it responds to the here and now… it is built around a modern and incredibly forward-thinking perspective about how people can connect to art, and each other.”

In my opinion, Public Functionary has thus far put a thorough, honest, and heartfelt effort into the conceptualization and creation of the space. In a new era where physical solitude is justified by a virtual social sphere, Public Functionary has tapped into the need for a hybrid consciousness. Humans have an innate need to commune and communicate – a need to be social. This truth will remain despite changes in social dynamics. The space will undoubtedly use the advantages of technology and social media to widen the impact of their mission. However, they will also encourage in-person social interaction, devising settings with a distinctively modern spin for participation across generations.

Public Functionary believes that art can be a unifying platform during all of this fast-paced progress, and I agree. ‘Being amongst the art’ is not an idea that has to die with the analog era; it can function across then and now. However, for this to happen organizations must earnestly make an effort to welcome a wider segment of the public. This is where I believe Public Functionary will succeed.

It boils down to simple idea: art for our sake, offered up through good old-fashioned fun.

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