The Twin Cities: a Mecca for Craft

The Twin Cities: a Mecca for Craft

The Twin Cities: a Mecca for Craft

August/September 2009 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Mixed Media

Renowned ceramist Warren MacKenzie, one of the founders of the Minnesota Craft Council, in his studio.

Cameron Wittig

In the last several decades, Minnesota has developed a rich array of craft institutions.

Minneapolis and St. Paul may struggle with an image of long, ice-cold winters, but craftspeople can warm to the many opportunities and organizations that present themselves in the beautiful land of 10,000 lakes. Lovers of craft in the Twin Cities of Minnesota have an enviable number of options. They can visit nationally renowned member-based organizations such as the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the Northern Clay Center, the Textile Center of Minnesota and the Gallery of Wood Art. They can see exhibitions of valuable museum-based collections of craft at such institutions as the Goldstein Museum of Design, Weisman Art Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Art; or they can shop at sundry for-profit and artist-run ventures like the Xylos Gallery, Century Studios, the Grand Hand Gallery, the Art Resources Gallery and the Frank Stone Gallery. (Even the Walker Art Center, not usually focused on craft, is presenting a clay show this fall.) With so much to choose from, it’s difficult to imagine that only 30 years ago none of this existed.

“In the late 1960s,” says David Glenn, a St. Cloud-based ceramic artist, “there wasn’t a single place to display craft in Minneapolis.” What led to so much craft activity, and created so many enduring institutions and organizations in so brief a time-span can be best described as serendipity, a kind of local cultural hundred-year flood. In the early-to-mid-1980s, corporate support for the arts, along with governmental, philanthropic and foundation support, all peaked simultaneously exactly when the numbers of local artists skyrocketed. This resulted in the proliferation of all kinds of arts activities: local theaters, record labels and music venues, publishing houses, writing centers and galleries.

According to Glenn, it was amid this great explosion in activity and attention to local arts that craftspeople decided they wanted to develop a market for their work. In 1974, 10 local artisans—including the later-celebrated Warren MacKenzie, Peter Leach and Judy Onofrio—founded the Minnesota Craft Council (MCC), an open-membership artists network committed to increasing the visibility of fine craft. “The craft council set a standard of professionalism,” says Glenn, who became the organization’s director in 1997 and served for 10 years. “It was home to artists who were honing the quality of their craft. They made the first steps into those institutions and took craft to a higher level in Minnesota.” The MCC provided a huge number of opportunities for local craftspeople through a quarterly magazine and newsletter, workshops for artists by artists and a highly anticipated annual fair. It boomed in the 1980s and into the 90s, with memberships peaking at 550 craftspeople.

Following the MCC’s lead, in 1983 local book artists and enthusiasts founded the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Its space, which opened in 1985, boasted excellent studios where masters and novices worked side by side at letterpress presses, bookbinding equipment and Hollander beaters. From the beginning, the center supported the activities of such artists as the noted wood engraver Gaylord Schanilec, Coffee House Press founder Allan Kornblum, book artists Jody Williams, Chip Schilling and three-time Minnesota Book Award winner Paulette Myers-Rich. “The center has been really important to practitioners in a field that’s fairly new,” says Myers-Rich. “It’s really helped to educate people, including students and artists at all levels, as well as creating an audience.”

In 1986, a national group of wood artists founded, in Shoreview, Minnesota, the American Association of Woodturners. Dedicated to the advancement of woodturning, the aaw has more than 300 local chapters and 15,000 members in the United States. It hosts an annual woodturning symposium that is held in a new location every year and draws upwards of 1,500 attendees. Based in the historic Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul, where it operates a gift shop and the Gallery of Wood Art, the aaw also gives artist grants. “We’re proud of this program,” says Tib Shaw, the gallery coordinator. “Local chapters get grants for equipment and training, to teach in schools, to demonstrate the craft of woodturning and for projects with juvenile delinquents.”

With the success of these medium-focused organizations, it made perfect sense for several ceramist members of the Minnesota Craft Council to found the Northern Clay Center in 1990. “The center was modeled after Film in the Cities (a now-defunct center for aspiring filmmakers) and the Center for Book Arts,” says Emily Galusha, the current executive director. “The idea was to have a place where artists could work and have studios, be involved in exhibitions, and get training and education. We also wanted a place for people to see work by potters outside of their studio settings and the art fairs.” With two galleries showing 10 to 13 exhibitions a year and grant and residency programs for both emerging and established artists, including the McKnight Fellowship, the Northern Clay Center is a major player in the Minneapolis craft scene.

Textile artists followed suit in 1994 by founding the Textile Center of Minnesota, an umbrella arts organization for fiber artists and groups. In 2000, the center moved to a one-story brick building in Minneapolis that had once been a Ford auto showroom which was retrofitted to include a gallery, shop, classrooms and studio space.

Over time, the Minnesota Craft Council may have proved too successful at its mission. In 2007, the organization closed because of falling membership levels. According to Glenn and other artisans, there was so much going on in local crafts, and so many options in a saturated market, that advocating for crafts seemed to many to be no longer necessary. “I think we have it pretty good here, in terms of both the audience and the community of artists,” says Jason Trebs, a young ceramist who shows work regularly at the Grand Hand. “I’m incredibly happy being able to make a living here just making functional pots.”

Trebs never participated in the mcc or belonged to the Northern Clay Center, but he acknowledges the efforts his predecessors made to establish the local market. He was extremely flattered when Warren MacKenzie, the great master Trebs has always admired, curated his work into the collection at the Weisman Museum of Art.

MacKenzie, for his part, continues working and growing his reputation nationally after making pots for more than 60 years and helping found several enduring institutions. In 1999, he received a Distinguished Artist Award from the McKnight Foundation, recognizing his lifetime body of work. Even with such honors, MacKenzie is humble about what he’s accomplished and acknowledges all that the Twin Cities have offered him. “I’ve had a great time here in this community. I’ve been able to convince people that the things I’m doing are worthwhile and they might enjoy having them in their home."