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Look at me, RNC

By Christy DeSmithFriday, Aug. 29, 2008
As the Twin Cities prepare for their close-up, local arts organizations clamor for the attention of our guests.

A melting ice sculpture is part of The UnConvention.
Nora Ligorano, Marshall Reese
A melting ice sculpture is part of The UnConvention.

From art exhibits that appeal specifically to Republican sensibilities, to happenings that boost the existing Twin Cities cultural scene — delegates, protesters and others drawn to the Twin Cities by the Republican National Convention have plenty opportunity to sample the local arts.

One of the most ambitious happenings is this weekend’s spark24, a 24-hour performance marathon designed to introduce the Twin Cities’ arts scene to a global audience — in other words, the goal is to match Minnesota-made fashion, music and performance with like-minded tourists. After all, our point-of-pride local arts community is woefully deficient of out-of-town patrons.

The lineup includes everything from the Minnesota Opera and the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, to indie rock bands like The Alarmists and White Light Riot and even theater organizations like the internationally known Children’s Theatre Company and the small but sassy Buffalo Gal Productions. This showcase of local performing arts takes place at Peavey Plaza from 5 p.m. on Saturday (Aug. 30) to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

It remains to be seen whether our guests — from rumpled reporters to delegates who’ve plastered their sweaters with “McCain” stickers — will attend the dignified affair. According to spark24 spokeswoman Jennifer Gaurino, the event is being promoted in several ways: by the RNC Host Committee, Meet Minneapolis, the St. Paul Convention and Visitors Bureau as well as by local hotel concierges. But of course, spark24 also has the benefit of being in downtown Minneapolis, not far from such important RNC events as, say, the delegate welcome reception at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Sunday evening.

Somewhat similarly, the UnConvention is the umbrella for a variety of scrappy, nonpartisan artistic and educational endeavors that will happen about town — from an iconic melting ice sculpture of the word “Democracy,” which by now has graced the pages of many a newspaper, to artist-designed lawn signs that bear quasi-political messages. However, unlike spark24, the UnConvention is geared at locals, activists and alternative journalists: It was concocted, in part, to encourage participatory, community-wide art-making, discussion and democracy as a counterpoint to the highly scripted, exclusive convention.

Nancy Coyne's "Speaking of Home," which decorates the IDS Center-Macy’s skyway in Minneapolis, is based on 23 photos from immigrant families.
Images by Nancy Ann Coyne
Nancy Coyne’s “Speaking of Home,” which decorates the IDS Center-Macy’s skyway in Minneapolis, is based on 23 photos from immigrant families.

The best place to sample this sprawling, schizophrenic series is, again, at Peavey Plaza. From 5 p.m. on Aug. 30 to 10 p.m. on Sept. 2, the UnConvention will host live performances, graffiti art, a gallery of the aforementioned lawn signs and even a grassroots parade organized around the theme of “liberty.”

Nonpartisan art is everywhere
On Sept. 4, the Weisman Art Museum lends its “American Politics Sideshow” to the UnConvention. During this daylong event, two separate panels of journalists from various ethnic newspapers will gather to tackle such tough questions as “Do immigrant voters connect with McCain?” According to museum spokesman Christopher James, this is expected to have the effect of luring out-of-town journalists to the museum.

Perhaps they’ll care to stay for two of the Weisman’s ongoing, convention-appropriate exhibitions: “What do YOU say, AMERICA?” features government-issued posters from World War I and II; “Hindsight is Always 20/20” is an exhibition of eye charts based on various State of the Union addresses.

Of course, most arts organizations are without the luxury of such a hook. Like spark24, they’re left to rely upon the RNC Host Committee, our local convention and visitors associations, hotel concierges, spotty press coverage and, if the event is on prime real estate, foot traffic as our visitors come to and from lobbyist-sponsored happy hours and other happenings.

In Minneapolis, two other exhibits have presidential themes: “Hail To The Chief: Images of the American Presidency” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts runs through the convention; the Associated Press presents a modest exhibit of historic AP photographs of American presidents at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.
Two small galleries are hosting apolitical but, nonetheless, elephant-themed exhibitions: “Genus elephas,” at Premier Gallery in downtown Minneapolis, is a juried exhibition of original elephant-themed artwork by various Midwestern painters and sculptors; “MetalPhant,” at Inside Out Gallery in downtown Minneapolis, is a joint exhibition of elephant-themed works and cast aluminum sculptures by Twin Cities area artists with disabilities.

One of the yard signs created in the "My Yard Our Message" project of the UnConvention.
Photo by Cameron Wittig
One of the yard signs created in the “My Yard Our Message” project of the UnConvention.

Hipsters might prefer “Important If True (Hootenanny in E),” a political-themed exhibition of contemporary art. In his artist statement, the event organizer, David Bartley, says he has assembled a group of artists whose work doesn’t “fall into partisan clichés or biases.” They include Dan Attoe, Matthew Bakkom, Robert Gober, Jay Heikes, Jenny Lion, Steven Matheson and Joe Smith.

As far as live performance goes, lots of visitors will flock to see the architectural marvel that is the Guthrie Theater — and its current production of “Little House on the Prairie” is certainly friendly to social conservatives. Over at the Playwright’s Center, a slate of local theater celebrities, from Steve Hendrickson to Joseph Scrimshaw, are presenting their show, “The Wide Stance,” a comedy in which the audience gets to judge the current two-party political system as if participating in a speed-dating event. Of course, the Brave New Workshop’s long running, equal-opportunity send-up “The Lion, The Witch or The War Hero; Or Is McCain Able?” runs through the election. But when I interviewed Caleb McEwen, artistic director of the Brave New Workshop, he wasn’t particularly optimistic about drawing any of the over-scheduled delegates to his show.

“Yeah, we are marketing to them,” he said in a phone interview in July. “But most of the people who are actually in town for the RNC have stuff they have to do for the RNC. In a lot of ways they’re the people we’re least likely to get just because of their schedules.”

Christy DeSmith, a freelance writer, is a former editor and writer for Rake magazine. She can be reached at cdesmith [at] minnpost [dot] com.