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The joy, and the ‘push-pull,’ of fine arts at the Fair

Let it never be said that I am not a temperamentally populist admirer of all forms of creative activity.

map of state fair
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
The rural/urban exchange that happens for those 13 days remains the heart of the fair-going experience, then as now.

Here is one of my historic Minneapolis role models, painter, newspaper columnist and woman-about-town Frances Cranmer Greenman, writing about the State Fair in her witty, elegantly rambling 1954 memoir, “Higher Than the Sky.” I’m excerpting her words here because, being not only an artist that exhibited work at the Fair but also a person who actually grew up on a farm, she’s far more of an authority on the matter than I am:

“The State Fair is the pride of the upper Middle West. It exhibits the produce of its land, its livestock and the talents of its community… It gives the farmer a chance to spruce up and reward his family with a trip to the city. The harvest work is done. The winter chores haven’t started. There is a lull on the farm. It is a period of education.”

Family farming obviously isn’t what it was in the first half of the 20th century, but that rural/urban exchange that happens for those 13 days remains the heart of the fair-going experience, then as now. Every year I go to the State Fair and find myself completely baffled by display after enormous display featuring slickly marketed selections of house- or potentially farm-oriented goods and equipment that seem to involve gutters, sealing chemicals, grass, three-season gazebos, generators of some kind, and possibly hay. I live in a second-story rental property, have never fixed a sink in my life, and eat takeout four days a week. This farm-and-garden stuff is all over the place, and I have almost no idea what half of what I pass on Cosgrove Street is all about.

Which is why I like how Greenman points out that the Fair is a “period of education.” Education cuts both ways, as she writes about the art exhibition: 

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“Artists from all over the state have a chance to exhibit and win a prize. It is often their opening wedge to a larger public.

“No longer do paintings consist of snow scenes painted on black velvet with real mother-of-pearl moons or Indian heads painted on whisk broom holders. [Around 1915, under new leadership] they boosted the prizes – imported European shows and gave the public the fireworks of new art movements. As one public complained: ‘You have given us Hungarian goulash, Spanish omelet, French pastry. Where’s our good old ham & eggs?’ A revolution had taken place in art.”

Oh, whine whine whine, anonymous long-dead fairgoer. There’s plenty of ham and eggs to go around, literally and figuratively. But here Greenman has identified not only the central joy of the fine arts exhibitions at the Fair, but also the push-pull (to use a phrase coined by Hans Hofmann, one of those arts revolutionaries Greenman alludes to) that defines that joy.

fine arts building
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Being featured in the Fine Arts building at the State Fair is a great honor for Minnesota artists.

The push: being recognized and awarded at the State Fair is and has always been a great honor for Minnesota artists of all kinds, and certainly a wedge to a larger public. When we met the late Minneapolis-via-Harlem artist Mike Bannarn in a column a few months ago, I specifically pointed out he’d won some top honors at the Fair in 1931 and ‘41, being the first African-American so honored, and then wrote: “it sounds so unlikely now, but really, read the bio of any Minneapolis artist born before 1940, and you’ll find listings of State Fair awards very close to the top of his or her lists of professional accomplishments.” A ribbon or medal at the Fair was incredibly legitimizing during Bannarn and Greenman’s era. It remains legitimizing. This is rightfully so, because the caliber of the work displayed has traditionally been very high – even cutting edge, actually. For example, Bannarn was almost certainly one of the most gifted and progressive local artists of his generation, and his work received top honors. The brick building that houses the fine arts still has an air of Beaux Arts elegance and edification; it’s closer to World’s Fair than county fair.

Now, the pull: honored though it may be, your work is being exhibited several yards away from a barn full of goats.

people admiring works
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Artwork at the Fair is seen by thousands.

The State Fair is the very definition of “populist.” Thousands and thousands of more people see (and hopefully enjoy) the work on display in the Fine Arts Building then would see it if it were exhibited at every single gallery and institution in the state. It’s a huge, engaged audience. And as Greenman suggests, the work is not black velvety kitsch. Well, some of it is, a small percentage, but there’s also a lot of work by both talented amateurs and locally based career artists whose work has been shown internationally and is in a few very expensive private collections. And they’re all mixed in together. 

One heartening example is a piece by Andy DuCett, whose piece “Thumbs Up (We Must Be Living Right)” won first place in the Drawings and Pastels category this year (disclosure: Andy is a good friend). He’s a well-known and much-exhibited artist regionally, but as populist in temperament as one can imagine. His work often includes nods to pro football, consumer electronics, and science magazines. People get his work immediately when they see it, especially people who typically wouldn’t think of themselves as the sorts to frequent art galleries. It was really enjoyable to hang back and watch kids, teenagers, parents, couples and assorted fairgoers get right up into his piece and excitedly discuss the many buzzing details in the 4-foot long drawing. 

Every day this year, there will be an artist at work in the Fine Arts Building, for 12 hours, as part of the 12’12’12’ project. On the day I visited, it was Michelle Westmark, a photographer whose work also has a social practice component I admire. Westmark was running a project while she worked called “The Telephone Booth.” It involved loaning out plastic Holga cameras to fairgoers, who were instructed to go out and shoot an image that brought to mind a phrase provided by the previous photographer. Upon completion, the photographer would supply Westmark with a second phrase that also described their image, to be given to the next person to shoot on the camera. A game of telephone develops, with each photo obliquely referencing the former somehow. The images will be posted on the project’s Facebook page over the next week or two.

Michelle Westmark
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Michelle Westmark in front of her “Telephone Booth” project

It was amusing to watch Westmark, an accomplished photographer, re-orient people with manual cameras like the Holga, the sort most people haven’t used in at least 10 or 15 years. “Remember,” she noted to one couple. “Don’t open the back of the camera. That’ll expose the film.” The person looked confused for a moment, and then remembered: “Oh! Right! It’s got film. I remember that.” Then they ran out to go shoot their assigned phrase. The idea of art being a venue for an ongoing conversation between all sorts of people – both amateur and professional – seemed right at home.

There are three equally important stops at the State Fair for aesthetes. One is the Fine Arts exhibition, covered this week. Next week, we’ll look at the other two, the “creative activities” categories and the seed art. I know that the Fair will be over by the time it runs next Wednesday, but maybe it will give us a good opportunity to reflect on past events (also, the photos will be better). I am separating these three disciplines into two columns solely for reasons related to space, not related to the hierarchical, innate cultural value of one over the other. Let it never be said that I am not a temperamentally populist admirer of all forms of creative activity. Even when there’s a barn full of goats nearby.

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Especially when there’s a barn full of goats nearby.