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In Minneapolis, garages serve as galleries, theaters

For artist/gallerist Pete Driessen and the theater artists of Off-Leash Area, turning their garages into art spaces provided opportunities for innovation, experimentation and freedom.

Artist Pete Driessen started house-hunting hoping to find a house with a garage big enough for an art studio.
Photo by Bill Kelley
The Line

When Minneapolis artist Pete Driessen started house-hunting, he looked at 250 properties before he founded what he wanted: a mid-century bungalow with a garage big enough for an art studio. But he never moved his studio from the Casket Arts building in Northeast Minneapolis to his new home in the Fulton neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis. Instead, he turned his tuck-under garage and various spots in his yard into exhibition space he collectively calls TuckUnder Projects.

“I wanted to work with a wider range of ideas not in my painting or in my artistic practice, ideas beyond 2-D that explored critical practice and social participation,” Driessen explains. He’s accomplished this by turning not only the garage but also areas throughout the yard into research, collaboration and exhibition space.

tuckunder garage
Photo by Bill Kelley
Driessen turned his tuck-under garage and various spots in his yard into exhibition space he collectively calls TuckUnder Projects.

On a recent Saturday evening, Jeremy Szopinski’s painting show “The Thousandfold Principle” was on view in the garage; Noah Harmon had posted his provocative prints in the bathroom, aka the Leaky Sink Gallery; and Marlaine Cox and Karen Kasel were launching a “Sunflower Revolution” by handing out hand-sewn packets of sunflower seeds. The place was abuzz.

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Widely exhibited as an artist, Driessen has also taught college art classes, participated in numerous panels, and worked as an art curator. So he knows the Twin Cities arts scene. Establishing exhibition space in his garage and throughout his yard, he says, was liberating, a way to “stay outside and on the fringes of the corporate control mechanisms that galleries and museums have to keep artists from doing what they want to do.”

Opening an art gallery in a garage, apartment, alleyway, basement or attic isn’t new.

“Many well-known artists, curators, critics, and dealers started with a small show in their apartment, or an art-party in an alley, so it is not an unprecedented way to get noticed,” writes Matthew Nash, publisher of the online journal Big RED & Shiny. In his book How To Start And Run A Commercial Art Gallery, Edward Winkleman writes about advice received from a friend: “What is an art gallery? It’s a space with art on the walls. If you want to open an art gallery, get a space and put art on the walls.”

Driessen started that way. His first show, in the unrehabbed garage, was of his own work. After receiving an MRAC grant, he got permits, installed and sheetrocked and painted the walls, and updated the garage’s one electrical plug and light switch. He also decided to expand the exhibition space from the traditional “white cube” of the garage gallery.

Artists are also encouraged to work with the ornamental water pump and kitschy woodpecker in the backyard, the three ornamental butterflies beside the front door, the raspberry patch, and a cement platform at the side of the house. Last year, a Kickstarter campaign earned $500 for a pathology research project in the raspberry patch. “These different areas of the property, with the stuff the former owner left here,” Driessen says, “have become components of the artistic practice that occurs here.”

A Minneapolis theater garage

Performing artists are also getting in on the act. For Jennifer Isle and Paul Herwig, co-artistic directors of Off-Leash Area, a contemporary performance group, the detached 2.5-car garage behind their south Minneapolis house was an afterthought — although an intriguing one.

Isle and herwig photo
Photo by Bill Kelley
Jennifer Isle and Paul Herwig are co-artistic directors of Off-Leash Area.

“When we bought the house we walked into the garage and said, ‘Wow. This thing is huge. We could do a show in here!’ ” Isle recalls. “A year later, we thought again, ‘We could actually do a show in here. Why not?’ So we did.”

Isle and Herwig’s lighting designer and electrician, Paul Epton, created a lighting board and sound systems for the garage, put up some lights and rewired the house to ensure fuses connected to the garage wouldn’t blow. Other than that, the couple built a simple raised stage and risers for audience seating, and sewed curtains. Off Leash staged its first garage performance in 2003.

Courtesy of OffLeash Area
The OffLeash auditorium

One of Off Leash Area’s most popular works in the garage has been “A Gift for Planet BX63.” A whimsical, poignant fairy tale with a sci-fi twist, the work features Isle as a young girl ambling through the complex set via seemingly weightless acrobatic choreography. After she meets a trans-dimensional space salesman, Herwig, her solitary life takes on a new twist.

“It definitely gives us a lot of creative freedom,” says Isle of the garage. “In part, because Paul, who is the set designer, can do anything he wants with the space.”

The couple and their additional performers also rehearse in the same space in which they’re going to perform. Isle and Herwig also use the garage to develop and prepare shows they’ll be performing elsewhere, such as the Southern Theater or The Cowles Center.

While rehabbing their garage, Isle and Herwig contacted their neighborhood association and the Minneapolis City Council “to find out whether there was anything we should be concerned about” by holding performances in their garage. They learned they couldn’t sell alcohol and that Minneapolis as a 10 p.m. noise curfew.

They also provide reserved free tickets by invitation only, which allows them to publicize their shows as private or fundraising events. Audience members are asked to donate after the show, if they’re comfortable doing so.

“That works out great,” Isle says. “We get the same average donation all the time.” Isle doesn’t heavily promote the garage performances in her neighborhood. But when she puts show postcards in neighbors’ mailboxes, “a good handful come and have gotten to know us in a more personal way.”

A private public space

Driessen talked to his neighbors before opening his gallery. “They thought it was a neat idea,” he says. “Just like people stop on the sidewalk to talk about the kids, or a problem with their roses, or building a fence, I mentioned I was starting a gallery in my garage. And they invariably said, ‘Oh, cool.’ ”

He also drops off show postcards at the local coffee shop and in people’s mailboxes. Driessen also treats his openings as a private event and subsequently only opens up the gallery by appointment.

Photo by Bill Kelley
“I’m an artist who runs an art business. It’s not a commercial site; if I sell anything, all the money goes to the artist. So while I’m breaking down the traditional walls of what is and isn’t gallery space, on the other hand the finances are seat-of-the-pants.”

“My gallery shows aren’t a ‘scene’; TuckUnder isn’t an entertainment complex,” he says. “I need to maintain good relationships with my neighbors.” He considers his openings get-togethers with friends, “like throwing a party for several hours at your home, or having people over to watch a football game.”

TuckUnder is not a nonprofit, he says. “I’m an artist who runs an art business. It’s not a commercial site; if I sell anything, all the money goes to the artist. So while I’m breaking down the traditional walls of what is and isn’t gallery space, on the other hand the finances are seat-of-the-pants.”

A multiplication of garages

Alternative art spaces, however, often continue to evolve in ways that provide further opportunities for artists. Off-Leash’s garage performances have become so popular, for instance, that Isle and Herwig tour work to other people’s garages. 

The Neighborhood Garage Tour, Isle says, “was one of our board member’s ideas. We thought, ‘Why not?’” Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund is the main funding source for the garage tour, which runs from the last weekend of August through Mid-October.

Off-Leash tours across the Twin Cities metro area with a mobile set and lighting system. This year’s tour reprises last year’s production, “The Picnic,” about a dog and a bird that meet in a park and fall in love. “We try to do the majority of the tour in the suburbs,” Isle says, “to get out of the urban area where our usual audiences are and to provide these other areas with access to live performance.”

Families that host the performances are responsible for marketing and publicizing the shows.

“We give them postcards,” Isle says, “but they need to put them in mailboxes with handwritten notes, or knock doors, or take them to community organizations. This process might be their first big step toward meeting their neighbors or getting their kids to play together. The goal for each host is different.”

Herwig and Epton take care of setting up the show in the garage.

“We develop work that will be accessible to a broad audience, but still retains our artistic integrity,” Isle says. “What we’ve done well is layering the performances in a way that there’s something basic that even a young person or someone with little experience with art can grasp, but has the artistic meat in there — which is why we do art in the first place.”

Adds Driessen, “TuckUnder is outside of the traditional gallery system, and the exhibitions prompt and connect with questions of art on a much different level than when you’re viewing art in a museum.” For artists who undertake such projects in their garages and elsewhere, he says, “You’re not only a creative entrepreneur, but innovator and cultural producer.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.