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Public Functionary: A Prologue

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Public Functionary is a space still in the process of being articulated, but one that boasts an audacious start: a fantastic website with intriguing quotes hinting at its vision; an ambitious Kickstarter project that has now been fully funded; and an impressive roster of founders getting it off the ground. Whatever its eventual path, it is already setting an engaging example for an organization arriving fully formed, thinking deeply about  how exhibitions expand from the gallery through multimedia experiences and what it means to be a socially-engaged gallery in the twenty-first century. I briefly spoke with Public Functionary’s Director and Curator, Tricia Khutoretsky, via email to get a preview of what to expect from this Minneapolis-based space set to open in early 2013 and what is informing their development this far.
James McAnally: Public Functionary seems to rise from a distinct point of view of what an arts organization should do and be. What led to starting this project?
Tricia Khutoretsky: I’ve spent close to 13 years involved in arts and culture based projects in Minneapolis, but I never saw myself starting an arts organization. Somehow opportunities and collaborations aligned and Public Functionary happened organically. The project seemed to grow in it’s own, fed by ideas that made sense and people that were excited about it. If we have a distinct point of view it’s based on our collective experience, research, observation and participation in the arts community here.

JM: What is the background of the organizer(s)? Have you worked in these areas before?

TK: It’s safe to say we’ve worked in these areas before…

I had just completed a Master’s program in Arts and Cultural Management, when I started working with Permanent Art and Design Group, an arts based creative agency. Besides design and marketing client work, Permanent managed 2 commercial galleries in Minneapolis. They brought me on as a curator for the 2 galleries. XYandZ Gallery focused on solo shows with emerging to mid-career artists. CO Exhibitions was more experimental, with large movable walls in a warehouse space co-operated with a screenprint and design shop, Burlesque of North America. Meanwhile, I was also working as a contract curator for a local social service non-profit, The Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project developing their art program to build understanding between Americans and Iraqi’s in response to the Iraq war. I organized several grant-funded exhibits of contemporary American and Iraqi art focused on dialogue and cultural understanding.

So all these experiences are running through my consciousness… add in the experiences of the Permanent Art and Design Group partners. Kate Iverson is well known in the Twin Cities for her work as editor of L’etoile Magazine, and as a publicist and producer for various arts organizations and large-scale events, such as Art-A-Whirl. Mike Bishop, originally founded XYandZ Gallery, based more on with an MBA from St. Thomas University than art history, drawing from business consulting and strategy. Joseph Belk, has a storied background in design, marketing, and production, from starting a design/print studio Overproof, to producing public art events such as Save Canvas (a large-scale art installation held in abandon storefronts in Downtown Minneapolis), to founding CO Exhibitions.

Permanent was realizing that operating 2 galleries was spreading them thin, plus I kept realizing that what we were doing with art made more sense away from the commercial gallery model and towards a non-profit model. Ready to outgrow the 2 galleries and move into one space, Permanent was also enthusiastic about the idea of having me head up the new gallery, while they focused instead on their growing creative agency. The plan was to develop a hybrid model for an exhibition space, which would benefit from solid design and marketing strategy through collaboration and consultation with Permanent, and share resources but operate separately as a non-profit. That was over a year ago, and Public Functionary was launched into development.

JM: Where does PF fit in the spectrum of work being done in the Twin Cities? Is there a void it is filling?

TK: My predecessors, some amazing arts organizations in the Twin Cities such as Soo Vac, Intermedia Arts, Midway Contemporary Art, The Soap Factory, etc were all founded at a particular time, in response to a particular need in the arts community. Perhaps the need was raw space, solo artist shows, support for emerging artists, or cultural diversity. Today, there is plenty of space for local artists to show their work a multitude of organizations that offer artists abundant resources. What is missing is a space that can balance community inclusivity with high-quality, local and internationally focused contemporary art exhibits. Minneapolis is full of arts enthusiasts, but the art scene here is often one-dimensional. A multi-dimensional space to me would consider relevant communication and technology to find an entry point for the community to engage more fully with artist’s work and in that way, find new ways to generate artist support. As well, I want to create a space that can dually serve the purpose of social space and contemporary art space without compromising either.

JM: Judging from your website and preliminary statements, there seems to be a particular emphasis on exhibition design, edging into a view of exhibitions as “social sculpture.” How are you conceiving your exhibitions in physical space?

Exhibition design is certainly a major focus of Public Functionary because I don’t believe that it is possible for modern audiences to be engaged with artwork that is shown on the same white walls, in the same square room time and time again. The speed of life with daily information overload makes it almost impossible to expect undivided attention. People want to be stimulated, to participate, interact, Instagram and tweet all at the same time. We’re working on finding a balance that affords art the basic rights of solid, clean walls and proper lighting but also presents exhibits in a way that is unexpected and engaging. Often art is alienating and difficult, which is absolutely pointless because what is art if not useful to society?  Recently, art criticism is being discussed as completely irrelevant and falling to pieces because it doesn’t serve any purpose of connecting the public to art. And in terms of social sculpture… exactly! The entire curatorial focus could easily be related to a Beuys’s inspired theory that art does not operate outside of context. Artists need a conduit, one that takes the time to understand the message and the absolute best way to communicate it for this to happen… perhaps a hint into the name “Public Functionary.”

JM: In a practical sense, what kinds of events are being planned? What is your curatorial and programmatic approach? What are the first few events scheduled?

TK: Expanding on the idea of context, Public Functionary will present 4-6 exhibits throughout the year — some solo shows, some group shows with a mix of contemporary artists from local to international, all of which in some way relate to a yearly theme (generally a socially-relevant theme). The purpose is to build dialogue throughout the year, develop threads and establish context for the work. A four week exhibit comes and goes much too fast for anyone in a busy world to fully connect with it, so the art shown at Public Functionary will never exist in a vacuum. As a parallel approach to developing context, we’ll focus on content-creation and sharing online various forms of media; video and photography, artist studio visits and discussion of process. The entire year of related exhibits will unfold and can be referenced online as well. And because our goal is to reach outside the arts scene to build community and social engagement through art, we’ll bring in cross-sector collaborators and community partners for events, panels and supplementary programming (film/music) based on their relevance to each exhibit.

JM: How is PF organized (non-profit, for-profit, artist-run, etc)? There is a lot of debate currently on how organizations should be structured and how that relates to their role in the community. The space in many ways seems to cross some of these boundaries, so I’m curious — what led to your structure?

TK: Public Functionary is structuring itself as a non-profit. I think that a lot of organizations today either try to fit themselves into what they think a “non-profit” is supposed to look and feel like or abandon it altogether. The amazing thing about being a legal non-profit entity is that there is a very clear, simple expectation: you have to be completely transparent, declare your mission, your governance and your rules — and abide by them. There is more freedom in this than most people think. Everything is in your favor to be successful and to be innovative. However, you exist for the public, for your community. So consider them, include them and reflect them in everything you do. Perhaps it’s a romanticized perspective, but strip down the idea of a non-profit to the basics, and adapt based on current culture, communication and technology and the possibilities are endless.

JM: What is your long-term vision for the space? You are at the outset of an ambitious project and so I’m curious to hear where you hope it leads in years to come.

TK: Given that everything about this concept is built around the idea that we will continue to be responsive, I can’t quite say what the long-term vision is because essentially it is to always evolve. But I do at the very least hope that in the years to come we have accomplished our goal to re-imagine what an exhibition space can provide to artists and community, and paved a way for a gallery model of the future. I hope we’ve invigorated the Northeast Arts District in significant ways. And… our one story building has a flat roof that could make an unbelievable rooftop garden/green space/sculpture park facing the train bridge, where graffiti splattered trains fly by throughout the day.

All images courtesy of Public Functionary.

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