Collective consciousness

Meg Novak sees herself as a counterpoint to the dominant story about the successful artist in today’s society. For one thing, she’s political, working to connect cultures; second, her success hasn’t come from struggling bravely alone in her studio, climbing over the backs of her competition, jealously guarding her techniques and currying the favor of the art establishment. She’s had conversations across cultural barriers. She collaborated. She organized her own art collective, and she called it Babylon.

Among artists, a collective can be a group loosely connected around shared political or artistic goals, or more practically focused around studio or exhibition space. Informal art collectives can happen on the neighborhood stoop, where the talk is art and action and the only contribution required is time. Or a collective might function as a member-run gallery in which artists pay dues, organize their own show and keep all the profits. 

Historically, collective organizations have appealed to utopians and radicals alike because they eliminate hierarchy, equalize members and work with a shared vision. With or without a physical space, collectives produce work, organize shows and influence one another along the way. 

Love is the stuff out of which these bonds are made. For the artists, the rewards are often creative. The struggle to achieve consensus can be painful, but it pays off in pride of ownership, inspiration, constructive feedback and a deep connection to fellow members. Collectively, they say, they’ve been more productive, more inspired and even more successful when their resources are pooled. 

Arts collectives can be empowering to women, said Amy Rice, a member of Rosalux Gallery in Minneapolis, where all members are encouraged to speak their minds. “To be part of a collective you have to be willing to not just be a follower, to be a co-member and [believe] that it’s important.” 

Here’s a look at four Twin Cities collectives, the work they do and the visions they share.


Art in action

The Babylon Collective embodies the classic model of the political collective—with a twist. The members are dedicated to producing artwork, but they couldn’t escape the politics of our time.

From the beginning, commitment to social and political justice has been central to the four-year-old group. Babylon has always been led by women and supportive of women far beyond the scope of an immediate neighborhood, from the Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association to the Women’s Prison Book Project in Minneapolis. But their concerns don’t stop at gender.

They are more interested in upending the mainstream art world than gaining acceptance in it. The collective model, integral to radical organizing, has never been easy, but neither are their goals. 

“What I’m trying to do with my art is build a different kind of society and to do that, we have to learn how to work together,” said Meg Novak, one of the founding members. “So it’s definitely a direct experience in direct democracy and decisionmaking by everybody involved that I really value.” 

Working collectively can be complicated, but it is also rewarding, she said. “It’s not the most efficient way of running things, for sure,” she said. “So that to me, because I’m a very goal-oriented person, is the most challenging. But it’s also the most rewarding, because you meet people through that process that you know you’re going to work with the rest of your life, which you wouldn’t if it was just top-down decisionmaking that was going on.”

Artists have come to Babylon because they were fed up with other political organizations, Novak said, and because they were looking for “something that’s a little different, creative and also nurturing to yourself.” 

Members don’t pay dues. All Novak asks of people, she said, is their dedication and their time. 

Although the group was hit hard when their gallery on East Lake Street in Minneapolis was lost in a fire last January, their work has no borders now.

Murals have become the central vehicle for the group’s expression, and its members cover a range of styles, from painting, poster art, collage, installation and graffiti. But they’re united by more than just a brick wall covered with a vivid scene.

The style suits Novak’s mission to break down the mainstream art world, to raise questions and build an international consciousness of radical resistance.

Since the fire, they have struggled with how to do their work without a place. 

For Novak, a host of future projects and connections emerged from a difficult, but ultimately fruitful journey to Mexico, a trip they’d been planning for a year.

At the end of August, 10 Babylon muralists returned from an intense three weeks in Mexico, where they were the only U.S. representatives at a political art conference, the Art of Resistance. After the conference, they traveled to southern Mexico to paint murals based on the oral histories of the indigenous Zapatista villagers. 

Novak is committed to building an international network of artists in resistance and making Minnesota fertile ground for a regional conference like the one they just attended. 

“People are elevated in art history through their personal accomplishments, not through achieving political gains or changing the discourse in society. That’s not seen as the same value as having a few masterpieces in a museum,” Novak said. 

If Babylon is successful, they’ll tweak that value system along the way.


The mothership

The Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota (www.thewarm.org) grew out of a different take on politics: the kind that works within the system to improve conditions for women artists. When they began organizing in the mid-1970s, the collective was a popular model. Not many of those groups survived. WARM has achieved more than survival.

The historic mothership for women artists has been managing without grant support, a gallery space or an executive director, but 30 years after they began, the WARM still gathers to encourage every generation of women artists in the field and in the studio.

Boasting a membership of more than 150 women, the organization isn’t so much a collective as it is an entirely volunteer-run resource for women artists. The philosophical center of the group, the mentorship program, pairs younger artists, or protégées, with experienced artists. Mentor pairs meet an average of 40 times over two years; protégées also can attend two workshops, one on the business of art and one that teaches alternatives to the withering art school critique. 

Mentor pairs don’t have to work in the same medium as much as share a philosophy about their work. The protégées conclude their two-year mentorship with a group show. The next show will be held in fall 2006. 

Fiber artist Karen Searle has been a mentor six times. Searle says the flow of energy and ideas goes both ways. Mentors advise, but her protégées have influenced her work as well, she said.

Despite gains for women artists in the art world, Searle thinks WARM’s mission and mentoring is still needed. A woman just graduating from art school might not perceive inequities, but at the top of the arts echelon, she said, it is still a man’s world.

WARM has also been working to reconnect to a broader arts community, through monthly coffee meets at galleries or museums—an opportunity for members to enjoy new work—and their Fresh Art gathering, open to both members and nonmembers, where artists share work and conversation. A new partnership with Amazon Bookstore Collective, WARM Works Events, offers an exhibition space for emerging artists. The current exhibit features Amy Chester’s art dolls in a show called “The Dreaming Soul—Expressions of the Spirit” in the bookstore’s downstairs reading nook.

Their December 1 fundraising exhibition and auction, “Seeds,” will support the creation of a permanent office and gallery space. 


Rosalux: members-owners-artists

Rosalux Gallery (www.rosaluxgallery.com) may seem just like any other fine art gallery. But every time you walk in, you’re going to meet an artist, a dues-paying member of the group. Housed in Open Book in Minneapolis, the 24 members of the Rosalux collective have created their own self-sustaining gallery and support network; decisions are made jointly, and each artist is guaranteed a two-person show every year and a place on the collective’s web site. 

Jennifer Davis, a member artist since 2002, said before she joined she was working as a painter and doing all right, but something was missing. 

“I just started to miss being part of a community, like when I was in school,” she recalled. One way or another, the group found her and asked her to join. “And now some of my best friends are in the group. I just love it.” 

One of the benefits of being involved is that you get a say, Davis explained. 

Something that sounds so simple can trigger an incalculable amount of creative growth.

Amy Rice, who also paints and does collage, had long admired Davis’ work from afar. She went to the openings of her shows for a while, and thought Rosalux seemed full of amazing artists with impressive resumes, but never thought she had anything to contribute to the group. Then she had a change of heart. Rice was proud when she was accepted at Rosalux. 

“I feel like belonging there my work has really improved, that I’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback and good, constructive criticism and that I’ve been inspired by a lot of the techniques and methods of other artists,” Rice said.

Now, Rice and Davis are collaborating, with Rice making hand-cut stencils from Davis’ paintings and Davis using collaged elements from Rice’s pieces. Rice recently started showing Davis her spray painting technique.

Swapping knowledge, experience and technique seems to happen naturally at Rosalux. It begins at the regular meetings, and when all the member artists try to attend everyone else’s openings. It might happen afterwards in the bar. 

Although the artists aren’t engaging in formalized critiques as in art school, they’re gaining much more from their built-in network of peers. They’re picking up informal conversation, whimsical collaboration and constructive criticism from other serious artists with a wide range of experiences. 

Collectives have always been important to Rice. As a sociology major at Augsburg in the early ’90s, she worked at the cooperatively run Seward Café in Minneapolis. She isn’t drawn to that kind of organization because it’s not the easiest way to do business.

“It’s hard, and sometimes it’s painful and it takes longer and sometimes it really sucks, but I think that overall what ends up is of better quality, whatever you’re trying to accomplish,” Rice said.

Rosalux member Camille Gage said that, for her, working collectively is less of a political statement than a state of mind. “I think it’s that self-selected group of people willing to make a greater commitment, and then hopefully, just being a part of a group like that keeps you engaged. I have found that to be very true. I’m producing more work and selling more work by far than I did before I joined Rosalux.”


Laurel Poetry Collective

Teaching poetry for decades at Hamline University in St. Paul, Deborah Keenan was often struck by all the strong writing she saw around her—from students, peers and friends. 

“Minnesota’s just so lousy with good writers,” Keenan said. “There are a lot of people who don’t ever get their breaks.” 

So in a confident blast of stamina and energy she decided to do something about it. Three years ago, Keenan called up 45 people to gather in her St. Paul living room to discuss a poetry and publishing project. A few meetings later, those discussions had blossomed into the Laurel Poetry Collective (www.laurelpoetry.com), a group of 21 writers, a book designer and a letterpress printer who were interested in publishing small, artistic books of poetry, one from each writer over a four-year period.

“There was a great feeling in the beginning of wanting simplicity,” Keenan recalled: A special kind of simplicity found in sets of old books she and others collected and saved. They wanted to make books that could stand as a set and as individual works of art.

Since then, the collective has produced books by 13 poets and three anthologies. 

“We were very clear from the beginning that we wanted not just the words, but image,” said Keenan. “We really wanted to honor that part of it. We wanted some things about our press to be hand made, so we really somehow pulled that off. All of us work essentially for nothing of course, but we’ve done it and we’ve been able to keep the quality high and the costs low.”

One reason for their success: The collective was clear about their goals from the beginning. They agreed on a mission, hired a CPA, selected a treasurer and established a flexible range of dues. 

They even researched collectives. 

“All of the advice we’d gotten was we were insane to try to do a large one, because the only ones that were successful were like six to 12 [people], at the most.” 

Three years into it, their partnership is in the black.

“I think we’re sort of charming to people in the real world, like we’re so happy about our broadsides and our books and our little savings account,” said Keenan. 

Part of what doesn’t come up in the history of other collectives is how it changes the individual. The partnership that happens when the book artist and the poet come together deepens everyone’s understanding of the project, explained letterpress printer Regula Russelle. Poets, who surround their words with white space, tend to care a lot about the visual effect. And printers, so focused on type and the look of a page, deeply absorb the words on the page. 

Although she’s not a writer, Russelle, a print artist in residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, said the group readings are, for her, the most powerful thing about the collective. It’s an honor, she said, to be surrounded by such wonderful writers, reciting the poems in their own voices. 

“Writing is solitary work,” Russelle noted. She thought for a moment. “Printing is too.”