Minneapolis artists from 1970s collective reuniteby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Just a few blocks from the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis stands a nondescript warehouse that, 35 years ago, housed artists of another generation. They called the building "The Ranch," and for 15 years it was a hub of activity and inspiration. Those same artists have reunited to tell their story, and to show their work as a group for the first time.
St. Paul, Minn. — In 1970, a group of students from the sculpture department at the University of Minnesota convinced the owner of a former flophouse to rent it to them. Artist Lester Hoikka says they were dirt poor, and were looking not just for a place to work, but a place to live.
"When I started there it was $75 a month, which included a huge studio space," says Hoikka. "So it made not being able to work full time -- if you're gonna create stuff -- it made that a doable thing."
Hoikka says while there were other artist collectives in the state at the time -- "Fort Mango," "The Skunk House" -- they were just studio spaces. The Ranch was the only collective where the artists both worked and lived together.
Artist Lynn McMahill says it paid dividends artistically.
"We'd toss around ideas, be critics for each other, get in fierce arguments -- it was fabulous," says McMahill. "We celebrated holidays together as a huge group. It was both social and basically stimulating, and we could afford it."
McMahill was a photographer at the time, and took black and white portraits of her friends, which she then hand-painted with color. She led the charge to clean out building; she remembers resorting to throwing things out the windows in order to save trips on the stairs.
Now McMahill works as an art director for commercials in New York City. She says the collective's reunion and group exhibition, now on display at Gallery 13 in Minneapolis, has inspired her to pick up her camera again.
Fellow Ranch resident David Kenyon was a potter and sculptor back in the '70s, and he still does some sculpture in his free time. Now Kenyon makes his living as a building inspector for the city of St. Paul, and says he sees his days at the Ranch in a whole new light.
"I find it incredibly amazing what we got away with at the Ranch," laughs Kenyon. "The work that was done without any sort of supervision from the city at all. It would never fly these days. It just could not happen."
Kenyon admits that part of the appeal of moving into the Ranch Collective was that it had a hip reputation, and pretty girls would hang out there. But it was also an important source of support in a world where not many people really cared about art.
"We saw people working hard every day making art," says Kenyon. "I don't know that any of us were really making much of a living, but we didn't need to make much of a living. The artist's way was maybe one good pair of tennis shoes and one lousy pair of tennis shoes, and a couple pairs of jeans -- and that was all you really needed."
The Ranch Collective's exhibition brings together the work of 16 artists, including a wide variety of sculpture, photography and paintings. And it includes a photo documentary of life at the Ranch.
Gallery 13 co-owner Steve Sugarman says he hopes the show reveals the lengths to which artists must often go in order to do what they love.
"Which is something the public isn't always aware of," says Sugarman. "They look at a finished piece of work on the wall. But they don't understand what the artist has to commit to in order to be an artist, that there actually is a major effort put into that lifestyle in order to make artwork."
The Ranch Collective was eventually shut down by the building's owner in the 1980s. The building once known as the Ranch still stands, at the corner of Washington Ave. and 11th St. It's now home to a comics store.
The exhibition of the Ranch Collective's work, titled "Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch," runs through Sunday.
- All Things Considered, 11/02/2007, 5:49 p.m.