Amanda Curreri thought the space was lovely.
“To have the work get to have more air,” she said.
It was her work she was referring to — the first big, five-gallery show the mixed-media artist from Cincinnati, Ohio, has had.
It took a team of support, she said, to make the experience happen. Inspired by a quote from Emily Dickinson’s poetry (“The calmest of us would be lunatics”), the large scope, and space, was intended to inspire conversation; it allowed the people and the works to “talk.”
“It really describes, I think, a feeling I get when I encounter social injustice,” Curreri said of the quote.
Curreri said she inhabits that “weird space” between visual communication and social organizing tactics; her work does the same, so more formal art paintings can coexist with a simple dinner invitation for the “first eight brave souls” who want to hang out and eat mussels.
Clam shells, suspended from wooden sticks, also occupied the same space, inspired by a Boston, Mass., labor protest in 1917, where Italian-American anarchists rattled them in the streets as protest. Her shells, she said, were collected from dinners over the past year.
“So, the material is feeding into the interaction,” she said.
Could we live in a world without social injustice?
“Yes,” she said. “I like the impossible answer. It’s an easy answer: Yes. How is the hard question.”
And, then a pause for thought.
“I don’t belong in this world if other people aren’t able to be themselves,” she said.
She’s not alone. Hundreds of people filled the art center, many from the community, but some from as far away as Fargo, N.D.; a busload from the Twin Cities came, too. And, most noticeably, a few women wearing gorilla masks.
The Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover, running through March, will include more than 30 arts and cultural organizations in the Twin Cities and surrounding cities. While it celebrates the Guerrilla Girls’ 30th anniversary as an “activist art collective,” it made its way to Rochester on Jan. 22. The project will include free exhibition openings and youth-oriented events at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minnesota Museum of American Art, Rochester Art Center and Walker Art Center.
The tie-in was, in large part, due to the arts center’s new executive director, Megan Johnston, who has a long history with the Guerrilla Girls, starting with a 2008 exhibition she helped organize as a curator in Portadown, Ireland.
“A lot of us grew up learning about these artists, this collective group action, and we all wanted to be Guerrilla Girls or we wanted to act like Guerrilla Girls,” she said. “When I found out that the Guerrilla Girls were still around, I thought, ‘I’m just going to go for it.’ I emailed them and just said, ‘Would you be willing to come to Ireland?’”
She staged an event with “the girls” again, albeit differently, in the Twin Cities in 2014. She wanted to change the way art institutes function, she said, how they collaborate and support one another. Not just a show, not just an intervention, but a non-hierarchical way of working.
And without over-simplifying it too much, that’s how they landed in Rochester. The art center is well-respected in the Twin Cities, she said, and it’s not seen as “just a provincial outpost.”
Why the Guerrilla Girls keep saying yes to Johnston, whom they refer to as their “unsung hero,” works on several levels, but one of them is pretty straight forward.
“They’re friends now,” Johnston said.
Many local artists could be found wandering the halls of the art center, but so could out-of-towners such as Sara Suppan. She’s been working on the project for a year and a half as the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s intern. That’s meant researching what kinds of things the Guerrilla Girls have done in other places.
“I think the most important thing that’s come out of this is just bringing all the galleries and institutions together under kind of one roof,” Suppan said.
She noted they’ve never seen community involvement on this scale before.
At a talk back, hosted by curator Susannah Magers, Curreri found herself between two of the Guerrilla Girls, whose masks, alas, rendered a lot of their important message inaudible. (Microphones, it seems, don’t function well when shrouded in anonymity.)
Still, talk they did, specifically about the under-representation of women and minority groups in the art world, a problem too many people think was solved in the 1960s and 1970s; it hasn’t been. The numbers, they said, are still abysmally low, especially amongst major galleries.
‘Artists are prophets’
Something else was at the core of their message, and it has to do with how art students are still taught.
“Students are kind of sick of the kind of commercial role, the commercial aspirations of some of the arts’ schools,” one of the Guerrilla Girls said.
Finding a style, a gallery, identifying a collector; it’s preparing them, she said, for depression and failure. They know they have to invent ways of living as an artist.
“Many are called, few are chosen,” she said.
The starry crowd found the event exciting, which was certainly the case for Rochester Civic Theatre Executive Director Gregory Stavrou.
“Throughout history, we have always had dialogues through art,” Stavrou said. “Why? Because all dialogue includes an emotional element. And, only through the arts can we express emotion, as opposed to describing it.”
Artists, he said, speak the truth when others cannot; in the case of the Guerrilla Girls, they were talking about exclusion 30 years ago.
“Artists are prophets,” he said.