Interview by Katie Eggers, Photographs by Louisa Podlich
Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Andy Sturdevant came to the Twin Cities seven years ago and quickly made a name for himself as one of the region’s most prolific artists and writers. Besides his day job at Springboard for the Arts in Lowertown St. Paul, he is the brain behind the monthly live-action arts magazine Salon Saloon, co-creates the annual Common Room interactive exhibition series at The Soap Factory and writes a weekly column for MinnPost. And these are just his regular gigs. An erudite amateur of urban planning and an avid collector of subculture minutiae, a conversation with him that was to take place over happy hour drinks quickly turned into a full-fledged dinner—much to the editor’s delight.
On his move
When I moved to Minneapolis in my mid-twenties, I didn’t know anyone up here. I just generally had a good impression of the place. That’s what it came down to. It’s the kind of place that people talk about outside of the region, but they talk about it in very broad, very non-specific, faintly positive terms. It just kind of seemed like a blank slate.
I had never even been to the Twin Cities when I made the decision to move here. I did figure it would be best to visit first though, and I came up here in October for a week by myself. But really, it was a very unassuming week—it was actually very uneventful. It was the kind of week you would expect if you were twenty five years old and rolled into a Midwestern city that you had never been to before. I don’t know what I was expecting—parades or something? It was really uneventful, but I figured, well, you know, good enough. It wasn’t really until the last day, when I went to go see the Soap Factory that I thought, “Oh, I get it, this is it. This will be good”.
On the city, the skyways and the vikings stadium
You can see evidence of the sixties everywhere in town. Every time you come across a parking lot, or a really ugly building—that’s the sixties. Back then, Minneapolis embarked on this utopian mission to remake itself as this hyper-modernist, clean, efficient and very futuristic city. Along the way, a lot of what made it interesting and appealing was ruined. The city was transformed very consciously by a small group of people who wanted to make it work in this very soulless, efficient, mid-century way, but it wasn’t transformed for the better.
Even back then, people questioned how this region fit into the larger picture. After the war, Minneapolis was hemorrhaging people. It had half a million people before World War II and it lost almost 200,000 of them by 1970. There must have been a sense of panic —not only did people not know where Minneapolis stood in relation to the rest of the country, but it was dying and the city was collapsing. That must have been a strange thing to live through. Today, I don’t get that sense anymore. Sure, Minneapolis does struggle to figure out where it fits in the scheme of the rest of the country and other mid-sized American cities, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it is dying. But it did, back then. It must have been a really scary time.
The skyways are another result of the sixties. I am not a big fan. They are the fruit of a very conscious decision. People said: Oh my god, downtown is dying – how can we privatize it? And they created the skyway.
Building a city in hopes that artists will flock to it, is a recipe for lousy art
The way that the city has worked with the Vikings has been very telling. You see these grand ideas of how livable the city is going to be and how we are going to improve access to the riverfront, how there will be more art, and how everything will be more local. So I am surprised when Mayor Rybak, whom I generally love, seems willing to throw all of that aside for the sake of building this horrible, over-subsidized stadium right in the middle of Downtown. It makes me wonder how serious the city really is about the future.
All these visions for Minneapolis are very exciting, but I think that, to a certain extent, you can’t count on these sorts of initiatives working from the top down. Building a city in hopes that artists will flock to it, is a recipe for lousy art. Good planning goes a long way, of course, but many of the things that really make a city great are the things that come up from the bottom. Look back at the last golden age of Minneapolis art in the 1980s—this era was shaped by people that occupied abandoned warehouses and built communities there after the gruesome 1960s era, when the city was pretty much being evacuated.
On media culture and our infatuation with the past
When you look at media from fifty years ago, there was no such thing as a niche audience. People were reading the Minneapolis Tribune or Twin Citean, both of which were meant for a really wide spectrum of people. So many of the mainstream local magazines are still written that way. If I was to come back in fifty years, and if I was to look at some of the glossy magazines, or the newspapers, a lot of the stuff that is going on now, or that we are talking about now wouldn’t even show up, because there’s this idea that there’s still only one, unified mass audience. You would think that the only things that people are talking about today are Real Housewives, and somebody’s house on Lake Minnetonka.
It’s so easy to access things from the past now. If I was living fifty years ago, it would be really hard to find out what was going on fifty years before, and I’d have to do a lot of work. But things have changed and now I can find any image and any reference I want, without doing a lot of work. I could learn about any subject that I could think of. It’s exciting to be able to access the past so readily. All this nostalgic interest and idealized past is a consequence of these things being readily accessible. In terms of people’s interest in retro — a lot of modern technology doesn’t offer any aesthetic distance. Take point-and-shoot digital cameras—people are downloading applications that make pictures look older to aestheticize them. It’s very symptomatic of the time.
On the American Dream, crabby hermits and Minnesota Nice
Is the American Dream still alive? I don’t know that there ever really was an American Dream to begin with. It is such a big country—how can millions of people have the same dream? How can somebody that lives in Manhattan have the same dream as someone that lives on an island in Hawaii? But, on the other hand, if you look at the American Dream as the ability and the expectation to completely transform yourself, that is alive and as well as ever. For me, the idea that you can reinvent yourself again and again until you get it right is one of the most exciting things about being in America. It’s obviously always going to be hard to move across class barriers, but the idea is as alive and well as it has ever been.
That’s still the thing that excites me the most when I think about America, that some scrawny dude from the Iron Range can move to New York and remake himself as a Woodie Guthrie troubadour, bumming around Greenwich Village. And it is exciting that someone can do the opposite of that too. Somebody can move from lower Manhattan into the wilds of Northern Minnesota and remake himself as a crabby hermit. Granted, no one is ever going to make a Martin Scorsese documentary about that person, but the option is always open.
The whole Minnesota Nice thing—the more time I spend here, the more I find it completely ridiculous.
The whole Minnesota Nice thing: the more time I spend here, the more I find it completely ridiculous. There are two parts to it. I think it’s a construct. It’s a cultural idea and a piece of folklore that’s been passed down. When you hear people talk about supposedly Minnesotan traits, they are talking about basic human characteristics. There is this quality where when you talk to a certain type of Minnesotan, and you say: “I went into a restaurant and I had ice cream”, they would answer: “Oh that’s a Minnesotan for ya! Always taking in calories and converting them into energy and storing them as fat, that’s as Minnesota as it gets!” This eagerness to chalk any basic human characteristic up to this specific regional quality—I don’t buy it.
The other part, though – the part about making friends – that part I understand. That can be a difficult thing. That conversation bothers me, because I think that it is genuinely a lot of people’s experience and I don’t quite know what to attribute it to. That’s a tough one. I don’t know if it is more difficult here than anywhere else. I have only lived here for seven years, and I am very happy. I have a very good group of friends. It took some effort. But not an unusual amount.