Inside the Mind of Andy Sturdevant

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.

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