ARThouse: home to contemporary art missionaries

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ARThouse, located in New London, Minnesota brings contemporary art to a rural setting.

Andrew Nordin and Lisa Bergh want YOU to get to know contemporary art.

Nordin and Bergh moved to New London, Minnesota about five years ago with their young son. Located about 50 miles southwest of St. Cloud, New London is not what one might consider a typical artist’s haven. It’s a quiet country town. But Bergh says once you have a small child the urban artist’s lifestyle doesn’t look nearly as glamorous.

We love our country life. I thought it was going to take forever to adapt, but within a week I lost all desire for Starbucks.

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Andrew Nordin and Lisa Bergh in front of their New London home, which they transform every few months into a gallery for contemporary art.

Nordin teaches art at St Cloud State, and Bergh does marketing for a local winery, but they are also both working artists. And they did miss the vibrant art experiences they were used to finding in a big city.

Rather than complain, they set about creating their own alternative.

For the past four years, Bergh and Nordin have been periodically taking out all of their living room furniture and storing it on their neighbor’s porch, while they convert their house into a gallery space. The exhibitions last just one day, and feature the work of a Minnesota artist whose work they admire. They called their phantom gallery “ARThouse.”

Bergh says the first time they hosted a show, they were delighted by who showed up.

It was a completely different audience than I’d ever experienced. It was far more casual, far less pretentious, and many people with no direct connection to the arts. They asked some of the most engaging questions of our artists; they want to know about the materials, the process, the lives of the artists, how they get their ideas.

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Art House events draw in New London neighbors and Twin Cities curators who are willing to make the four-hour round-trip drive for this one day exhibition.

At every ARThouse event, the first fifteen people who show up for the exhibition get a “door prize” – an original work of art by the guest artist. The art is in the living room, the food in the dining room, beverages in the kitchen (visitors are welcomed to help themselves to white wine in the fridge and beer in the cooler), and a band plays out in the backyard. There are lots of chairs for people to grab and hang out while listening to the music.

Scott Stulen is on the staff of Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and was the featured artist in ARThouse’s second show. He says ARThouse feels like a blend of a contemporary art opening, a block party and a county fair. And it works.

It’s really important that it’s here, and in some person’s house. There are certain expectations around how you behave in a gallery versus how you feel in someone’s home. Many of the people here wouldn’t be comfortable going to the Walker Art Center, but they do feel comfortable here. And they’re seeing really cutting edge work.

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An image from Scott Stulen’s exhibition at ARThouse in 2007. Stulen grew up in nearby Spicer, and paid homage to his youth by transforming an old snowmobile into a glowing beacon. The snowmobile is now on display at a bank in nearby Atwater.

Stulen calls One artist friend called Lisa Bergh and Andrew Nordin “contemporary art missionaries,” and Bergh loves the description. For her, one of the primary goals of ARThouse is to make contemporary art accessible to people who might not otherwise feel welcome or engaged.

Contemporary art can and should be everywhere – there’s no reason it should be exclusive to urban environments. I’m always excited to have students come to our events and talk to artists who are living and working in outstate Minnesota.

She also wants residents of New London to be comfortable not just looking at contemporary art, but living with it. Thus the door prizes. Bergh says some of her neighbors who have come regularly over the past four years now have pretty extraordinary collections.

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Artist Karl Unnasch set up a table on the Nordin/Bergh’s front porch, so that he could show visitors how he creates his artwork.

This past Saturday’s featured artist was Karl Unnasch. Unnasch decided to take the whole concept of connecting people to art one step further. He invited people to send him personal objects, which he would then transform into a work of art. At the end of the evening, they got to take their newly transformed works home.

I congratulate them on being brave, because they’re stepping up to give me something of theirs, and they have no idea what I’m going to do to it. I might add context, change the context, maybe make it more beautiful, maybe not.

For the duration of Saturday’s show, Unnasch set up a workbench on the front porch, so that he could greet everyone who walked in the door, and simultaneously invite them into the art-making process.

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Karl Unnasch’s “The Lure of Pork”

ARThouse may only exhibit shows three or four days out of the year, but it’s still being recognized for its impact. Greta Murray is the Executive Director of the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council, which just gave ARThouse a grant for the current exhibition year. She says ARThouse is one of the coolest things happening in the region.

It’s not the kind of art that people are used to seeing. There are abstract and contemporary artists who work in regional Minnesota, but they’re not well exhibited in the area. So this is an opportunity to see something really unusual in our own backyard.

Murray says she believes the house/gallery is exposing area youth to new and creative ideas. She says ARThouse is particularly successful at making itself both accessible and enticing. The art is typically smart and witty, and often involves flows out of the living room onto the yard, or onto the exterior of the house itself, drawing passers-by in.

ARThouse will next open to the public on September 25, with an exhibition of Andrew Nordin and Lisa Bergh’s own work.

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