Soo Visual Arts Center moves to 2909 Bryant Ave. S. this spring. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Soo Visual Arts Center moves to 2909 Bryant Ave. S. this spring. Credit: Dylan Thomas

A new gallery to house SooVAC’s growing ambitions

Updated: December 26, 2014 - 11:08 am

The nonprofit gallery relocates this spring

THE WEDGE — When the hunt for Soo Visual Arts Center’s new home led Carolyn Payne to 2909 Bryant Ave. S., she found an unexpected clue that this, finally, could be the place.

It was when Payne opened the door to the women’s restroom and found a floor-to-ceiling tile mosaic of the “Mona Lisa” staring back at her — a sign, maybe, of a sympathetic landlord. (If you’re curious, it’s Rene Magritte’s “The Son of Man” looming above the toilet paper dispenser in the men’s room.)

With the lease on its Lyndale Avenue storefront expiring, SooVAC could’ve ended up almost anywhere in the Twin Cities this spring. Instead, the non-profit gallery is not only staying in the same neighborhood where it opened in 2001, it’s moving a few blocks closer to the geographic center of the arts-rich 55408 zip code.

When renovations are complete, the new gallery will be as big as SooVAC and its SooLocal auxiliary space on Nicollet Avenue combined, “and a little bit more,” added Payne, the organization’s executive director since 2009. SooVAC’s ambitions are growing to fill it.

SooVAC Executive Director Carolyn Payne inside the new gallery space. Photo by Dylan Thomas

In November, SooVAC surpassed the halfway mark on a $200,000 capital campaign launched last fall. Under Payne’s leadership, the nonprofit has diversified its revenue sources, boosting income from grants and memberships and relying less on art sales — an uncertain funding source at any time, but particularly during a major recession.

SooVAC was one of 15 regional arts organizations that just completed the latest cycle of ArtsLab, a sort of boot camp for arts organizations run by Arts Midwest. Described by Frank Grazzini, a local entrepreneur who sits on SooVAC’s board of directors, as “basically a two-year long consulting session,” the curriculum covers financial planning and fundraising, audience engagement and organizational strategy.

“I think ArtsLab has been great for the credibility of the organization,” Grazzini said.

The experience helped SooVAC secure a Nonprofit Assistance Fund loan that will provide some bridge financing for the move while they wrap up the capital campaign, he added.

The nonprofit’s budget grew considerably in recent years, to about $290,000 for the current fiscal year from just $175,000 in 2012. In a couple of years, once moving expenses are subtracted from the equation, it will probably settle back around $250,000 annually, Grazzini said, enough to add a third staff member.

“It’s a snowball we want to keep rolling,” said Jason Howard, the board chair. A bigger space means SooVAC can add programming, which draws more grants, which leads to more programming and so on. The goal is to launch a residency program within the next three to five years.

The new space will bring the main gallery and SooLocal — site of pop-up art shops and experimental-leaning exhibitions — under one roof. It also means the gallery’s two major fundraisers, its Get Lucky gala and an annual exhibition of work by local collectors, can grow, too.

“From a physical standpoint, it doubles our wall space, which for a gallery is a big deal,” Howard said.

This isn’t the first change of venue for SooVAC, although its summer 2010 move was more of a storefront swap. The gallery switched from one side of its Lyndale Avenue building to the other, making room for the arrival of Zeus Jones. The marketing firm plans to expand into the entire building next year.

By 2010, gallery founder Suzy Greenberg had turned over day-to-day operations to Payne and Associate Director Alison Hiltner. In August 2012, Greenberg died unexpectedly at age 44.

“I think she’d be happy we’re moving into this beautiful space,” Payne said, noting that Greenberg’s condo was kitty-corner from the new building.

SooVAC for years hosted the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s MFA thesis exhibition, and Greenberg always put emerging and mid-career artists at the core of the gallery’s programming. It was a stepping-stone in the career of Andrea Carlson, who had her first solo exhibition at SooVAC in 2006.

“It was Suzy Greenberg kind of trusting a nobody with her space,” said Carlson, who now serves on the SooVAC board and curatorial committee. (Far from a “nobody” these days, Carlson’s recent solo exhibition at Bockley Gallery was among the best-reviewed shows by a local artist this year.)

Said local artist and writer Andy Sturdevant: “You can walk into any room filled with Twin Cities artists and you can identify a handful you’ve seen at SooVAC.”

Sturdevant said SooVAC’s storefront accessibility was another crucial aspect of its identify. It’s not a loft or a warehouse; it’s a space thousands of cars, bicycles and pedestrians pass every day.

SooVAC’s new front door faces beat-up 29th Street, no thoroughfare by any means. Still, the street is slated for reconstruction in 2016, and there’s strong interest in a plaza-like, pedestrian-friendly design. The building should also be visible to the thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians who pass by daily on the Midtown Greenway, especially if plans for a major mural come to fruition.

“We didn’t think we could afford to stay in The Wedge,” Howard said. “… We’re thrilled to be able to stay in the neighborhood that supported us.”

A loading dock on the building’s north side will become SooVAC’s frontdoor. Photo by Dylan Thomas