In northeast Minneapolis sits an old soap factory now filled with art. But the story behind the man who now runs the space starts far across the Atlantic Ocean in Britain, where Ben Heywood’s vision of art first started to take shape.
“I was spending time in London, so I was doing things like hanging out with Damien Hirst, and the Young British Artists,” said Heywood. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘Well, this is kind of cool. These are kind of slightly crazy, but really interesting people.’”
It was moments such these in the 90s: trips to Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas’ Bethnal Green shop (which sold Damien Hirst ash trays); picnics thrown by London gallerist Joshua Compston; and spending time with rising stars of the British art scene that shaped Heywood’s perception of what art was.
“There was a lot of hanging around and hanging out,” Heywood said. “The early 90s were an interesting time in Britain.”
Creativity and art surrounded Heywood growing up. Both his parents (not to mention his grandmother) were architects, and the young Heywood could often be found paper in hand, drawing.
“I always thought my two options were either to be an artist or to do things around art. I didn’t really think I wanted to do anything else.”
The shy Heywood decided on the latter. After marrying a woman from Minnesota, he moved west. Once here he began volunteering at the Minneapolis gallery, Soap Factory, where he would return nearly six years later as the executive director.
“What I’m most proud of is saving this building and providing a place where, I hope, the artists of Minnesota and more widely in the Midwest region can find a place to make their work real,” Heywood said.
The gallery aims to help emerging and experimental artists realize major projects, such as when Andy Ducett turned the gallery into a “Midwestern nostalgia fun house,” or when the annual (and exceedingly disturbing) Haunted Basement takes up shop in the space (it’s billed as a “terror adventure designed to traumatize”).
“It seems in places like this you’ve got a real chance to do something different and really make something happen, rather than just be someone in a crowd,” Heywood said.
After living in Minnesota for eleven years, the British-born director said the Minneapolis art scene is particularly active right now.
“There seems to be just so much going on,” said Heywood. “I think it’s a really exciting time for creativity. In the last 10 years, the visual aspect of what we can see online has just really exploded.”
The alternative arts scene isn’t an exception. This week Heywood takes us underground; giving us a glimpse at just a few of the artists and creative things happening in Minnesota we should pay attention to.
“I’m always more interested in younger artists than I am older artists, or at least I’m interested in people who are invested in their own work. I think as some artists get older, especially if they get more successful commercially, there’s a huge pressure to keep making the same stuff over and over,” Heywood said. “The great thing about younger artists is they haven’t reached that phase yet and they’re still experimenting with what they do and the creativity is still firing up all over the place. That’s what exciting and interesting. I think that’s where I’d always like to be, with people who are still innovating within their own practice.”