Interviewed May 27, 2015 | Written and photographed by Ilya Natarius
I meet with Tricia Heuring on a Wednesday afternoon at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), a place that most Twin Cities metro area natives or longtime residents have grown up going to. I sit outside the main entrance and watch groups of children go by with a guide telling them about a sculpture on display right outside the front door. I think back to how I was in the same group when I was a kid, and how schools are still taking children to see local and international art today. Mia is well-known for its diverse collection of art as well as its accessibility to the public, creating a space for members of different communities to enjoy the same works on display without paying anything to get inside — the very reason why so many schools take trips to Mia, allowing children to see and experience famous works of art.
Tricia suggested that we meet here for that very reason — Mia is a big influence in the work she does through her gallery and event space, Public Functionary. Tricia strives to create a sanctuary where different communities can cross paths and experience one another in a setting that promotes the spread of community, art, and connections between individuals and groups that otherwise may not have been possible. In addition to creating a community through the art in the space, Public Functionary prides itself on the key feature of its space — it caters to the artist. Unlike a traditional gallery, Public Functionary works with the artist to create a completely unique environment in which to present the artist’s work. The look of the gallery changes dramatically with each new opening and adapts to the work inside of it thanks to Tricia and her team of dedicated staff who strive to create as unique of a production as they can.
With all of these traits of Public Functionary, Tricia’s hope of fostering a truly connected group of people from all walks of life becomes possible within the space. Because of the immense amount of production involved to create such a space, Tricia’s work as a curator also becomes a much more meaningful role — something we discuss at length during our interview. Because of its significance, Tricia holds Mia in high esteem, calling it a type of holy place for herself where she can roam the halls and enjoy its exhibitions, both old and new, as she comes up with ideas for her own space.
After our interview, I experience firsthand what this means as we walk through the museum together as Tricia points out her favorite spots and details about each area that make it so special. Even though I have been to Mia many times, this time it is as though I am viewing it through Tricia’s eyes, seeing the museum with a new perspective. By the end of our walk through the galleries, I begin to see Mia in a new light. It transforms from just a gallery space to a location to clear the mind and workshop ideas. I like it better this way.
Before she was a formal curator, Tricia was surrounded by the arts. When she was in high school, Tricia was a dancer, artist, and performer. In addition to that, growing up with a German-American father and a Thai mother gave her a unique worldview and an awareness of multiculturalism and hybridity — an advantage that would later play into her career. She studied English and communications at Macalester College in St. Paul, graduating in 2001. Tricia had always been what she calls an “informal curator” long before she started identifying as an actual curator. In 2003 she started a pocket-sized arts magazine called Industry which highlighted the underground culture surrounding the arts and all things related to it. Predating social media, Industry was a magazine that highlighted the early work of several big name artists today who were just starting out in the mid-2000’s, and the magazine served as a go-to publication for those seeking fresh talent. Tricia shut the magazine down several years later and worked in a variety of jobs and projects to hone her skills. During this period, she decided to go back to school and obtain a master’s degree in arts management from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. In the midst of her master’s program, she connected with the idea of becoming a curator and started working in galleries, commercial spaces, and social justice projects. Shortly after completing the program, the idea of Public Functionary was born.
Throughout her career, catalysts for Tricia’s work have always been new ideas and places that encourage discussion, community engagement, and fresh takes on older ideas. For as long as she can remember, Tricia has always questioned everything, and has wanted to understand how she can create a space that is truly diverse in terms of the audience. Over the years, spaces have popped up that serve various social groups, but those spaces become very niche and segregated, and Tricia’s goal is to bring these different groups of people together in the same space. “As the world is changing, what we need to be able to do is to be around each other, understand each other, and celebrate the accomplishment of creativity. Public Functionary was born out of this idea for a new sort of space,” Tricia explains, discussing what got her started in creating the space, as well as the influences behind why Public Functionary serves as an important part of the Twin Cities art community.
However, the community itself has always had a large influence on the work being done at Public Functionary, as well as the individuals in the community that are trying to make things happen. Tricia focuses on Mia specifically as a space that has always had a big influence on her work. She thinks of the museum as a temple, a holy place that has relics from bygone eras that represent the culture, the people, and the ideas that came before our time. She loves being around the artifacts and the exhibits that Mia organizes, commenting on their quality of work and inspirational effect they have on her.
Tricia also cites Mia’s work in the community as something she is influenced by, highlighting the level of inclusivity that Mia maintains as a free and open space for anybody to walk into. She mentions that Mia strives to create an atmosphere devoid of pretension and focuses on accessibility to the public, which is something that Public Functionary strives for as well.
Tricia highlights the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) program and how it gives a chance to artists at any point in their career to show their work — a further example of why Mia is such a big influence on her work. Mia’s efforts to engage as many people in the community as possible is a goal that Tricia shares: “I’m trying to create a space that allows people to engage in art that encourages more people to come into museums. I’m trying to engage the ‘un-art’ audience,” she says.
Like Mia, Tricia strives to find out how to appeal to as many people as possible, and with Public Functionary acting as her community gateway to the arts, Tricia has created a model that accomplishes these goals. The model of having accessible art means that the events that Tricia organizes through Public Functionary are social gathering places as much as exhibits. Connecting to others as well as connecting to art are ideas that coexist in the same space during a gallery’s run at Public Functionary. Because of this model, the artist-audience interaction is a different one. As Tricia states, “I would like our artists to become our audience and vice versa, as opposed to, ‘This is the artist and this is the audience,’” which puts everyone on the same level, furthering the goal of fostering a truly interconnected community.
Tricia also cites Mia’s special exhibitions, which happen several times a year, as a source of inspiration for how Public Functionary operates. Tricia finds them to be well done and smart as well as inspirational; the exhibitions serve as spaces for her to think of her own work. Even though these exhibitions are influential, Tricia is careful to mention that they are not a blueprint for her own work. She tries hard to be original and fresh with her work and not to emulate the work of others. “I pay attention to what everyone else is doing, but I want to do what we do differently,” she says.
Public Functionary only puts on about three to four shows a year because of the level of production involved. The work that takes place to bring the artist’s vision to fruition is a highly involved process, but in the end, it’s what brings everybody together in a space that cultivates discussion about art, community, and acceptance of peers. Art and society come together to create Tricia’s vision — a vision that has roots in many places, with Mia being one of them. At the end of it all, Tricia is able to sum up the reasons behind why places like her gallery exist, and what makes her influences, Mia included, so special: “Being around art and seeing how you react is a peek at your own humanity. It was made by another human, and that’s incredible.”