As part of the exhibit Art on Hennepin, which is featured in the Jack Links Legend Lounge until January 7, 2024, Hennepin Theatre Trust had the opportunity to speak with Venus DeMars, an artist, musician and leader in the LGBTQIA+ community who saw the height of the alternative art scene on Hennepin Avenue in the 1980s.
Hey Venus. Thank you for joining us today. Could you introduce yourself and give a bit of your background of your role in the art scene of Hennepin back in the day?
Okay; I’m Venus DeMars, I went by my dead name earlier on, and I began working in the downtown art scene back in the ‘80s through Rifle Sport Alternative Art Gallery. I was one of the main artists for that gallery and I stayed with them through their relocation across Loring Park before they ultimately closed. I also did the little offshoot things that Rifle Sport put together, installations for Rifle Sport on the road.
Where did you get the name “Rifle Sport Alternative Art Gallery”?
Back in the day, along Hennepin, artists rented all the second-floor apartments, and Rifle Sport was one of those spaces. It used to be a shooting gallery, like a BB gun arcade that was called Rifle Sport. When the artists moved in, our owners decided to keep the name but turned it into this alternative art gallery—all secret and clandestine.
I painted the iconic big blue doors out front. We didn’t get permission to do it; I would get up really, really, really, really early—predawn, even—and drive downtown and set up my ladders. I whitewashed the whole thing. Then by noon, people were coming out of the bars, shaking my ladder and shouting and laughing. It was like I couldn’t work past noon. And then also by then, the police were coming out to take a look around and keep track of everything, so I had to shut down shop then. Completely clandestine, we didn’t have permission to paint the storefront. But we got it all done. That’s how we got the iconic crosshair above the door—twenty feet up with a three-foot overhang at the top, not to mention. Really made me nervous whenever I had to go all the way up.
What was the art scene like while you were at Rifle Sport?
The art scene was extremely vibrant, yeah. Amazingly so. Hennepin Avenue had a Shinder’s on either side, then all the bars and different things all the way up and down, and a huge amount of small businesses with second-floor apartments in between. People were turning their studios into galleries, so there were a lot of pop-up galleries back in those days. We hung out at Rifle Sport, then when we got kind of bored, we’d go and walk through all the other little galleries. Once a month they would have an art crawl and galleries everywhere would open up their doors. The Wyman building had like ten galleries. Six-hundred or so people would come down and just wander. You’d get food and alcohol, and people would just walk around. It was like a huge street party. People just wandering on the sidewalks and then going into all the little studios and looking at the art. There were serious collectors at that time that were buying art for like $1000 or more. So that’s what we were all hoping for.
Rifle Sport had become pretty big, the main gallery for part of that scene. We had a magazine and a calendar of exhibits that we would put out and we would have artists contribute and that would get other people to come and donate to us.
We would do music too; we would have bands on occasion. Art rock was the thing back then, Talking Heads kind of set that stage. That was the type of bands that we had—we didn’t do regular bands, they had to be a performance-art based musical artist of some sort.
What was it like having so many creatives in one space?
It felt vibrant. It felt so empowering. It felt like this was the New York of Minnesota. It just felt like all things were possible. Because the collectors were coming and buying things for a huge amount of money, the grunge music scene was just about to take off and Minneapolis was a hot spot of music, so bands were getting signed and getting famous. It was an extremely exciting time to be in Minneapolis because you felt like you could use it as a way to move into an international scene. It felt like a launching pad for a major career in the art world. It’s not so much anymore.
How do you feel about the current art scene?
It’s very commercial, in my opinion, nothing really edgy is coming out of the galleries these days, not like what we used to do. The art is still meaningful, but if it’s anything edgy, it’s only mildly edgy. There are still small alternative spaces that are trying to do it, to push boundaries, but I think it’s mostly music now that’s pushing them.
But the music scene right now, I mean, that’s what is really vibrant, I think, and it has diversified a lot. I think there’s a lot more opportunity for people from all different backgrounds to work musically. Everybody has software at home now, so everybody can be a producer, and everybody can do their own recording and they can put out professional work without going to a recording studio. That’s a good thing. Some of the underground punk scenes are where you still get a lot of that raw energy and new ideas.
What is legacy that you hope that you left on Hennepin?
Oh my gosh legacy. We all hope to leave something, you know, but I’m still working. I’m still trying to create. I’m still trying to do something new and challenging and I’m still trying to change the world. That doesn’t stop. So, to think about a legacy, I think what I am trying to do now might be to help open some doors, open some minds—I’m thinking of the trans community. And I guess my work now is trying to keep that door open, trying to keep it from closing. Cause this? [Venus gestured at herself] People are trying to close it now. So, it’s an ongoing legacy perhaps.
You know, we were young when we started Rifle Sport, in our 20s. Our intern, Chris, was a teenager. We were kids. You know when you’re a kid, you feel immortal. You feel like you can do anything. You can make a difference. You feel inspired. All possibilities are there in front of you, you just have to figure out what button to push. What door to go through. You know where to turn left, where to turn right. What alley to go down. Life is a puzzle, and if you play it right, you win. That’s the way you think back then, but as you get older now, you know, I don’t see so much of that puzzle in front of me. I still enjoy the puzzle, but I also see the end of the game coming so. And I haven’t won yet, so I’m still trying different doors and different buttons and different angles, but I haven’t figured out the game. Yet.