I. Building on Tradition: The Story of Highpoint Editions, 2001–2021
- Dennis Michael Jon, Associate Curator, Global Contemporary Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art
In the spring of 2001, Highpoint Center for Printmaking welcomed its first visitors to its newly opened studio and gallery in a modest street-level storefront in the Lyn-Lake commercial district of South Minneapolis.1 The brainchild of cofounders Carla McGrath and Cole Rogers, the center was among only a small number of independent nonprofit printmaking centers in the country and the first of its kind in Minnesota. Highpoint’s mission was straightforward: to support and promote an appreciation and understanding of the printmaking arts. It would achieve this through diverse community-based educational programs, a co-operative printmaking studio (artists’ co-op), and a professional shop—Highpoint Editions—that publishes fine art prints made by invited visiting artists working in collaboration with Rogers and workshop staff.
Highpoint Editions modeled itself on the pioneering print studios that began in the late 1950s and 1960s, among them Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) , Tamarind Lithography Workshop , Crown Point Press , and Gemini G.E.L. . Their founders were visionaries who hoped to revitalize fine art printmaking in the United States by inviting leading painters and sculptors to make original prints. The pivotal idea was collaboration: the artist contributes the concept and imagery; the master printer provides technical expertise, printmaking materials and equipment, and a place to work.2 It’s a production model that dates back centuries, when labor was divided among artists, designers, printers, and skilled specialists such as block cutters, colorists, or interpretive engravers. The degree of collaboration has varied since, from contract printing, which requires little or no contact between artist and printer, to a cooperative model, in which an artist also serves as printer with only minor technical assistance, to a fully collaborative model, in which artist and master printer work as a team in a joint creative endeavor.3
The artist–master printer collaboration as we know it today—which commonly entails publishing and marketing prints—was the innovation of Tatyana Grosman, who established the now legendary Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in 1957 in a gardener’s cottage on Long Island, near New York City.4 Initially, she planned to print and publish illustrated artists’ books. On the advice of print expert William S. Lieberman, a longtime curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, however, she began producing lithographs by some of the leading vanguard painters and sculptors of the postwar period, including Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Grace Hartigan, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Lee Bontecou, and Jim Dine. Many of the early ULAE artists had never made a print, but each brought innovative ideas to the once solitary and decidedly old-fashioned medium of printmaking. Together, they helped make the medium integral to contemporary art.
The success of ULAE prompted other collaborative print workshops to emerge.5 In 1960, American artist June Wayne founded Tamarind in Los Angeles as a printer-publisher of original lithographs and a training ground for master printers.6 Up the coast, Kathan Brown opened Crown Point Press in Oakland, California, in 1962. Now located in San Francisco, the workshop specializes in intaglio printmaking. In 1966, Kenneth Tyler established Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, which became known for innovative printmaking techniques that included three-dimensional multiples. In New York, Eleanor Magid founded the Lower East Side Printshop in 1968 as a nonprofit, open-access art and community center. The same year, Adolf Rischner established Styria Studio in Glendale, California, a print workshop and publisher that later relocated to the SoHo neighborhood of New York City (now closed). In the years that followed, collaborative printmaking ventures have sprung up in such varied locales as Tampa, Florida (USF Graphicstudio)
; Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico (Landfall Press)
; Boulder, Colorado (Shark’s Ink)
; Mount Kisco, New York (Tyler Graphics); Madison, Wisconsin (Tandem Press)
; and St. Louis, Missouri (Wildwood Press)
, among many others.
A Shared Vision
Like many arts organizations, Highpoint Center for Printmaking was years in planning before McGrath and Rogers made the inherently risky decision to open a nonprofit arts center in 2001—a decision further complicated by the economic recession that began in March of that year and lasted until November.
Serendipity was a decisive factor in Highpoint’s founding and ultimate design, specifically a fateful meeting of its two founders in August 1997 when they collaborated on a public printmaking demonstration sponsored by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. At the time both McGrath and Rogers were active in the local arts community, McGrath as a tour guide and art lab coordinator at the Walker, and Rogers as an instructor and printmaking studio manager at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). Though the two had known each other informally, it was this occasion and their subsequent conversations that sparked the idea of joining forces to establish a community-based printmaking center. Though Rogers’s training and background in printmaking were formidable, and McGrath’s legal background,7 writing skills, and teaching experience would be essential to Highpoint’s eventual success, neither McGrath nor Rogers had significant business experience. Both, however, were careful and deliberate planners with strong visual arts backgrounds. They also understood the critical importance of seeking outside expertise and collaborating with the local arts community to develop their business plan.8
McGrath was born and raised in Ashville, Ohio, just east of Cleveland. Her parents believed deeply in supporting the performing and visual arts, even helping to found an arts center in Ashville. McGrath took several studio art classes while earning a bachelor’s degree in English at Connecticut College in New London, in 1982. Soon after, she moved to Minnesota to attend Hamline University School of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law), in St. Paul, and received a JD in 1986. Meanwhile, she continued to pursue art, taking printmaking classes at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) and the University of Colorado, Boulder. The decision to make teaching part of Highpoint’s mission grew out of McGrath’s experience in arts education and her passion for offering art-making experiences to children and teenagers, especially those whose lives rarely included art and creative opportunities.
Rogers, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, was an only child whose family stressed personal creativity. Although he entered the University of Alabama at Birmingham with thoughts of becoming an architect, his plans shifted after an introductory intaglio printmaking class with John Dillon (1935–2019). The class, and Dillon’s offbeat enthusiasm, sparked Rogers’s lifelong fascination with the technical challenges and creative possibilities of printmaking. Dillon also instilled in Rogers important lessons of focus and discipline. After graduating with a BFA in 1986, Rogers entered the prestigious MFA studio art program at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he met visiting artist and lecturer Jeff Sippel, another important mentor. It was Sippel who urged Rogers to apply to the Tamarind Institute, then as now the premier training ground for lithographic printers in the United States.9 In the late 1980s, Rogers advanced to Tamarind’s heralded master printer apprentice program. One of the program’s guiding principles is that graduating master printers are urged to establish independent print workshops in their home states and countries.
This ideal was never far from Rogers’s mind as he formed his vision for Highpoint’s publishing arm, Highpoint Editions. The workshop Rogers visualized would create unique and limited-edition prints using one or more traditional printmaking techniques: relief, intaglio, lithography, screenprinting, and monotyping. And as a traditionalist, Rogers excluded digital (computer-assisted) printmaking processes, though he would integrate photographic imagery when part of an artist’s creative process.10 As soon as the center was a reality, he faced the immediate challenge of developing a stable of noteworthy professional artists to collaborate with. That his new press was located in the Upper Midwest, a northern climate with long winters, far from the country’s major art centers, made attracting leading national and international artists a challenge. He knew it typically took years of successful prints for a new workshop to build a national reputation. Therefore, Rogers took the initial approach of seeking out prominent artists who lived or worked in the Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area or had other ties to the state. In curating his pool of collaborating artists, Rogers had certain general requirements. He wanted artists with varied backgrounds and interests. He wanted a balance of local, national, and international figures who would bring diverse thoughts and expressions to the press. Also essential was an openness to experimentation, discovery, and adventure. In addition, he wanted to avoid establishing a single aesthetic or “house style” for Highpoint’s publications, and this, too, became part of his calculation. And importantly, in keeping with Highpoint’s mission-based commitment to access and inclusion, Rogers was determined that his recruiting efforts encompass diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, culture, and sexual orientation. All of these desiderata became easier to realize as Highpoint gained in national prominence.
Unlike at some print workshops, Highpoint’s fortunes are not tied entirely to sales of prints. McGrath describes the center’s organizing principle as a “three-legged stool,” a metaphor for operational stability that lessens dependence on any single source of revenue by providing multiple income streams for the enterprise.11 This multifaceted organizational structure was modeled in part on the highly successful nonprofit arts centers already operating in Minneapolis, most notably the Northern Clay Center
and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts
.12 Founded in 1990 and 1983, respectively, these specialist arts organizations operated as community-based businesses whose media-dedicated ventures were designed to assure long-term economic stability. Highpoint’s nonprofit status was also critical to maintaining its financial security, allowing it to make public fundraising appeals as a charitable organization and qualifying the organization for myriad arts and educational grants offered by local and national foundations and government agencies.13 To Highpoint’s advantage, Minnesota enjoys a strong tradition of public funding for the arts. Indeed, Minnesota leads the nation by a wide margin in per capita legislative appropriations to state arts organizations.14 Minneapolis–St. Paul itself has an enviable legacy of private, corporate, and foundation support for the arts.
For Highpoint Editions’ first workshop collaboration, Rogers tapped Minneapolis-based painter and printmaker David Rathman . Inviting Rathman was a logical choice, as he was well regarded locally and nationally and was experienced in multiple printmaking techniques. In addition, his art was reliably in demand. Rathman and Rogers were also well acquainted with each other’s practices. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Rathman made several editioned prints and artist’s books at the Minneapolis-based print workshop Vermillion Editions Limited, now closed.15 As a result, he was intimately familiar with the procedures and deliberative pace of workshop practices. Rathman began his collaboration with Rogers in September 2001, and by May 2002 he had completed plates for six sepia-toned intaglio prints featuring wry scenes of cowboys he had adapted from classic western films, a subject he had first rendered as ink-wash drawings. Accompanied by quizzical passages of text, the “cowboy” prints were part of Rathman’s recurring efforts to use images of physical conflict to question societal expectations of modern American masculinity.16 Published later that year, “Five New Etchings” (cat. nos. 248–52) , along with a sixth print editioned separately (cat. no. 253) , were an immediate success. Rathman would return to Highpoint Editions in 2009, 2011, and 2017 to produce various monotypes and editioned prints on subjects ranging from ice hockey (cat. nos. 258–67) to demolition derbies (cat. nos. 255–57) .
In February 2002, Rogers invited midcareer artist Linda Schwarz to Highpoint. A native of Germany, Schwarz was a technically sophisticated printmaker who had studied art and art history at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s. She was also known to curators at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, who had earlier acquired examples of her self-published print work.17 Like Rathman, Schwarz possessed a formidable knowledge of printmaking techniques and processes. She bases her work on the appropriation and alteration of existing imagery, a process that frequently involves layered images and hand-painted additions in ink, acrylic, and varnish. She derives much of her material from German history, obscure sources of art, literature, poetry, and music, and even pop culture.18 Schwarz refers to her subject matter as “lost language—forgotten knowledge.” For her Highpoint prints (cat. nos. 269–73) , which explore the language of hand gestures, she refashioned images of sculpted hands by the German late Gothic and early Renaissance woodcarver Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1460–1531). In keeping with her penchant for material experimentation, each print edition is variable.
With two Highpoint projects realized, Rogers resumed his focus on accomplished local artists.19 Next, he invited the St. Paul drawing specialist and art educator Mary Esch , whose practice centered on portraiture and pictorial narratives adapted from fairy tales and other literary sources.20 At Highpoint, she decided to refashion Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Three Questions” (1885) into a series of twelve soft-ground line etchings (cat. nos. 127–40) . Substituting Tolstoy’s king for a queen, she unveiled a life-affirming journey of discovery and redemption. In Esch’s portfolio, the queen’s travels end with a poignant reminder to alleviate suffering immediately for the person who needs it most.
In early 2003, Rogers invited Minneapolis-based painter and printmaker Todd Norsten
to Highpoint. An accomplished midcareer artist and former printer at Vermillion Editions, Norsten was enjoying increased national recognition after recent exhibitions in Chicago, San Francisco, and Milwaukee, as well as at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. For his Highpoint project, the first of several collaborations he would undertake with Rogers (he returned in 2009–11 and 2016), Norsten created delicate color intaglio prints featuring abstract and semiabstract imagery derived from natural forms and manufactured objects (cat. nos. 223–31)
. Though initial sales of Esch’s portfolio and Norsten’s intaglios were modest, their release affirmed Rogers’s commitment to Highpoint’s artist-driven publishing program. For his later Highpoint projects, Norsten adopted a dramatically different formal and conceptual approach that gave rise to various unique and editioned text-based prints in lithography, screenprinting, and monoprinting.21 Among them were several trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) compositions featuring stacked words that at first appear to have been composed from torn lengths of blue or beige masking tape, including Endless, Ceaseless, Boundless Joy, 2009 (cat. no. 232)
; Ceaseless, Endless, Timeless, Boundless, 2010 (cat. no. 234)
; and Wayland, 2013 (cat. no. 237)
. Part jest, part sardonic commentary, Norsten’s “word drawings” recall the illusionistic ribbon-word drawings of Ed Ruscha, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s used gunpowder and pastel to depict solitary words seemingly composed of lengths of paper ribbon.22 Rendering this type of picture as a printed image—including the tactile thickness and texture of masking tape—required dismantling the image into fragmentary components that were then printed separately in perfect alignment—a demanding and precise undertaking. Rogers was up to the challenge. He noted the project’s technical achievement: “Norsten’s masking tape prints were a standout of marrying image and technique, especially the very first masking tape print. That was a real stunner, how all of a sudden you see the physicality achieved by the screenprinting, how we created a trompe l’oeil of masking tape.”23
With the early publications by Rathman, Schwarz, Esch, and Norsten, Highpoint Editions had dipped its toe into the highly competitive contemporary print market, an ambitious effort for a new and largely unknown press. Rogers and McGrath made equally bold decisions about how their prints would be marketed. Unlike publishers who routinely offer deep discounts to galleries and private dealers to sell their prints, Highpoint chose to market its prints directly to collectors and curators, without the aid of dealer-agents.24 This tactic supported the workshop’s desire to maximize income for visiting artists and place work in the permanent collections of public museums. Aside from its copublishing efforts, Highpoint absorbed the bulk of production costs rather than deduct these from the artists’ portion of print sales. Most publishers routinely deduct labor, materials, overhead, travel, or other project costs before splitting sales proceeds with the artist. But in the view of Highpoint’s founders, this practice does not sufficiently credit or acknowledge the artist’s considerable contributions.25 This payment structure was unusual among print publishers but aligned with Highpoint’s intention to share any profits with visiting artists more equitably.
Early on, Highpoint announced its new publications on its website, in national art journals and the center’s self-published newsletter, and on the walls of its exhibition galleries.26 In every case, Rogers and McGrath were careful to communicate the Highpoint Editions brand as a national fine art printer and publisher. Rogers also knew that market success was correlated with workshop reputation, and that Highpoint’s reputation hinged on attracting top national talent. Because Highpoint Editions was founded as a subsidiary of the nonprofit Highpoint Center for Printmaking, income from print sales would help support the center’s operations and programs, while the center’s unrestricted income would offset a portion of the costs of producing and marketing workshop prints. Thus, for Highpoint Editions to be successful in the long term, the entire organization had to be financially stable.
In confronting the many challenges facing their fledgling organization, founders Rogers and McGrath understood the importance of seeking expertise from Highpoint’s stakeholders and the wider community. Highpoint Center for Printmaking’s status as a registered nonprofit corporation required establishing a board of directors, the governing body of the organization’s mission, strategy, and goals.27 Highpoint’s leadership had always envisioned a “working board,” whose members would contribute expertise from their respective professions or areas of interest in addition to financial support. Rogers and McGrath recruited members from the fields of law, finance, education, and business but also sought those with ties to the local arts community,28 including working artists, gallery directors, and curators from local art museums.29 To further leverage board expertise, Highpoint formed a curatorial committee of members with knowledge of contemporary art and the contemporary print market who could assist Rogers in identifying and recruiting artists to collaborate at Highpoint Editions. Indeed, the museum curators on the committee routinely introduced their institution’s visiting artists to Rogers with the prospect of future collaborations in mind.
One such workshop introduction by Walker Art Center curator Siri Engberg would lead to Highpoint Editions’ first runaway market success, a pair of semiabstract mixed-media prints by the acclaimed Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu . In 2002, Mehretu began a year-long residency at the Walker, which culminated in a solo exhibition of her drawings and paintings presented there in spring of 2003.30 Concurrently, Mehretu began what would become a nearly three-year collaboration with Rogers and Zac Adams-Bliss, Highpoint’s senior printer, who had recently joined Rogers’s workshop team.31 At Highpoint, Mehretu produced the semiabstract thirty-two-color screenprint and lithograph Entropia (review), 2004 (cat. no. 191) , together with a related tonal lithograph Entropia: Construction, 2005 (cat. no. 192) .32 Both prints reflect Mehretu’s long-standing interest in using imagery derived from the built urban environment as a conceptual framework for exploring global issues of social and political power, particularly how power is wielded to shape personal and communal identity.