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Successful gallery owner does it his way

A gallery owner and self-taught photographer from New Brighton celebrates success with a special exhibit of fine-art photography.


Photographers who have exhibited with Howard Christopherson say the northeast Minneapolis gallery owner's vision has created a venue where emerging artists can get an engaged eye, and where art speaks louder than reputation.

Christopherson's Icebox Gallery is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month with the opening of a three-month exhibition of photographs by artists making an encore appearance at Icebox.

Christopherson, 52, of New Brighton, is a self-taught photographer who learned to build picture frames during high school. A 1988 show of his friends' art turned his studio into a bona fide gallery that has shown more than 100 exhibitions of emerging, veteran, local and international photographers. He opened the adjoining framing shop a few months later. The framing business still pays the rent. In his mind, the two ventures are interlinked.

"The gallery is an extension of a picture frame," he said. "It's a room you go into and try to take in the art with it. ... It just seemed like a natural extension to go into that."

Christopherson's vision and resulting exhibitions seem to have endeared him to artists, if not to some of his gallery counterparts.

 "Howie always seems to make his decisions based on the work and not the fashion of the time," said Minneapolis photographer Keri Pickett. "I find the kind of work he shows ... is a reflection of who he is because he is such a real person, very unpretentious and interested in core things of substance, so that's the kind of work he typically gravitates to."

As a one-man operation, Christopherson has the advantage of flexibility.

 "He can be more spontaneous than we can; he's in control of his whole thing," noted Laura Bonicelli, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Photography, a nonprofit offshoot of the pARTs Gallery, an early Icebox cohort.

Howard Chrisopherson

Howard Christopherson, Dan Havel

Dave Brewster, Star Tribune

  Howard Christopherson
David Brewster, Star Tribune
Howard Christopherson, left, owner of Icebox Gallery, helps photographer Dan Havel install his part of the retrospective exhibit for the show that will open Saturday and be part of his 20th anniversary celebration. “He’s persevered in the business despite many odds against him,” said MCP artistic director George Slade







 "MCP has a mission and a board of directors and a lot of things that make it much more of a process, where he can have lunch with someone and make a decision."

That's about what happened with Alec Soth, now an internationally exhibited photographer, who in the early '90s was a recent college grad wondering what to do with a collection of barroom photographs. He met with Christopherson in 1995.

"I showed him my portfolio, and boom, there was a show," Soth recalled from his St. Paul studio.

"It was just incredible to have someone believe in me at that point in my career, which was nothing. He believed in the work. ... At that time, it was not about who do you know or anything else. He responded to the work and I think his gallery functioned in a sort of loose way. It's just what Howard likes, which is not the way the bigger world works."

From his space in the Northrup King building, a warehouse full of artists, to his willingness to bet on untried artists and veterans primed for a review, Christopherson bucks expectations of what might sustain a gallery.

 "He's never done anything strictly by the book," said MCP artistic director George Slade.

 "He's persevered in the business despite many odds against him and found ways to be resourceful and stay alive. ... He shows work that is sometimes historical, that reflects work that hasn't been seen. "

Christopherson agrees he's in the art business for something more than the business.

 "I'm not in it for the money," he said. "The money gets in the way. It's not my favorite part of the business, but it's what makes it all tick."

There's something in that homey enthusiasm about the art for its own sake, rather than for the commissions or renown that some artists find appealing.

 "There's nothing sterile about Howard," said St. Paul photographer Doug Beasley. "He's a well-loved character in our art community, and our community thrives on characters. That's what makes it interesting, and what keeps it from being sterile and boring. "

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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