Art-A-Whirl: Is music overshadowing visual art?

Which image better represents Art-A-Whirl in 2014?
Which image better represents Art-A-Whirl in 2014?
Photo of a person admiring Alison Price's painting by Kendra Sundvall, live photo by Erik Hess

In 1996, David Felker brought an idea to the Minneapolis City Council for an art crawl to showcase the work of the growing community of artists utilizing studio space in northeast Minneapolis. Art-A-Whirl has been going strong and increasing in size ever since, featuring hundreds of artists and annually drawing upward of 30,000 visitors to the area. It's recognized as the largest open-studio tour in the nation.

The influx of people into the neighborhood for the weekend has consistently been a boon for the bars and restaurants that surround the studios, and many throw concerts to capitalize on the event. As Art-A-Whirl has evolved, the live music has arguably overshadowed the art itself. This weekend marks the 19th installment of the gathering.

"It's a pretty big issue, actually, within the arts community of Northeast," says artist Mark Rivard, who rents studio space and runs a private gallery in the California Building. "It's no longer an art show, it's a festival. I don't even know if I'll have my doors open in 2015. It's totally weird to see the crowds in the streets increase but have the money in your pocket go down tenfold."

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Mark Rivard
Mark Rivard
Photo by Russ Olson

As the concurrent music events get larger, it's hard to say how many of the huge numbers of people who flock to Northeast for Art-A-Whirl are taking part as art patrons. Multiple Northeast establishments host huge rosters of local buzz bands at the same time as the open studio hours, and many artists feel the crowd's attention has shifted. "The afterparties are happening all day now," says artist Linnea Doyle. "It'd be cool to not have that music going on at the exact same hours. Have it be an afterparty and try to really focus on the art and studio stuff during the day, but that's probably pretty much impossible."

Since legislation passed allowing local breweries to open taprooms in 2011, Northeast has become a hub of brewpubs, and the number of businesses holding events during Art-A-Whirl has increased. The bars and restaurants involved consistently see huge numbers of customers, and some artists like Rivard have cited a loss in revenue.

"We got crushed last year; it was just brutal," says Rivard. "It's been very good for me in the past, [but] last year was a ghost town... This is the reality of it, the event itself is changing. From an artist's perspective, it's no longer a viable business solution. It's not something you want to invest a lot of money into because you're probably not going to do as well as you could have six years ago."

For many working artists, Art-A-Whirl was relied upon for a significant portion of a year's income, and involvement in the event was a major reason for renting a studio in the area.

Marijuana Deathsquads and a sizeable crowd during Art-A-Whirl 2013 at 331 Club
Marijuana Deathsquads and a sizeable crowd during Art-A-Whirl 2013 at 331 Club
Photo by Erik Hess

"It used to be a fairly predictable cycle for the weekend," says Doyle. "Friday night would be the art opening party kind of people, Saturday was family day, lots of kids, and Sunday was more buyers coming out [who] spent the first two days looking... Over the last two years, I haven't seen as much of that cycle as before. People are just drunk super early on Saturday and no one's even around by the evening. I remember Sunday being super dead last year, and being confused by that. Is everyone at home with a hangover?"

The changing Art-A-Whirl culture's effect is a matter of opinion, judging by the response from NEMAA (Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association). The event's organizing body contends that there has not been a downturn in studio visitors. In 2012, the organization began taking event statistics with help from the Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute at the University of Minnesota. Using a stamped passport system, they found 30,000 visitors were visiting the studios throughout the weekend. Artwork sales statistics were self-reported and harder to delineate, but seemed to reflect an increase in artist revenue.

"There are people making sales and a lot of the sales are made to new clients, so that's something that's exciting for us to see," says NEMAA's executive director Alejandra Pelinka. The organization itself has grown significantly in the last four years, going from simply pulling together Art-A-Whirl and the annual Artist Directory to operating on a year-round basis. The music festivals, which can draw a different clientele to the event, undoubtedly have helped Art-A-Whirl weekend grow.

Next, NEMAA says: Bars should give the organization more money


Pelinka has noticed a change in the event in recent years but is more optimistic about the developments. "We're trying to look at: What's the positive of this in terms of this transformation? People are still coming to see the art. There's an audience that may want to do both, and they may not have come otherwise to see artwork. What we're seeing is maybe a new audience in addition to the audience we're already having come as arts advocates, supporters, and art collectors that come to Art-A-Whirl. We're embracing that the landscape of the event has changed."

She says the majority of Art-A-Whirl attendees plan on coming back to Northeast for other events such as First Thursdays or the Fall Fine Arts Show. "I don't see it as a distraction," says NEMAA Board President Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger. "What I've heard more of, to be honest, is NEMAA members that feel these bars that are making a lot of money, that we should be getting some more money from them, that they should give back to the community by giving the organization more money. We're absolutely talking about that as a board."

NEMAA requires non-studio businesses to contribute through sponsorships or cash donations and advertisements in the artist directory for use of the Art-A-Whirl trademark, but it's a minor expense compared to what a packed house takes in.

"There's opportunity for a lot of partnerships that doesn't happen. It's really unfortunate," says Rivard. "[Establishments] completely take advantage of an event that was created to promote the Minneapolis Arts District. You can't blame them. They're great parties, they're fantastic, more power to them. If I was a business, I'd be doing the exact same thing. It's a great opportunity to create a huge event, make a killing that weekend. It's a classic case of the artists more or less get shit on."

The larger economic climate has certainly affected artists' income beyond that particular weekend, and people's spending habits have changed since the first Art-A-Whirl. Customers' dwindling disposable income is far more likely to go toward food, alcohol, and entertainment than art.

Robyne Robinson
Robyne Robinson
Photo courtesy of the artist

"Art-A-Whirl really started to come about as the economy started to turn after 9/11, when people stopped buying art. Art is the first thing that usually goes when the economy turns," says jeweler Robyne Robinson of Rox Minneapolis, who has seen a number of Twin Cities art crawls since the early '90s do well and then disappear. "I understand why many artists in Northeast are upset, worried, and disappointed about the direction in which Art-A-Whirl is going. You saw people gravitate towards the movement that was happening but they didn't have the means to buy. It became more of a function, people would buy posters. There's fewer and fewer people that are serious buyers that are going to Art-A-Whirl."

Next: Can art and music coexist at Art-A-Whirl?


The Cactus Blossoms at Art-A-Whirl 2012
The Cactus Blossoms at Art-A-Whirl 2012
Photo by Erik Hess

So-called "tourists" -- attendees known to idly browse or simply show up for the free snacks -- have long been a demographic at Art-A-Whirl, but the event's reputation increasingly seems to be shifting from a viable art market to simply free entertainment.

After a number of galleries in the Northeast area closed their doors in the late '90s, open studio events are often the only opportunity for an artist to show off new work. "Art-A-Whirl exists because it's a time to go and view art directly from the artist in their studios," says Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger. "That is unique to the country, and it's awesome. The bars and restaurants are part of the community, and I want them to make money, don't get me wrong, but it's important for them to acknowledge that it's because of us, it's because of artists that they are so successful. It's not a drinking party, it's not a festival, it's not a street festival, it's an open studio tour."

It's inevitable for a local business to want to be a part of a high-traffic neighborhood phenomenon, and some are calling for more synergy between the art and the parties. Some breweries make it a point to include an art component to their live show, like 612Brew's Art-A-Whirl Bash, but 612Brew event organizer Robert Kasak still sees criticism.

"I saw an artist on the street, and he said, 'Hey, Robert, why are you guys fucking us on this? You're bringing in artists who don't have studios in Northeast. That shouldn't be included into what Art-A-Whirl is,'" he says. "I can see where some of the artists in Northeast that have a studio might get a little upset about what is going on, but at the same time, I do think it's all about heightened awareness about the arts in this community. Because really, if you look at our artists coming in, these are completely different mediums of artists that want to showcase what they can do. It's really about bringing people who might not come to Art-A-Whirl in previous years. I think it's a collaboration, not a distraction; I only see positive aspects coming out of this."

Featured artist Adam Turman, who joins Dogfish Media, Garden Weasel Creations, and Turning Baron alongside a full weekend showcase of free music at 612Brew, believes that the more people, the better. "There's more things that are attractive about Northeast now than there may have been when [Art-A-Whirl] first started," he says. "It attracts a different crowd [who might] not even really be aware of all the art that's there. I would like to think the music aspect only enhances showing art. Venues that can do all those things, the beer, the food, the art, and the music together, the venues that are able to do all of that, I kind of feel like they're just going to attract more people."

Jarret Oulman has seen this in action, having helped put together 331's outdoor music celebration for the last eight years, an Art-A-Whirl institution of sorts that has held on as other neighborhood music events have sprouted up and some have fallen by the wayside. Describing the concert's growth as a grassroots subset of a naturally progressing event, Oulman sees large swaths of customers spill in but they're constantly on the move. "You're given more options, you're given more things that add to a large cultural event. It's not just one big huge production. Any of the events, the studio events and the music events, they're very mobile," he says. "It's very pedestrian. If you're planning to go around to see things and do things all day, I don't think people are usually walking away with pieces if you go to an event... you buy something that's consumable, maybe a hamburger or a beer, and you listen to some music. The behavior of the people at Art-A-Whirl has sort of pushed what has been successful and what hasn't been successful. That's what the people are coming out to do, they're coming out to be engaged."

612 Brew Mural Time Lapse - Feb '13 from Adam Turman on Vimeo.

Admittedly, there's a lot of media coverage about this weekend's Art-A-Whirl focusing on the live music, to the point where some articles dismissively frame the art as unimportant. "Last year the Star Tribune did a whole thing about where to go drinking, 'And, oh, by the way if you have a chance, go see the art!' That really upset us, the whole organization," says Gutierrez-Bolger. "I wrote a letter to the editor, and they didn't publish it. I'm poised to do that again." This Friday marks the 19th Art-A-Whirl, featuring new work from a wide range of renowned artists, few of whom see local press -- but there's some here.

Rivard brings up the example of painter David Rathman, who also has studio space in the California Building. "The fact that David Rathman has a traveling retrospective [with] not one mention of this any of our local media outlets, is unbelievable. This is one of our greatest living American painters today."

Next: Where does Art-A-Whirl go from here?


Art-A-Whirl: Is music overshadowing visual art?
Photo by Kendra Sundvall
Psycho Suzi's during Art-A-Whirl 2012
Psycho Suzi's during Art-A-Whirl 2012
Photo by Erik Hess

In 1998, City Pages published an article voicing artists' concerns that there might not even be a Northeast art scene in the coming years, citing rising rents and a slew of gallery closings. Painter and former owner of the Art Jones Gallery Doug Padilla is quoted, saying, "The scene is not flourishing; it's just surviving."

A glimpse at the crowds thronging to Northeast for this weekend's festivities will suggest the scene is indeed flourishing nearly two decades later. But who stands to benefit the most from the sea of people? If Art-A-Whirl remains framed in people's minds as a block party or beer and music festival, it could continue descending from its intended purpose and wind up hurting artists rather than helping. Parties over the course of the weekend aren't going anywhere, and they shouldn't have to, but a greater synergy between the studios and the surrounding events can maintain NEMAA's artist-centered goals for Art-A-Whirl. Bars could more explicitly incentivize studio visits via cross-promotion.

Art-A-Whirl: Is music overshadowing visual art?
Photo by Erik Hess

For example, Rivard suggested brewery-sponsored pop-up kegs in the studio spaces themselves, or art receipts that can be traded for a free beer at a bar. Larger contributions to NEMAA from bars hosting live music during Art-A-Whirl could also unify the businesses benefiting from an uptick during the weekend.

And some of the responsibility falls on local publications like this one. The music and food/beer happenings can get attention alongside everything else, but with the knowledge that the public's impression of what Art-A-Whirl is can shift. It's a complicated issue that doesn't have a simple answer.

"Honestly, it's kind of cool that it's a huge party and that so many people come out," admits Doyle. But as the party aspect expands, the tenor of the event can drift away from art appreciation. "I had some people come through my studio last year that were just a wreck. You'll always have the people that come in and have their dinner on wine and cheese, and will take advantage of you like that, but it's a different level being wasted in the middle of the day. It's a weird mix when there's families in the studio."

More info on Art-A-Whirl 2014 here.

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