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

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

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."

See also:
7 events not to be missed at Art-A-Whirl 2014

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Photo by Russ Olson
Mark Rivard

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.

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

"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


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