written by Nigel Parry for the Downtown St. Paul Voice
Art Crawl goes on…
When COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the Spring Art Crawl, the St. Paul Art Collective—the hard-working, mostly volunteer-run organization that has produced the Capital City’s art crawls since 1977—immediately began exploring new options to assist artists in promoting their work. Now that the fall Crawl is not happening either the Collective is ramping up its efforts, knowing that local artists need more help than ever.
Event cancellations have dealt a huge financial blow to the local artists who rely on the Crawl for survival, along with other large events such as the Art-a-Whirl in Northeast Minneapolis and a long list of established summer regional art fairs and gallery shows. The fragile market that artists have spent years establishing—and somehow kept making work—has dried up and irrevocably changed, at least for the foreseeable future. To make matters worse, the hospitality industry, which provides supplemental income for many artists, has been severely affected as well.
The Collective has valiantly used its resources to help its member artists adjust by providing advice on how to host and promote live and recorded video events and online group galleries. This spring’s first-ever virtual crawl helped the SPAC board and artists alike discover what works does and doesn’t work in that realm. SPAC’s conclusion was to ditch the fall weekend in-studios event and introduce an entire month of virtual art events throughout October. The full list of events is available – https://stpaulartcollective.org/art-month.
Lisa McCann, SPAC’s director of community development, sees the considerable current challenges as part of the organization’s continuum.
“For decades the St. Paul Art Collective has grown and evolved with the times,” she said. “This year, like everyone, we were hit with COVID-19 and realized, early in 2020, that the live event upon which we based our past was not an option. We had to pivot to a virtual platform before anyone really understood the magnitude of the current situation. Studio tours, art talk, and artist visits with patrons were all off the table back in March and continue to be so now.”
While time will tell if the virtual Crawl format can match the popular in-studio events in terms of patron participation, McCann sees reasons for optimism.
“Approximately 100 artists participated in the spring crawl,” she said. “Our artists and supporters stepped up and adapted in ways that were profoundly inspiring. The Spring Crawl saw more virtual art presentations and sales than ever before.”
The expansion of the normal 3-day Crawl to an entire month of events this October will likely help the event reach more people.
“It’s much more than a virtual crawl,” said McCann. “We learned from our virtual spring event that education is the key. SPAC’s social media platforms reach more than 10,000 collectors and lovers of art, and its partnership with Jazz 88.5 FM, Visit St. Paul, and The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce gives us an outreach to tens of thousands of engaged people across the Twin Cities.”
The Twin Cities arts community realized early on that 2020 would become a byword for artists. As artists and performers reeled from the loss of income, organizations like Springboard for the Arts stepped up with direct aid. Between Mar. 13 and June 30, Springboard offered its existing Personal Emergency Relief Fund—which offers grants of $500 to artists with medical needs or other career-threatening emergencies—to those who had lost income due to COVID-related cancellations. Springboard gave more than $1 million to a total of 2,000 artists. Even more encouraging is that more than 1,300 people have donated over $175,000 to the fund (learn more at springboardforthearts.org).
At the community level, artist organizers in Lowertown have turned the challenge into an opportunity to innovate. Tara Weatherly from the Lowertown Underground Artists gallery in the Northern Warehouse and Rachel Wacker from the Rage to Order Artists’ Initiative, who also works as art program director for the St. Paul Saints, joined forces this summer to organize a Sunday art market alongside the existing St. Paul Farmers’ Market.
“In our first three markets, we saw 17 different artists, many showing at more than one market,” said Weatherly. “Items included fine art pieces, prints, photography, jewelry, music merch, textiles, mixed media, coronavirus masks, and more.
The Lowertown Art Market is necessary so that artists can access safe event venues to sell their art. The artists who have shown at the Art Market have been very happy with the amount of visitors, and everyone who participates wants to show again, which is great.”
For some artists, however, attending live events may put them as risk, especially those who fall into the CDC’s COVID-19 “pre-existing conditions” categories—those with autoimmune illnesses, respiratory diseases, and other serious illnesses. Safety is therefore key at any live event.
“Being outdoors, each artist’s tent can be spaced well apart from their neighbors, and masks required for all have helped participants feel confident that we are taking every precaution to make this event as safe as possible,” said Weatherly.
Wacker sees the new challenges necessitated by COVID-19 as good time to put into action long-made plans.
“Lowertowners have been envisioning a neighborhood art market for years but no one has stepped up to figure out the logistics until now,” she said. “We see the potential for a permanent Art Market in this community, so we are treating this 7-week series as a pilot program. It will give us some data and first-hand experience that we can use to assess whether an annual summer art market is feasible.” As of press time, Wacker and Weatherly were exploring extending the market into October.
Being an artist in the best of times is a challenge, and the new obstacles added this year have necessitated rapid, dramatic change. While the aforementioned endeavors produce a glimmer of hope, ultimately it will be the public that makes them successful. Already, many people in the community have stepped forward to help artists sustain and survive by purchasing their art, people who strongly believe that art is a necessary part of healthy community life.