To an outside observer, Hastings may seem like a sleepy little river town with a scattering of antique shops. But according to the local arts community, the city is poised for an arts renaissance. A new art gallery just opened in December, and both an arts cooperative and a music conservatory are set to open this spring.

"Things are happening," said Dick Graham, board president of the Hastings Prescott Area Arts Council (HPAAC).

These openings are happening alongside the city's planned riverfront improvements, which include a new performance pavilion that could host musical and theatrical performances and arts and crafts shows.

"Give us a few years and we'll be up and booming," said Sarah Lockwood, who is starting a music conservatory in an 1868 church. "I think Hastings has the potential to become quite the stop for people."

Here are a few of the hot spots:

Evansen Art Studio

Even though Andy Evansen travels around the world to teach watercolor classes, he says not too many people in his hometown of Vermillion, near Hastings, know of his work. "When you are working out of your basement," he said, "it's hard for people to know who you are."

About 25 years ago, Evansen was working as a medical illustrator when everything started going digital. He began painting watercolors on the side, which "just kind of grew and grew," he said.

Since then, he has won numerous prizes for his paintings, such as a bronze medal from the American Watercolor Society in New York and the Richeson award at the Red River Watercolor Society's National Exhibition.

Evansen just opened a gallery in Hastings at 202 2nd St., in the former Professor Java's.

He said the place was basically just a shell when they started working on it, and after an intensive renovation, he hosted a grand opening in December with about 200 people in attendance.

In the front room of the new gallery, Evansen displays some of his paintings. Currently, he sells only originals but would eventually like to create prints of some of his Hastings paintings. He also has his easel set up by the front windows, and people shopping downtown will sometimes pause to watch him work.

Adjoining that space is a 1,100 square-foot classroom area, where Evansen plans to hold classes starting this month.

Breakaway Arts Cafe

More classes will be offered this spring at a cooperative known as the Breakaway Arts Café, which Hastings City Council Member Joe Balsanek likened to a "YMCA for the arts."

The for-profit business will operate with a "fitness center business model," said Mecca Manz, a Hastings artist who is opening the cooperative. She said the business will charge a small monthly fee for people in the community to join, which will provide them access to several workshop spaces to work on projects.

"We want to be the go-to place for creativity," said Manz.

She said they plan to offer a wide variety of classes, such as painting, drawing and jewelry making.

The cooperative, to be located on 2nd Street and Ramsey in Hastings, will have an upscale coffee bar, gathering spaces with comfy couches and chairs, and a retail area with custom-made gifts and art supplies. Students can use a pottery studio in an adjacent building to work on ceramics and glasswork projects.

According to Manz, they should be operating by the end of May.

Manz said the location should be ideal, as it is close to a small city park, and they hope to use the park's small concrete stage to collaborate with performing arts organizations, such as the local Black Dirt Theater.

Music conservatory

Also this spring, Sarah Lockwood and her husband will open a music conservatory. In December, they closed on the purchase of the Guardian Angels church, the old Irish Catholic Church in Hastings.

Lockwood received a master's in collaborative piano at the University of Minnesota, and she has been teaching piano, violin and viola in her small home studio. She has been a resident of Hastings for the past 10 years, and a couple of years ago started a strings group called Ponticelli, with the goal of getting lapsed musicians playing again. About 11 to 15 musicians play regularly with the group. (The name, which means "bridges," she said, references bridges on the instruments, the bridge in Hastings and the bridges people make with others when they play together.)

Lockwood said she had been eyeing the 1868 church as a possible site for a conservatory for years, since it first went on the market in 2007.

"My husband and I kind of just had this dream," she said. Her husband, a physician and musician, plays the violin.

The new conservatory will have five music studios, and Lockwood has lined up a few teachers to work at the school. She hopes to have classes from early childhood through adult.

"I would love to have the place as full as possible most of the day," she said. "I'm really hoping to get more adult students involved, someone who always wanted to play an instrument but never did."

Lockwood said she hopes to schedule concerts on the weekends, using the foyer for open-mic nights and the sanctuary for large recitals.

The building should be ready by mid-January for her students, and by mid-spring or summer for other instructors. However, "with these old buildings, you never know," she said. "The place needs a lot of TLC."

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.