Zack and Shannon Steven of Edina normally make sure they attend the Uptown Art Fair. It’s a chance to converse with artists, and it often falls on their special day.
“One of the big reasons that we typically go is to find our anniversary gift,” said Shannon Steven, an art teacher at Cornelia Elementary in Edina. “It’s always been perfect that Uptown Art Fair is on the day or right around it.”
This year their marriage turns 20, but their art fair tradition is on pause.
The Twin Cities’ summer art fairs are a chance for art lovers to enjoy the sunshine, discover new art and chat with artists face to face. Nearly all of this year’s are either canceled or moved online. One exception: the Red Hot Art Festival in Minneapolis. It will operate as a scaled-down version of its pre-pandemic self, with pop-ups the next three Fridays from 4-7 p.m. on Nicollet Avenue near Franklin.
Minnesotans have had to search for new ways to get their summer art fixes. Artists, meanwhile, must make up lost revenue, and fair directors are trying to plan for an uncertain future.
“The art fairs account for sometimes up to 40 percent of my yearly income,” said Meg Erke, a mixed-media painting and book artist. “Loring Park and Powderhorn are two I would’ve done.”
Erke skipped the Powderhorn Art Fair’s transition to an online two-day event because it charged a $175 fee. She’s participated in the fairs for the past eight years. To make up for lost income, she applied for unemployment, decided to sharpen her own online sales platform, and is selling her art at local businesses like Minnesota Makers. She also taught a summer art camp via Zoom.
Artist Jaana Mattson, who makes needle-felted wool landscapes on pieces of wood, traditionally makes most of her income from art fairs. She’s been doing them for 20 years, averaging 12 to 18 each year. She was supposed to be a featured artist at St. Anthony Park Arts Festival in St. Paul, but it was canceled.
“Art fairs are a constant cycle of making work in the studio, planning ahead,” she said. “With everything stopping in its tracks, I’ve had a unique opportunity to take a break and re-evaluate a little.”
With more downtime, she’s been able to work on building online tutorials and figure out how to teach via Zoom.
For art fair directors, the loss is simply devastating.
The Loring Park Art Festival decided not to go online. Now it’s trying to plan for 2021.
“We are hopeful that we can have something close to what we’ve had in the past,” said assistant director Cindy Jacobson. Last year, the Loring fair had 140 artists, one-third of them from Minnesota. “We are not sure if we are going to have a bigger footprint in the park. Nobody knows what’s going on.”
A similar reality hit the Uptown Art Fair, which would’ve turned 57 last weekend.
“We normally get 380,000 people attending that event over three days,” said Jill Osiecki, executive director of the Uptown Association. She estimated that the fair lost “at least tens of thousands of dollars.”
For fairgoers like the Stevens, being able to talk with artists is another reason they go. After the killing of George Floyd, they got their artist chats in by talking with mural makers.
“I had a little app [Glide] for tracking George Floyd murals,” said Zack Steven, who is also the founder of startup studio Cloudburst SBC. “It was great to see people making things out of tragic situations.”
The last fair standing?
Instead of canceling, the community-driven Red Hot Art Festival shifted to a series of pop-ups with a different batch of three or four artists each weekend plus a music act and a kids event.
“Instead of taking community out of it, we figured we could scale it down,” said coordinator Mike Brooks. “We were looking for BIPOC artists, sticking to artists that were going to be motivated to do something for the times that we are in.”
Last year Red Hot had 170 artists and around 2,000 attendees. Unlike other fairs, it doesn’t charge artists to participate.
Like everything in the time of COVID, there will be some standard social distancing and cleanliness rules. For festival executive director Rachel Boeke, the extra cleaning feels worth it, especially now.
“We’re allowing people to access art and community for a time when we are lacking that.”