Now in its 22nd year, Art-a-Whirl is an opportunity for Minnesotans to check out fresh local artwork and witness the creative process in action. The event — the largest of its kind in the country — is poised to draw more than 30,000 visitors to the sprawling warehouses and art studios of northeast Minneapolis this weekend. This year, 600 artist studios will be stocked with 6,000-plus pieces of art for sale, representing more than 20 media.
“It’s crazier year after year, bigger and bigger,” said Kate Iverson, a mixed-media artist who has lived in the area 10 years and also serves as development director for the hip Northeast gallery Public Functionary.
Not all the growth is artistic. In recent years, breweries and bars have added their own bashes to the Art-a-Whirl itinerary. As someone who has experienced Art-a-Whirl from the perspectives of a studio artist, a gallerist and a patron, Iverson concedes that the pull of extracurricular activities can be a point of contention with the area’s creatives.
“The artists get miffed about the breweries overshadowing the art, for sure,” she said. “I can flip-flop on that issue depending on the situation.”
When did Art-a-Whirl morph from a simple gallery tour into the boisterous affair it is today? Dameun Strange is executive director of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA), the group responsible for organizing Art-a-Whirl. He credited Grumpy’s, a neighborhood bar, with marking Art-a-Whirl with live music and art displays since 1998.
These days, the businesses of northeast Minneapolis — from bars and taprooms to the Meditation Center and even Lyn Lake Chiropractic Northeast — embrace Art-a-Whirl. “It’s morphed into this awesome neighborhoodwide celebration,” Iverson said.
Tom Whisenand, co-owner of Indeed Brewing, remembers his first Art-a-Whirl as a neighborhood business owner. The year was 2012. His brewery hadn’t even opened — he was still orchestrating a massive build-out for its future home in the Solar Arts Building, one of the area’s many historic warehouses.
Foot traffic in the area was a fraction of what it is today, Whisenand remembered. Nevertheless, he spent the weekend camped out on a loading dock, sold a few Indeed Brewing T-shirts and even gave some impromptu building tours. “Even before we opened, we were a part of Art-a-Whirl,” he said.
Indeed Brewing now hosts a three-day Art-a-Whirl-related shindig so colossal it has its own name: Whirlygig. The brewery wrist-banded more than 5,000 people at last year’s Saturday night blowout. This year’s musical lineup features 18 acts including local favorites Marijuana Deathsquads, Mark Mallman and Pert Near Sandstone. Food offerings will include Blucys, black bean burgers and Totchos from the Blue Door Pub, as well as wieners from Natedogs. There’s even a 5K to kick off the final day of Whirlygig.
Whisenand insists that events such as Whirlygig aren’t meant to upstage the event’s visual artists. “We also put a lot of effort toward driving traffic into the building itself, which does have some art studios in it,” he said.
“We try to be a positive contributor,” he added. “Every year, we’re looking for ways to increase the artfulness of our event and promote the artists who are a huge part of what this area is all about.”
Art at the heart
Strange said, “The narrative of the competition between the breweries and the artists is a little bit inaccurate.”
How does he know? A 2016 NEMAA survey of Art-a-Whirl member artists showed that 67 percent reported increased sales that year compared with the previous year. Twenty percent said their sales stayed the same, whereas just 13 percent reported a decrease. Eighty percent of artists also reported an uptick in visitors to their studios. Similar stats were seen across these categories in the 2015 survey.
“As the numbers show, it hasn’t produced a decline in sales or visits to the actual studio spaces,” Strange said.
That’s not to say NEMAA and its members aren’t brainstorming ways to make sure art gets its fair share of attention. This year, instead of a silent auction in the third-floor gallery of the Northrup King building, one of the event’s central venues, NEMAA booked 25 artists to create in real time. Visitors can go there to interact with artists as they paint, sculpt and perform.
What’s more, 40 family-friendly events are scheduled, including demonstrations for everything from pottery to glassblowing to papermaking.
“One of the cool things I noticed from our surveys is that people said this was their child’s first experience with art,” Strange said.
Meanwhile, artists in northeast Minneapolis are doing a better job of enticing buyers with smaller scale and less expensive pieces.
Iverson will sell prints priced around $20 in addition to pricier original paintings from her studio in the 1101 Building. She will sweeten the deal further with candy and snacks from Tomodachi, a pop culture and toy store at the Mall of America. She also booked guest artists Michael Cina and Christina Da Cruz to help visitors create free mini-canvases they can take home.
NEMAA helps artists such as Iverson reward art purchases by doling out “I Bought Art” stickers. The stickers entitle art buyers to special discounts and freebies from local breweries, restaurants and other businesses.
For his part, Strange has been building relationships with breweries and engaging in conversations on how to tweak their programming to better promote art. This year, Indeed Brewing will feature NEMAA artists with an installation in their taproom. Fair State Brewing has eliminated live music and will host an Arty Party with live screen printing, silent auction and DJ, while 612 Brew will exclusively exhibit NEMAA artists during the festival.
“I’ve found that most businesses are supportive of the true meaning and spirit of Art-a-Whirl,” Strange said.
Iverson said, “I think parties and art are great together. The beer, the music and the food are great on the side. They definitely bring more people in, and it creates more of a fun atmosphere.
“But the art is the heart and soul of it.”
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.