Local Current Blog

At Art-A-Whirl, art crawl and music festival coexist (more or less) peacefully

Fans watch Caroline Smith (above) and Heiruspecs (below) perform at Bauhaus Brew Labs' Liquid Zoo event during Art-A-Whirl 2017. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

For over two decades, Northeast Minneapolis has come alive every spring as local artists open up their studios for the annual Art-A-Whirl festival. Run by the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA), what started as a small festival has now turned into the largest open studio tour in the country and will showcase over 650 artists this year. For many of these artists, Art-A-Whirl has given them opportunity to showcase their work, and it also gives their community a chance to get to know them.

As executive director of NEMAA, Dameun Strange is excited for what’s to come this year and is focused on making Art-A-Whirl — which takes place this coming weekend — an event that brings everyone together to celebrate the Northeast Minneapolis arts community.

“From my perspective it’s always better if you are holding an event in the community to make sure the community is a part of it and still feel like this is their event too, and NEMAA tries to do that,” Strange said. “We’re always focused on that. The things that we do, we always make sure that we’re community-focused and family-friendly, and that’s an important thing as far as a relationship with our community goes.”

But as Art-A-Whirl has continued to grow, so has the community in Northeast Minneapolis. Over the past decade, there have been more and more bars and breweries that have sprung up in the area, many of which also host concerts during the weekend. Many of those concerts are marketed as part of Art-A-Whirl, but they are not officially part of the tour. For some, the growing number of concerts going on during the weekend is a good thing, as it continues to bring more people out to Northeast Minneapolis every year. Others, though, worry that the music detracts from the festival’s focus on the visual arts.

Minneapolis-based artist Mark Rivard used to be heavily involved in Art-A-Whirl. He started working in a studio in the California Building in 2010 and, would go all out for Art-A-Whirl every year — even hiring a DJ and bartender for the weekend so he could stand out from the crowd and make the most of the opportunity.

“I looked at it like a complete business decision. When I was first starting out, Art-A-Whirl was interesting and the first few years it was really awesome. We made money, had a good time, and promoted our studios,” Rivard said. “My studio was a heavy traffic place for the first few years that I was open and then slowly but surely more people spent more time outside, more time at a brewery and beer garden, and less time indoors purchasing artwork.”

While the venues hosting outdoor concerts look forward to doing so every year, many of them also recognize the strain it puts on some artists. Grumpy’s Northeast is one of those venues. The bar has been putting on large outdoor concerts during Art-A-Whirl for 20 years. Although it has been good for them as a business, longtime bartender Tony Zaccardi says the bar makes it a priority to support NEMAA and its artists as much as it can and encourages other venues in Northeast Minneapolis to do the same.

“We’ve been a member of NEMAA since day one,” said Zaccardi, “so it’s important for us to pay the money for the membership and to support the arts. Clearly what we’re doing is a block party, we’re not trying to fool anybody, but we will have art for sale in the bar. We don’t take a cut. A lot of our customers are NEMAA members and artists and have studios, so we want to make it clear that we support them.”

He continued, “The block party thing that happens now has taken on a life of its own, and we love it, of course. Grumpy’s having a thing, Bauhaus and 331 [also hosting concerts], it brings people into Northeast and we don’t want them just to sit at our bar and drink beer. While you’re here, swing by and grab a piece of art, talk to some of the artists. I think we want to encourage any people that we can that this is the focus.”

Becoming a Business Partner Member of NEMAA, as Grumpy’s has, makes it easier for the organization to establish Art-A-Whirl expectations and work together so both parties benefit from the weekend, said Strange — who is all for having local music during the festival. Although most venues do join NEMAA, there are some that choose not to. Strange said that’s caused problems for Art-A-Whirl in the past, such as streets being blocked without the permission of the police and a lack of communication during the weekend.

“Members of NEMAA get all this information about how to best be good neighbors during the weekend, what our policies are and things like that, but 331 and Sheridan room have decided not to join and to not really to pay attention to any of those suggestions,” Strange said. “There’s not a lot we can do as far as that relationship goes, but the fact that they’re still using our brand and not paying for it is just not a good thing or good partners or neighbors to us.”

The 331 Club’s co-owner, Jarret Oulman, sees the club’s relationship with NEMAA differently. Although the 331 is not listed on the list of official 2018 NEMAA Businesses, Oulman said they are a member of the organization. To him, things between Art-A-Whirl and 331 have gone through different stages throughout the years and that the relationship recently became strained due to leadership changes within the NEMAA organization.

“Over the course of the last 13 years our engagement with NEMAA has been different,” said Oulman. “Sometimes NEMAA takes more of an embracing stance to the music activity and other years they’ve been sort of trying to be in a position where they have to protect their activity by pushing the music, the outdoor music festival activities [away] and trying to make it so it doesn’t impede what their activity is.”

Despite the tension there may be between NEMAA and some venues in Northeast Minneapolis, the general view from most businesses involved is that the art comes first. That’s something Mike Schwandt, who works in communications and marketing at Bauhaus Brew Labs, believes. Although Bauhaus will be having live music during the weekend, he knows all of the concerts going on can sometimes make things more difficult for Art-A-Whirl, and he emphasized that Bauhaus wants to keep the focus on the artists.

“I think there has been some concern over breweries and third parties coming in because it takes away from what Art-A-Whirl was originally set up to be, which is really just about opening the studios and letting artists shine,” Schwandt said. “Music should be as much intertwinedness as the art itself, and what we want to offer is a place for people to come for free and relax while they’re out and about in Northeast looking at all the art. We don’t want it to be a place where we just bring a bunch of people to and then keep them all day. It’s meant to be kind of a revolving door.”

And while having live music during Art-A-Whirl can make things harder for some artists, there are other local artists, like Linnea Doyle, who are fine with with the live concerts happening during the weekend.

“I love that people are coming for music,” Doyle said. “I don’t care if they don’t make it to my studio, I just think it’s cool that there are all these people coming through the neighborhood. Talking to other artists, I feel like if you set your own goals from what you want to get out of Art-A-Whirl you can achieve that. I’ve heard a lot of people who are just kind of down on the music and think that it’s taking away, but I don’t see it that way.”

“For most people that are doing these events, their heart is in the right place,” said Zaccardi. “As long as they have an understanding about what Art-A-Whirl is about and why it was founded and what we can do as non-art-galleries, anything that you can do to benefit NEMAA officially is going to benefit everyone in the long run.”

Simone Cazares is a student at Saint Paul College. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.