How art fair artists are making a comeback this summer

·3 min read

When the pandemic swept through the Twin Cities last year, canceling the annual summertime ritual of outdoor art fairs, St. Paul painter Marvin Wise lost a third of his income.

"People couldn't afford artwork," he said. "It's like, 'Are you gonna buy artwork or bread?' "

This weekend, though, he'll make a welcome return to the world of selling art in person, Saturday and Sunday at the Loring Park Art Festival in downtown Minneapolis.

"You can go online, but it's nothing like speaking to the person or explaining the feeling of the painting or why you do it," said Wise, whose work reflects on human emotions. "On the computer you can't give that emotion sound."

Artists ranging from Sunday painters to expert craftspeople depend on summer fairs for much of their income. Like Wise, they took a hit in 2020 — but many are already reporting an upswing in sales this year, with people excited to see art again, and paying it forward by opening their wallets.

"Last March, everything changed," said St. Paul-based artist Melinda Wolff, who sells her work at 10 to 15 shows per year in addition to online and at retail outlets around the Twin Cities. "It was a good reminder to pause and kind of look at things in a different light and to slow down, because usually with art shows we are going, going, going, getting ready for a really busy summer and fall."

Wolff, who went full time as an artist six years ago, sells "upcycled" jewelry made from reclaimed wood scraps. But during the pandemic, she rediscovered her love for painting, returning to watercolors and painting on wood.

For Minneapolis artist Sue Mooney, cancellations resulted in an 80% loss of income in 2020. Because she was at high risk for COVID, she didn't go to Florida for her usual winter shows, either. Instead, she went on unemployment for the first time, and hunkered down to connect virtually with her artist group and work on some new abstract pieces — a departure from her typical cityscapes and occasional commissioned paintings of dogs wearing goggles.

Her main saving grace during the pandemic was selling work at pop-up events by south Minneapolis-based Everett and Charlie Gallery.

"It was quite depressing," she said.

On the bright side, she said her shift to abstract painting has brought her more income than her previous works.

'My best fair ever'

Photographer Josh Driver — one of the featured artists at this weekend's Loring Park Art Festival — also took a detour when fairs got canceled.

The White Bear Lake-based photographer had just taken the plunge into full-time artmaking in 2019. Last year, he said, sales were down 75% after all but two fairs were scrapped, and he couldn't generate any momentum in the online platforms that many art fairs launched as a stopgap.

So he gave up on 2020 and went to shoot photos in the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Artists undoubtedly will take a hit from the cancellation of next weekend's Uptown Art Fair — Minnesota's biggest — because of unrest in that Minneapolis neighborhood. Otherwise, though, this year's fairs are offering a surprising bounceback.

"Stone Arch ended up being my best fair ever," he said of the mid-June event in Minneapolis that drew around 200 artists and tens of thousands of attendees. It was his first show back, "which is a great start to the post-COVID pandemic art world."

He had a similar experience at Grand Marais Arts Festival three weeks ago.

Wolff's summer is shaping up well, too. At each show, she's seen a 20% increase from corresponding fairs in 2019, starting with Stone Arch.

"People were so excited to do so-called normal things again," she said. "To get out and talk to other people and socialize and see art and just support the local artist community, much more so than in past years."

@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437

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