The official line on Art-A-Whirl is that it’s the “largest open studio tour in the country.”
Unofficially, the 19-year-old event is also a harbinger of summer, one of the first major post-thaw happenings on Minneapolis’ ever-busier festival calendar. A crowd of 30,000 or more is expected to fill Northeast’s artists’ studios and galleries, bars, breweries and backyards during the third weekend in May.
Yes, Art-A-Whirl is much more than the small studio crawl it started as nearly two decades ago, having long since grown into what Alejandra Pelinka, executive director of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, described as a “community-wide celebration.” It’s a showcase for the new Northeast, the next evolution of the low-rent refuge artists discovered in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
These days, there’s what amounts to a parallel Music-A-Whirl, with dozens of local bands playing on outdoor stages scattered across Northeast. It’s a big weekend, too, for the area’s burgeoning beer scene, when breweries throw open their doors, call in the food trucks and host some of their biggest parties of the year.
With Art-A-Whirl’s success has come some communal soul-searching. At what point do the beer, the bands and the party atmosphere overshadow the art?
A shift in focus
Late April found NEMAA President Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger busily painting in her Casket Arts Building studio. Even though Northeast’s converted warehouses and factories now host monthly open studio tours, Art-A-Whirl draws their largest audience of the year, and many artists focus on putting fresh work on their walls.
Gutierrez-Bolger said she “made great sales last year,” selling her first piece half-an-hour after Art-A-Whirl opened, but other artists grumble that there’s more looking these days and less buying. Perry Ingli, an Art-A-Whirl founder, wished for an event that would grow and maintain a local collector class.
“It’s mainly people are just running through your studio,” Ingli said. “They might take a business card, but they’re not even sure where to put it.”
Pete Driessen, who has shown in every Art-A-Whirl except for the year one of his children was born, said it used to be the studio-crawlers wrapped up a long day at one of Northeast’s neighborhood pubs. Now, the party runs all day.
“It has slightly lost a bit of the focus on artists’ studios,” said Driessen, who also works in the Casket Arts Building.
In recent years, his studio exhibit included an armada of wooden ships surrounded by several of his large, brightly colored and often metaphorical paintings. Driessen said, for him, creating a memorable show and talking with visitors “goes ahead of actual selling.”
Even members of a younger generation can get annoyed when the art becomes something more like an amusing sideshow. The artist and writer Nathaniel Smith was one of several people behind the now-closed Future Presence Gallery where, during Art-A-Whirl 2012, Smith watched a particularly loutish visitor breeze through the gallery with his girlfriend, loudly deriding each artwork as he went.
That incident came to mind as Smith assembled a show of drawings for Fox Tax Gallery. He’s calling it “The Masses.”
“My first instinct was to make fun of Art-A-Whirl,” he said.
If Northeast’s renewed vitality means there are more distractions during Art-A-Whirl, artists don’t begrudge it, either. They did, after all, help bring about those changes.
“Prior to Art-A-Whirl and the [creation of] the Northeast Arts District, Northeast was an island unto itself in-between the river and … the freeways. That’s not true today,” Driessen said. “People want to live there, work there, eat there, have entertainment there.”
Jarret Oulman said artists were the “core customer” when he and his father, Jon, opened the 331 Club nine years ago. The former biker bar became a neighborhood hangout and one of the city’s greatest live-music venues.
“Those are really the roots of the community, the studios,” Oulman said. “That’s why the people came. We were just a place for them to hang out.”
Art-A-Whirl weekend, when bands play on an outdoor stage set up in the 331 Club’s parking lot next to vendors selling handmade crafts, is the bar’s biggest weekend of the year. They’ll see 10 times as many people as a typical Friday-to-Sunday stretch, Oulman said.
“I think that, if anything, [Art-A-Whirl] helps reinforce the community’s identity as culturally fertile,” he said.
The “real legacy” of Art-A-Whirl, according to Icebox Gallery owner Howard Chistopherson, who helped plan the inaugural event in 1995, is the way it catalyzed Northeast’s transformation.
“Every year [Art-A-Whirl] seemed to grow more, and what was interesting was to watch the community change,” Christopherson said. “… [Northeast] is much more youthful and hip and everything than when it was really blue collar, a very working-man’s place before.”
IF YOU GO:
The 19th-annual Art-A-Whirl open studio tour runs May 16–18 in and around the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.
The official hours are 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Friday, noon–8 p.m. Saturday and noon–5 p.m. Sunday, but the action in Northeast starts earlier and runs later. For a guide to participating artists, events, maps, transit information and more, go to nemaa.org/art-a-whirl.
Special events and exhibitions
Besides all of the studio-crawling, Art-A-Whirl weekend is packed with gallery shows, one-off performances, art demonstrations and other special events.
The artist and arts writer Nathaniel Smith put together “The Masses” for The Gallery at Fox Tax, 503 1st Ave. NE, a show featuring drawings by artists Nick Howard, Noah Harmon and Erick Haden, as well as collaborative pieces from Andy Ducett, Ric Stultz and Michael Joseph Winslow that the trio call “conglomos.” The theme, appropriately for Art-A-Whirl, is crowds, and the gallery hosts an opening reception 5 p.m.–9 p.m. Friday, the first night of the festival.
At his Icebox Gallery, 1500 Jackson St. NE, Howard Christopherson plans to show photos by Stillwater native Toby Old, now based in New York City. The more than 30 black-and-white photographs are drawn from Old’s “American Moments” portfolio, capturing the odd scenes and eccentric characters of American life. Icebox hosts an artist’s talk with Old 5 p.m. Saturday followed by a reception 8 p.m.–11 p.m.
Performance artist Jaime Carrera and painter Caitlin Karolczak collaborate on “Face” at the Solar Arts Building, 711 15th Ave. NE. Stop by studio 205 at 5 p.m. Saturday to see Karolczak paint Carrera’s portrait on his own body as he performs.
Climb to the third floor of the Solar Arts Building to experience FutureKave, an interactive video game art installation created by the crew at vidtiger, the Northeast-based creative video agency. The “kave” will also host music starting at 9 p.m. Saturday (UP ROCK, C.Kostra and Bronto) and again at 4 p.m. Sunday (Trompe le Monde, a Pixies cover band made up of local musicians).
The annual MayDay Parade and Festival is a quintessentially South Minneapolis blend of politics, pageantry and personal expression, but 40-year-old In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre production is getting the retrospective treatment from a Northeast gallery. View parade puppets, artwork and photography documenting the annual event all weekend long at Public Functionary, 1400 12th Ave. NE. Expect pop-up performances, too.
Altered Esthetics’ group exhibition, “Man Up,” continues through Art-A-Whirl weekend at Artspace Jackson Flats, 901 18 1/2 Ave. NE. Artists of all genders working in a variety of media explore the idea of modern manhood.
See Minneapolis artist and animator John Akre work on his latest short film at the Stop Motion Animation Station in room 245 of the Northrup King Building, 1500 Jackson St. NE., 5 p.m.–7 p.m. Friday, noon–5 p.m. Saturday and noon–3 p.m. Sunday. Stick around for screenings of the “MinnAnimate II” local animation anthology starting each night after Akre’s demonstration wraps.
To see more of what’s planned during this year’s Art-A-Whirl, go to nemaa.org/events.
WHERE: 331 13th Ave. NE
MUSIC STARTS: 6 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
BANDS: More than two-dozen over the weekend, including Mark Mallman, Hastings 3000 and The Cloak Ox.
WHERE: 945 Broadway St. NE
MUSIC STARTS: 5 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday
BANDS: There’s a little bit of everything on the Art-A-Whirl Bash 2014 bill: hip-hop from Big Jess and MaLLy, bluesy Americana from The Fattenin’ Frogs and classic rock covers by So Big.
WHERE: 302 13th Ave. NE
MUSIC STARTS: 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
BANDS: This year’s headliners are Marijuana Deathsquads on Saturday and Romantica on Sunday. The Anchor sets up a stage in its back parking lot next to a food truck serving its famous fish and chips.
WHERE: 2200 4th St. NE
MUSIC STARTS: 1 p.m. Saturday
BANDS: The Blind Shake headlines this Grumpy’s 16th-annual Art-A-Whirl Party, joined by Eleganza, Appetite for Zaccardi and Romantica, among others.
WHERE: 711 15th Ave. NE
MUSIC STARTS: 6 p.m. Friday and 12:15 p.m. Saturday
BANDS: The Chambermaids top a three-band bill Friday night. The much longer Saturday lineup concludes with The Black-eyed Snakes, from Duluth, at 8 p.m. The party doubles as a special release of Indeed’s L.S.D. Honey Ale.