With autumn settling in, local artists and galleries are looking for ways to keep attendance and revenue up through the cold months.

But COVID-era guests are a fickle bunch, as some have found -- their willingness to visit and shop has less to do with safety than with perceived inconveniences.

Gallery attendance rose through 2021, Rochester Art Center executive director Pamela Hugdahl said, even without counting the bumps from each of the Night Markets in July, August and September. (Those, she said, were an outlier, racking up between 5,000 and 8,000 attendees per night.)

“It may be naive, but I feel like we’ve mastered the pandemic changes,” Hugdahl said.

The art center maintained a mask “preference” throughout the stages of the pandemic, even during the summer. Hugdahl credits that, and the Art Center's sheer size, with continued attendance before and after vaccination.

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“The pandemic may be ongoing, but it’s a 36,000-square-foot space,” she said. “It’s a nice way to get out of the house and be safe.”

Hugdahl and others hope that with Delta variant cases on the rise, visitors will continue to see the Art Center as a low-risk destination.

“We want people to think of the Rochester Art Center as a restorative space,” board president Rose Anderson said. “Someplace to go for a change of scenery, which is safer or less crowded than a restaurant or store.”

Austin Area Arts. Contributed / Laura Helle
Austin Area Arts. Contributed / Laura Helle

How are audiences feeling?

Not everyone has had the same success in luring visitors back indoors.

Laura Helle, executive director of Austin Area Arts, has learned that it’s “more successful to plan programming and pull it back” than to quickly produce events when conditions seemed amenable.

“We plan as if there aren’t any restrictions, and then as we go, we decide whether we’re going to require masks or limit attendance,” she said. “The question mark, really, on any given day, is how are the audiences feeling?”

Laura Helle. Contributed / Austin Area Arts
Laura Helle. Contributed / Austin Area Arts

Some months, Austin visitors seemed to want to visit the art center, but only if they wouldn’t encounter any crowds.

Other times, Helle found herself fielding those who wanted to see live shows only if they didn’t have to bother wearing a mask.

“That’s really, really hard to predict,” Helle said.

The center is also dealing with a sharp decrease in ticket revenue.

Austin’s annual Caravan du Nord concert in the fall normally sees 200 to 400 tickets sold. This year, they sold 57 tickets, Helle recalled.

On the upside, low attendance allows for plenty of social distancing. But it’s hard to tell how audiences will feel during the winter.

“We, so far, have been able to absorb the financial blows that happen when your ticket sales are not bringing in the revenue you’d hoped for,” Helle said. “But it’s definitely challenging.”

Mike Speck, Chatfield Center for the Arts operations director, speaks during an event with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to highlight the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which was created by the Save Our Stages Act, outside the Rochester Civic Theatre Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in downtown Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Mike Speck, Chatfield Center for the Arts operations director, speaks during an event with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to highlight the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which was created by the Save Our Stages Act, outside the Rochester Civic Theatre Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in downtown Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Mike Speck, the operations director for the Chatfield Center for the Arts, said he’s moved some annual events, like the Chosen Bean concerts, from the Legion Room (“a cozy space”) to the wider Backstage.

Reactions have been decidedly mixed, despite the safer setting. Some attendees appreciated having more room, while others protested the distance from musicians.

“It’s certainly a less intimate setting, but when you’re dealing with a virus with respiratory spread, that’s probably a really good thing, actually,” Speck said.

That leaves Chatfield organizers to question the Legion Room’s purpose going forward, Speck added. “Are there any shows that really don’t work in any space bigger than this? Those are questions we’re asking -- it’s not any kind of settled decision for now.”

“It’s a question of the best use of available space,” Speck said. “And you get into the question of ‘what is best,’ and that is a philosophical question I am just not prepared for.”

Robin Taylor, left, works during Open Studio, a time to work on individual art in a shared space, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at the Rochester Art Center in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Robin Taylor, left, works during Open Studio, a time to work on individual art in a shared space, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at the Rochester Art Center in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Working on Zoom fatigue

Meanwhile, the Rochester Art Center has opened winter programming like “Wednesdays After Work,” a weekly open-studio day where community members can bring their own art projects to work on, or make something using the center’s supplies.

“Everyone has Zoom fatigue,” Hugdahl said. “There’s a sink, sanitizer, masks, and distancing, but it’s not rigid, and you don’t have to do it at home from Zoom.”

Pros and cons of screens

Speck agrees that there are pros and cons to Zoom shows and streaming -- but he’s glad Chatfield bought in anyway.

“We’ve invested fairly heavily -- and I think a lot of arts organizations have -- in a good camera, some good audio streaming equipment,” he said. “Pretty much everything on the Backstage, our smaller pieces and concerts, are streaming. We expect that that will at least be an option for a while, although we have noticed that the interest is falling off a little bit.”

While Zoom fatigue may cut down on audiences, virtual platforming does allow Chatfield to book artists willing to teach or perform from their own studios outside of SE MN.

“That is not something that we had much capacity for at all, pre-pandemic,” Speck said. “We pivoted to that pretty well out of necessity … and now we are keeping that capability.”

The online options will be necessary later this year, as Chatfield Center for the Arts undergoes some heavy renovations. If all goes to plan, “the middle of our building is going to be a hole in the ground sometime in early November,” Speck said.

In Austin, art classes for adults will continue over Zoom, and Helle said the pandemic has provided insight into which mediums work best virtually (clay pieces are particularly good). The gallery did offer private shopping hours pre-vaccine, and although interest fell off, “we know how to do it now,” Helle said.

“Having that be part of our repertoire has been really good,” she said. “In the winter, you can never tell when there’s going to be a blizzard and it would be impossible to visit in person anyway.

“It’s really capacity-building -- we’ve built the capacity, and whether or not we need it remains to be seen.”

The Rochester Art Center will experiment with an online gallery during the winter.

However, the upcoming Homecoming Queen exhibit featuring Utica drag queen Ethan Mundt, will include a pay-to-enter virtual gallery -- the first time the art center has charged admission for an online exhibit.

That will make the exhibit accessible to people who can’t visit in person with or without the pandemic, Anderson said.

Ivete De Castro Martionez on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, at her home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Ivete De Castro Martionez on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, at her home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Changing buyer habits

Ivete Martinez, of Gallery 24 and SEMVA, said the biggest change she’s seen as an artist has been changing consumer habits -- even after storefronts reopened, she said, people have continued to buy items online.

“Psychologically it takes only 21 days to change a habit, but with the pandemic, we had so much more than that in the last year,” Martinez said. “People do go online for their shopping ... even after the door was open.”

Rick Swanson of Fox and Swan Arts started his online marketing journey just before the pandemic hit.

In late 2019, Swanson invested in a “more robust online platform,” in the hopes of developing Fox and Swan Arts’ online commerce abilities.

“That really has been my entire focus since March of 2020,” he said. While Fox and Swan participated in a couple of art shows in the fall of 2021, Swanson has put most of his eggs in the online sales basket.

“I spend quite a bit of time and, frankly, quite a bit of money on marketing activity and otherwise just trying to build a social media following,” Swanson said. “I’ve had some success doing so, in that when I started in October of 2020, I had exactly 11 people on my email list. And as of today (in September), I’m a little over 4,500 people. Now, that’s not been without effort and not without expense. But I knew I’d be committing at least three years to building that following.”

“They’re not a buying audience yet,” he said. “But that takes time. I knew that going in, and I made that commitment almost two years ago.”

People who enter Swanson’s giveaways are from across the U.S. and Canada, and he hopes to extend his reach even further, once the audience begins buying.

“As a physical presence, you’re really limited to the people who are likely to walk into your shop or visit your tent at a fair,” he said. “Hopefully I’m building a following that reaches beyond Rochester, certainly -- beyond Minnesota, maybe even beyond the Upper Midwest.”

Naura Anderson, Executive Director at Threshold Arts on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at their downtown location in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Naura Anderson, Executive Director at Threshold Arts on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, at their downtown location in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Sticking with the storefront

Earlier in the summer, Threshold Arts had hoped to move back into the second floor of The Castle and reopen the long-abandoned artist-in-residence studios.

However, the Castle’s lease is up in the air, Threshold Arts’ executive director Naura Anderson said. Anderson is working to “get that deal solidified and confirmed” with Castle owners. The difficulty, she said, is “directly related” to Echo Church, which leased the Castle space through summer 2021.

“We don’t have a timeline yet for when we resume our occupancy in the Castle,” she said.

In the meantime, the arts organization has extended its lease on the Broadway storefront to 2022. They’re hoping the holiday gift-giving season will pay off with more customers through the end of the year, Anderson said.

“It’s been such a wonderful location for us, and foot traffic has been great for us, being next to Steam and the RDA,” she said.

Anderson’s side project, Neon Green Studios, has sold to-go art kits through the pandemic. She thinks she’ll keep that model in place, with some of the kits for sale in the Threshold storefront.

Cassandra Buck at her Rochester business, Clover & Rose. (Contributed photo)
Cassandra Buck at her Rochester business, Clover & Rose. (Contributed photo)

Cassandra Buck, a local artist and owner of art and vintage shop Clover & Rose, said she’s cut back heavily on vending events as an independent artist. Instead, she focused on commissions and keeping shop hours open. And she’s also had some success with selling art kits.

With two children under vaccination age, Buck “scaled back her physical connection with the community.”

“In the winter, pre-pandemic, I would really focus on markets and I would do a lot of classes,” she said. “Obviously I’m not going to be doing that this year.”

Embroidery kit from Clover & Rose
Embroidery kit from Clover & RoseContributed by John Sievers

Buck helped create add-on art kits to be sold with Forager Brewery’s early meal kits. She’s also made “creator kits” suitable for giving as a holiday gift, or geared toward bored kids in the summer months.

“I think I will definitely keep doing that kind of stuff,” she said. “Being innovative in that way, coming up with new ways to connect -- without having to be around somebody.”

Looking to the spring

The Rochester Art Center’s Art Bash isn’t the only big event on hold until the spring.

The Rochester Arts and Cultural Trust’s major programs -- the Ardee Awards and the Fete -- have been on hold for two years, CEO Bari Amadio said.

Dancing with the Arts, the organization’s fundraiser, should return in April 2022, Amadio said -- fingers crossed. If it does go off, they’ll be able to fund the “17 or so” organizations the trust worked with in the past, like the Ronald McDonald House, History Center of Olmsted County and Women’s Shelter.

“We used funds from Dancing for the Arts to help pay the rent -- we’re a very lean organization, truth be told,” Amadio said.“No money, no mission. That’s something we regret. … But in my opinion, why go for funding when there’s other organizations that might need it more than we do at that time?”

Park the Arts did go off without a hitch, and the trust partnered with the Rochester Airport to fill its art gallery -- Arts Elevated at RST. Pieces by Debra D’Souza will be on display for about nine months.

“They’re hung -- they look beautiful out there, actually,” Amadio said. “People have the opportunity not just to experience art in the airport, but to purchase that art.”