As downtown art gallery closes, artists visualize a future
The Southeast Minnesota Visual Artists Art Gallery will close May 21.
ROCHESTER — Art lovers will have one more week to shop the Southeast Minnesota Visual Artists Art Gallery.
The gallery and store at 320 South Broadway closes after May 21.
Some SEMVA artists’ work will still be on display downtown at the Double Tree by Hilton and the Kahler Grand.
For the volunteers and artists, the closing is a necessary but bittersweet move, they said.
“It’s very uplifting,” said Bernadine Jax, SEMVA artist and board member. “I don’t think there’s another space in Rochester with this much art in one place.”
“We love this space. I love what we’ve been able to transform it into,” said Ginni Cormack, SEMVA president and artist. “But we’re getting to the point where we need to make some tough financial decisions.”
The move comes at the end of a five-year lease that marked the group’s return to downtown after more than a year of absence.
For more than 20 years, visitors to Peace Plaza would peruse and purchase the art at the SEMVA gallery there. A 40% rent hike in 2015 forced the group to relocate.
A tale of two Broadways
The opening of the SEMVA gallery at 320 Broadway came with optimism and hope for the walking traffic the gallery at the Peace Plaza had. That traffic never materialized.
“There’s a myriad of reasons,” Jax said.
Construction, vehicle traffic and the COVID-19 pandemic all affected visitor traffic. In addition to construction, Broadway Avenue appears to be a physical and psychological barrier for people who are walking around downtown, they said.
“In terms of visitor traffic, they have to be looking for us,” said Steve Lackore, SEMVA artist and board member.
Proposed residential and retail development east of Broadway along the Zumbro River briefly offered the group hope for a nearby, dense population.
“That would have helped us a lot,” Cormack said. “Then we would have had more purposeful traffic in the neighborhood.”
COVID-19 took a toll on that potential walking traffic, forcing the gallery to close for months.
The pandemic took a toll on membership and the volunteer base that runs the gallery. When SEMVA opened the gallery in 2017, the group had 73 artist members. That number now is 36.
On the other side of Broadway, other art-focused businesses have emerged.
In the last two years, Art Heads Emporium, formerly Canvas and Chardonnay, has added retail to go with the business’ studio art classes and events. Threshold Arts, a gallery of local makers, crafters and artists has opened and expanded its membership. Treedome, a music, skate and art retail store relocated to the block from Winona, Minn.
For 30 years of existence, SEMVA has kept overhead low by relying on volunteers to staff the gallery. The volunteer board juries artist applicants, most of whom are retirees. That leaves most of the volunteer pool at high risk of serious cases of COVID if they staffed the gallery.
This helps keep overhead low. However, no staff also meant SEMVA didn’t qualify for the federal COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Plan because the group doesn’t have a staff.
The only financial relief SEMVA received during the COVID shutdown was help with utility costs, said Bobbie Gallas, former SEMVA president.
Although the collective nature of the group hurt access to COVID aid, Lackore said in the long run, it will be a source of strength for SEMVA’s future.
“It’s not one person, it’s not one entity that makes final decisions,” he said.
Cormack said the gallery space in the hotels will offer more foot traffic for displaying artists and could lead to other new opportunities SEMVA members haven’t yet considered.
“It’s an evolving thing,” she said. “We’ll see what works and what challenges we have and what opportunities open up.”