Art: It’s a serious business


To get more customers, do you bring them to you, or do you go to them? Artists gathered April 12 in the evening at Chowgirls Parlor to hear about a successful holiday experiment with a downtown Minneapolis pop-up art store.

Polymer clay artist Layl McDill said she makes most of her sales at art fairs, and Josh Blanc, her husband “stays put.” They own Clay Squared to Infinity at the Keg House, 34 13th Ave. NE, where he makes ceramic tile and represents dozens of other handmade tile artists in their retail shop and showroom.

Their downtown store was open in November and December, 2011 and made most of its sales in the last 10 days before Christmas. But there was at least one transaction a day, and “I was free to work on my stuff. People liked that, they liked to watch, and they could order something custom and come back in a couple of days and I’d have it done,” McDill said.

They agreed it was key that McDill covered most of the hours and is a good sales person. “We had one paid employee so I could do some art fairs, and continue to teach classes,” she said.

Blanc added that three people bought his bigger pieces toward the end, and they noticed residual sales from people who’d seen them downtown, coming to their Northeast shop in January, February and March.

Twenty-five percent of their business was with tourists, “we could hear them walking by the door saying ‘we have to get something before we go back,’” Blanc said. McDill said, “The tourists expected us to be there.”

“Like the Minnesota Store at the Mall of America,” chimed in Heidi Andermack from Chowgirls.

“There are no other artisan shops in all of downtown,” Blanc said. The couple said they got a range of comments, some said they were scared to go to Northeast. The shop had a sign stating “hand made in Northeast Minneapolis,” and “we’d hear people reading it as they passed by.” He said most people knew Northeast and loved it, but “we need to give them reasons to go.”

On the morning agenda (above) Gulgun Kayim, Ale Pelinka and (below) Council Member Kevin Reich and Nick Heille with an issue of Governing magazine.

Go downtown, or bring customers here?

One audience member said “to me it doesn’t feel right to go downtown. Can we piggyback on the beer that’s coming here?”

Christine Levens of the Northeast Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce splits her time with the Minneapolis chamber downtown. She shared her observations about peak convention times, summer and early fall. “Sports events, high school stuff, too.” She agreed to line up someone from Meet Minneapolis as a resource for the next Arts District Forum. They’re tied into a network of hotel concierges who should know more about arts events going on in the district, she said.

“Do we want to run a shuttle?” asked Kyle Fokken, sculpture artist. “Maybe every weekend in December.”

There are the pedicabs, now, and buses really are easy, said Brenda Kayzar, a urban geography professor at the University of Minnesota who serves on the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA) board.

“But the tourists don’t know that,” said others.

“Now, if Kyle could just make some kick-ass pedicab!” Andermack said.

Blanc said “We heard a lot of people from Northeast and other areas say ‘we don’t go downtown. There’s nothing there. ‘ We have something to give Downtown. Downtown does not have a good identity now. They offered free parking and it didn’t work so now they don’t do it, but you’ve got to have free parking. The weekend is totally dead. Rush hour is lunch time, 11:00 to 1:00 is full of people.”

McDill said when they first signed their lease, they thought of it as an investment in promotion, “at least we’re getting in front of people.”

Laura Drabant offered the observation that when she worked at Frank Stone Gallery, “I would get people expecting Northeast to be like Stillwater,” where they’re able to walk from shop to shop, during regular hours. Many of Northeast’s arts businesses are open only during special events, openings, First Thursdays. They’re also more spread out. Several promotional ideas surfaced.

Blanc and several others said “if you’re expecting an organization to do it for you, it’s hard to coalesce a concept. Go directly, go do it yourself.” The words “just do it” came up several times during the evening.

Arts District organizers, represented by Jamie Schumacher, Levens, Blanc and McDill, said the District, the Northeast Chamber, Northeast Community Development Corporation, and Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association are there to back up and support promotional efforts, “a brand to leverage to get it done,” whatever it is.