As downtown art gallery closes, artists imagine a future – Post Bulletin

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ROCHESTER — Art lovers will have one more week to shop at the Visual Artists of Southeast Minnesota Art Gallery.

The gallery and store at 320 South Broadway close after May 21.

The work of select SEMVA artists will still be on display downtown at the Double Tree by Hilton and the Kahler Grand.

For volunteers and artists, the closure is a necessary but bittersweet decision, they said.

“It’s very uplifting,” said Bernadine Jax, SEMVA artist and board member. “I don’t think there is another space in Rochester with so much art in one place.”

“We love this space. I love what we were able to turn it into,” said Ginni Cormack, president and artist of SEMVA. “But we’re getting to the point where we have to make tough financial decisions.”

This move comes at the end of a five-year lease which marked the group’s return to the city center after more than a year of absence.

For more than 20 years, visitors to Peace Plaza have browsed and purchased the artworks of SEMVA Gallery. A 40% rent increase in 2015 forced the group to move.

With the opening of the SEMVA Gallery at 320 Broadway came optimism and hope for the foot traffic of the Peace Plaza Gallery. This traffic never materialized.

“There are a myriad of reasons,” Jax said.

Construction, vehicle traffic, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all affected visitor traffic. In addition to the construction, Broadway Avenue appears to be a physical and psychological barrier for people 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.

The view through the front windows of SEMVA Art Gallery, 320 South Broadway.

John Molseed / Post Bulletin

The proposed residential and commercial development east of Broadway along the Zumbro River briefly offered the group hope of a dense population nearby.

“That would have helped us a lot,” Cormack said. “So we would have had more targeted traffic in the neighborhood.”

COVID-19 impacted this potential foot traffic, forcing the gallery to close for months.

The pandemic has taken a toll on the membership and the volunteer base that runs the gallery. When SEMVA opened the gallery in 2017, the group had 73 member artists. This number is now 36.

Across Broadway, other art-focused businesses sprang up.

Over the past two years, Art Heads Emporium, formerly Canvas and Chardonnay, has added retail businesses to accompany the company’s studio art classes and events. Threshold Arts, a gallery of local makers, artisans and artists has opened and expanded its membership. Treedome, a music, skate and art retail store has moved to the block in Winona, Minn.

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Steve Lackore, SEMVA Artist and Board Member, presents his watercolor work on display at the SEMVA Art Gallery, 320 South Broadway. The gallery closes after May 21.

John Molseed / Post Bulletin

For 30 years of existence, SEMVA has kept overhead costs low by relying on volunteers for gallery staff. The volunteer board of directors evaluates applications from artists, most of whom are retired. That leaves most volunteers at high risk of serious COVID cases if they occupied the gallery.

This helps reduce overhead. However, the lack of staff also meant SEMVA was ineligible for the federal COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Plan because the group has no staff.

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Bernadine Jax, SEMVA Artist and Board Member, is distinguished by her work of art exhibited at the SEMVA Art Gallery, 320 South Broadway. The gallery closes after May 21.

John Molseed / Post Bulletin

The only financial relief SEMVA received during the COVID shutdown was help with utility costs, said Bobbie Gallas, former president of SEMVA.

While the collective nature of the group hurts access to COVID aid, Lackore said, in the long run, it will be a source of strength for SEMVA’s future.

“It’s not a person, it’s not an entity that makes the final decisions,” he said.

Cormack said gallery space in hotels will provide more foot traffic for exhibiting artists and could lead to other new opportunities that SEMVA members have yet to consider.

“It’s something that evolves,” she says. “We’ll see what works, what challenges we have and what opportunities open up.”

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SEMVA President and Artist Ginni Cormack presents her artwork on display at the SEMVA Art Gallery, 320 South Broadway. The gallery closes after May 21.

John Molseed / Post Bulletin

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Bobbie Gallas, president of SEMVA and artist poses in front of jewelry she makes which is on display at the SEMVA Art Gallery, 320 South Broadway.

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