Held every third full weekend in October-perfectly timed for the spectacular show of autumn colors-the Fall Art Tour today features more than 50 artists and fine craftspeople who open their galleries, studios and homes to the public during the three-day event. Meandering through the lush countryside, along quiet small town lanes, or nestled amongst scenic coulees, the self-guided tour brings art aficionados face to face with painters, sculptors, potters, weavers, jewelers, glass artists, woodworkers and fiber and mixed media artists, all busy at work in their studios and eager to converse with visitors on the finer points of their creations.
“We started with a handful of artists from several communities, getting together to reach out to the public by opening up our studios and doing demonstrations,” explains Diana Johnston. Among the founding artists of the Fall Art Tour, Diana and her husband, Tom, own the award-winning Johnston Gallery and Brewery Pottery Studio in Mineral Point, where they throw pottery during the tour. “Demonstrations by the artists are the key to our success,” continues Diana. “During the tour, craftspeople blow glass, make jewelry, spin wheels and carve wood. The personal connection between artists and participants is what makes it so special.”
“It’s fun for people to watch the artists work, learn about what goes into each item and understand the whole process,” says Diana. “These days, everything has gotten so much the same at the stores where many people shop. But by visiting with artists, often in their studios, people get a very personal experience. They make a connection to the work being created and the person who is making a living doing what they love.”
“We were among the first in the Midwest to offer demonstrations of our work as a part of an art tour,” echoes Maya Madden, another of the tour’s founding artists. She creates No Rules Jewelry, with her husband, Wayne Farra. They also own No Rules Gallery, which features over 50 artists and is located in Spring Green. “It goes beyond just exhibiting our work,” Maya says. “People come back year after year. Many buy the art because of their personal connection with the artists. They realize they’re buying a piece that is an expression of the artists themselves, and of their skill. This is something that’s missing in many people’s lives.”
The Fall Art Tour capitalizes on the abundance of artists and craftspeople, cast like a web along Highway 23. The scenic countryside and small town life, along with affordable housing and studio space, led many artists to open up their studios and galleries in the region. “It’s an easy distance to major markets, like Chicago, Minneapolis and Madison,” says Maya, “but we wanted to attract more people with the art tour who would appreciate the quality and uniqueness of our work, and had an interest in our lifestyle. Many of the artists work in interesting places, like an old brewery, farmhouse, historic stone cottage or, like us, in an old one-room schoolhouse.”
As the tour grew, so has involvement on the part of local chambers of commerce and businesses, many of which contribute funds toward marketing efforts. Such an outpouring of interest, from outside and within many communities, rekindled a greater support of the arts. The Fall Art Tour received the 2001 Tourism Award from the Baraboo Chamber of Commerce about the same time many residents began to consider the area as an “arts community.”
Since the first Fall Art Tour, both the number of participating artists and visiting public have more than doubled. So, too, has the number of communities or regions that have been inspired by the success of the Fall Art Tour, creating similar events of their own. “Competing art tours have sprung up like mushrooms,” shares Maya. “Madison now has a couple, as does Galena, Illinois, a group of communities in eastern Iowa and the Coulee Region along the Mississippi.”
Due to the success of the tour and to help in securing grant funding support, the Fall Art Tour incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation in 1997. It is managed informally by a nine-member volunteer Coordinating Committee, made up of three artist representatives from each community. This committee is charged with overseeing the marketing of the tour as well as selecting the artists and the tour route. “We’ve always limited the number of artists per community and the geographic location of the tour,” explains Maya. “We don’t want the tour spread out all over the place. While each community selects the artists to be included through an informal, juried process, artists are on the tour until they decide to end their involvement.” The tour is in such great demand by artists wishing to be included that there’s a waiting list for participation.
One key to creating positive experiences for the art seekers is the production of a detailed, easy-to-follow map in the Fall Art Tour brochure, so that getting lost between artists’ studios is less likely. As the popularity of the tour grew, so did the attractiveness of this premier marketing tool. “We’ve gone from a simple brochure about the event to a glossy, four-color brochure that’s much more inviting,” says Maya. “Because of all the competition, we have to keep the Fall Art Tour fresh and keep people coming back for something new.” Besides a dynamic and artistically engaging website, the organization added guest artists-that may be on the tour for only one year-and GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates for the location of each studio or gallery on the tour for visitors wishing to use this feature while driving from artist to artist.
The Fall Art Tour has also netted dividends to area businesses since many of the thousands of art seekers travel from larger cities and areas throughout the Midwest. From no-vacancy signs posted at area accommodations to bustling restaurants and other gift or antique stores, the Fall Art Tour stimulates tourism in these communities. “The tour is a wonderful introduction to our communities,” shares Diana. “People have positive experiences during the tour and come back again at other times of the year.”
“The tour has become a pivotal part of many artists’ livelihoods,” notes Diana, regarding the increased impact of the event on her family’s bottom line. “It’s something Tom and I start preparing for in August in order to have a good selection of pottery available. As well as we can be prepared, that’s how well we’ll do,” she says.
Artistic visions seem to come easy to many of the artists associated with the tour, some of whom have quite a talent for turning dreams into artistic renditions of reality-and the good life. “Who knows,” jokes Maya, trying to mask her sense of earnestness, “maybe the entire state will become one big art tour every fall, when the leaves start turning.” Until then, the artists on the Fall Art Tour will be busy at work creating one-of-kind pieces and one-of-kind experiences for those who walk through the doors of their studios and galleries.