Helping local producers find local markets in the Northland

It was reportedly the best local artists’ show you could find with nothing for sale.

It was a gathering in March in Duluth engineered by the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund, and it was one more example of small operators trying to get more sophisticated about finding local markets for their services and products.

We’ve written on this blog about farmers in Todd County banding together to sell meat and other products on main street and through drop points at Twin Cities churches. And Brooke Walsh posted an item about people in Baldwin Township wanting to encourage home businesses in an effort to redefine “bedroom community.”

Why not artists? Artist cooperatives have been around a long time, but the session in Duluth was different. Struck by the amount of merchandise in Arrowhead region gift shops that comes from somewhere else, the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund rounded up more than 40 artists and crafts people to try to change that.

First they taught them some basic pricing information, marketing skills and the need for reproducible pieces. No, you can’t charge $35 for one-of-a-kind water color note cards. But maybe $1.98 for copies would work.

Then they got them together with 100 or so retailers from the region in a two-day session at the Holiday Inn they called the Northland Flavor Market. Photography, painting, pottery, jewelry and more was on display, but the trade was in relationships, not art. The Fund didn’t want to start a gallery; it wants art and craft producers to form lasting ties with retailers who ply the tourist trade.

Retailers have placed at least several dozen orders with artists as a result, said Suzanne Semborski, special projects manager for the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund. She’s encouraged enough to start planning a repeat Feb. 27 and 28, 2011. And beyond that, Semborski is thinking food. If artists and retailers can be brought together, why not farmers and restaurants?

Not everyplace has a tourism trade to build on and maybe not everyplace has the coterie of artists and craft people that northern Minnesota does. But everywhere you look, it seems, entrepreneurs are scratching to get an advantage through joint action. I’d love to hear from people with other examples and, even better, thoughts on what works and what doesn’t.

Thanks, by the way, to Minnesota Rural Partners for hosting a videoconference the other day that included a conversation about this project.

  • joyce yamamoto

    Thank you for an excellent post about the Northland artists and Northland Flavor Market!

    I hope to see more and more local art by local artists for sale in shops and businesses throughout the Arrowhead Region from now on!

    It’s good to read and hear about local ART news & local ARTISTS.

  • I was one of the artist who participated in the Northland Flavor MarketPlace. Preparing for the market place force me to think in a very businesslike manner. I learned to constantly crunch the numbers, and think about the issues a retail owner might consider important about displaying artwork.

  • Dave Peters

    Sun Dog — Would love to hear how you’ve done with retailers since the gathering in March. Any luck?

  • Nancy

    The Northland artist initiative sounds like a wonderful opportunity for artists. Back about 20 years ago, the Village of the Smoky Hills near Osage set about marketing Minnesota made arts and artisan works. It was a big undertaking and worked for a while. Eventually they opted to sell imported items and that left the artists feeling underappreciated.

    A couple of interesting things to consider: the McKnight Foundation ( a long term supporter of the arts) did a survey. They found that over 90 % of folks appreciate art. But only about a quarter of them appreciated artists. You can’t have one without the other.

    A second thing to consider: recently I heard the statement made that people who buy art want to say that they bought something in the “southwest.” There’s status to having art from Taos, but not from a Minnesota artist.

    Th McKnight Foundation is determined to change that and are directing their funds toward grants for individual artists. Minnesota’s Legacy amendment is helping, too. Artists are workers and employers just like other businesses.

    I should point out that one of the hats I wear is that of Grants Coordinator for a regional arts council which receives funding from both the state of Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment and the McKnight Foundation.