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It’s 50 years and counting for the Stockholm Art Fair

The annual one-day event attracts nearly 7,000 people each year

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May 27, 2024

STOCKHOLM – In 1973, a group of artists decided to showcase their art in Stockholm Village Park along Lake Pepin.

Their spontaneous decision has since become an annual event for art aficionados, and on July 20 – the now-known Stockholm Art Fair, Inc. – will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

To say things have evolved since the fair’s inception, Linda Day, who served as the event’s coordinator from 1988 to 2019, said, would be an understatement.

“These artists showed up on a particular day and put their blankets down,” she said. “(At that time), anyone could sell anything. Produce was sold, chickens were bartered, kittens were given away and art was sold. That’s how it started.”

For the first few years, Day said securing a booth for the fair cost $5, and it was a “land rush” as to where artists would set up.

The planning committee, she said, was split between those who wanted a date in June and those who preferred August – eventually compromising, “the third Saturday in July” became the permanent date for the art fair.

As the years progressed, Day said more and more people attended the fair.

Simultaneously, she said, the group coordinating the fair added more structure to it, focusing the offerings on fine arts and crafts, jurying the artwork, coordinating food vendors and assigning booth spaces.

The fair’s categories then, Day said, included pottery and jewelry – the most popular ones – as well as 2-D art (painting, printmaking and drawing), folk art and sculpture. 

In 1988, the original group who had been coordinating the event, Day said, decided to step away from the event, and for a moment, people feared the fair had run its course. 

“There was a poster featuring one piece of cake on the plate that said, ‘This is our last year,’” she said. “Fortunately, another group of artists said, ‘we’ll do it,’ and (the event) didn’t miss a beat. The new group moved in and continued the art fair, and it became more popular.”

Day said that popularity, however, came with some additional challenges.

The Stockholm Village Park and the town – which has a population of about 90 residents – she said, is only so big.

“Stockholm is a charming little town on the Mississippi River, and over the years, more and more visitors have come to town, including for the art fair,” she said.

Former Fair Director Linda Day said children’s activities were added to the event to appeal to the whole family. Submitted Photo

This, Day said, meant securing a shuttle bus to take fairgoers from a field lot into town.

As the fair has grown, so, too, she said, has its food offerings – which now include several healthy options. 

To accommodate the different types of art, Day said the fair provided the materials and labor to build a music stage in the park in the 1990s.

Children’s activities were also added to the event to appeal to the whole family.

Passing the torch

In 2019, Day said she turned over the reins for the fair to Co-Coordinators Kristin Smith Procter and Leslie Stewart.

The coordinators said the increasingly-juried fine art and craft fair barreled along nicely, until the arrival of COVID.

With that, 2020 became the first year the fair missed hosting the annual event.

And not long after – with Procter deciding to establish a business in town – Matthew Palmer took the helm as director of the Stockholm Art Fair.

A jewelry maker himself, Palmer said he hadn’t participated in events aside from small craft shows.

“The fair was the first show that gave us real experience with a juried show, and it was a launching pad for both of us,” he said.

Palmer said he is an assemblage (an artistic form or medium that is created by assembling various found objects) artist now in addition to serving as the fair’s director for the past few years. 

Though he had been a participant as a vendor and artist, Palmer said stepping into the director’s shoes has been a learning experience for him.

“I jumped into it out of necessity, and what I learned quickly is it’s not just about the art and the artists, but how this is part of the community’s identity,” he said. “The majority of the community looks forward to it each year, and it’s an exciting thing when it happens. It’s a big draw for tourism and has put Stockholm on the map.”

Streamlining the process

Since coming on board a few years ago, Palmer said he has helped to further elevate the juried aspect of the show, moving the application process online to streamline that process.

A group of five committee members can review submissions online (five photos, including a booth shot) and then finalize their decisions in person. 

The fair, Palmer said, draws artists from all over, but also features local artists who have showcased their creations for years.

“We cater to people who have been doing the show for years – our legacy artists – as well as people who live in the community,” he said. “We still want it to be a way for artists in the community to show what they’re up to.”

Palmer said the fair – which can comfortably accommodate about 95 artists – draws attendees from Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago and the Twin Cities – to the tune of about 6,000 to 7,000 people.

“That’s a lot of people who come through during the one day we host the fair,” he said. “We even have people arriving by watercraft, pulling up on the lakeside to attend.”

A team effort

Palmer said the five-person committee has intentionally kept the fair a single-day event, knowing the area’s accommodations are minimal.

Most attendees make a day of it, though Palmer said some have cabins or cottages nearby or stay at a local campground.

Though the fair brings in a crowd significantly larger than the town’s population, Palmer said the committee consciously keeps it at a manageable size so attendees can make their way through the displays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Unlike other art fairs that have expanded, Palmer said they are intentional about keeping the Stockholm fair small.

“For one, we are bound by the size of the park and can’t grow too big, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “There are a lot of art fairs in the Twin Cities that keep expanding, and then they become overwhelming. We have a small-town feel. That’s probably the most popular comment I get.”

The music is a big draw as well, and Palmer said he is grateful to have Julie Patchouli (stage name) coordinating the music and her husband, Bruce Hecksel, who serves as the event’s sound manager. 

“They are well known in the musical circuits, and they attract good artists here – the music is fantastic,” Palmer said. 

Matthew Palmer said a music stage was added to the park in the 1990s to include musical performances during the event. Submitted Photo

Several artists, he said, have been along for the ride since the event’s inception, including one member of the original group that planned the fair, Nelson Brown, artist and owner of Caricatures by Nelson Brown.

“He drew caricatures and the human form in 1973, and is still drawing wonderful caricatures at the fair in his 80s,” Day said.

Palmer said no event would be complete without food vendors.

He said the Stockholm Art Fair has a nice mix of long-time standbys and some newer food vendors to fit any palate.

Most years, Palmer said attendees can walk leisurely through the booths, enjoying a bite to eat while taking in art from across the nation in an “idyllic setting.”

“I think it’s one of the reasons the fair has continued – the beauty of the area,” he said. “The Mississippi, the bluffs, the park and the picturesque little town.”

Palmer said the fair is an “all-in” community event in the sense that local businesses hang fair posters, distribute flyers, donate to the event, advertise in the handout and more.

As such, Day said, it’s a fundamental part of the area’s tourism and positions Stockholm as a destination.

“The art fair has had a great deal to do with the town being a destination,” she said. 

Of course, Palmer said the overall success of the fair hinges on Mother Nature’s cooperation.

The fair, he said, has only had to close up shop early one year because of a 50-mile-per-hour wind storm.

“It’s remarkable that, in 50 years, we only had that instance and COVID stand in our way,” Palmer said.

For more on this year’s fair, visit stockholmartfair.org.

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