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Gayla McElroy Orr, left, is the last artist to be featured at Blank Canvas Gallery on Main. Judy Wegenast is among the founding members of the nonprofit art cooperative. Last day of operation will be Oct. 5, with a customer appreciation event planned. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Blank Canvas moving online

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A cultural icon on Park Rapids’ Main boulevard, Blank Canvas Gallery, is moving into cyberspace.

A “hub of conviviality,” Renaissance Spirits, will evolve as an extension of Necce’s Ristorante on the site.

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An “old time salon,” replete with “expertly crafted, classic cocktails,” is in the works. Denese “Necce” Jokela is the mastermind behind the initiative, with plans to work collaboratively with the artists to continue exhibitions.

After nearly four years of juried exhibits in a variety of mediums, the Blank Canvas storefront is closing Oct. 5, due to Necce’s expansion. But the idea to exhibit and sell artwork online has been in works for a few months, and will likely be launched in late October (at www.blankcanvas.org), each artist with a mini gallery on the site.

Gallery founder Bickey Bender recalls its origins began with a question from Armory Square’s Alan Zemek to Paul Dove.

“Know of anyone wanting to start a gallery?”

Bender, who’d exhibited her work at a gallery in Fargo for 21 years, came to mind. Her phone rang. As an exhibitor, she also volunteered at the gallery, the drive to Fargo often coinciding with treacherous weather. She was ready for a venue closer to home.

Bender ran the idea past family members, son Phillip igniting her entrepreneurial spirit.

She tapped members of the community to determine interest, Denise Gulbranson and Scott Stewart among the first to support the idea of an incorporated nonprofit art cooperative.

A year of weighing options, developing a business plan, seeking sponsors and grant funding and recruiting guest and member artists, associates and sponsors ensued.

They found the site, later to learn the electrical system in the building was not up to code. But the gallery opened Memorial Day weekend 2010.

Membership would peak at 21 in the early years, recalled Jerry Wegenast who wrote the business plan calling for an artist-staffed, strictly volunteer enterprise.

“We worked the crew to death,” the wood craftsman said of the first year, when the gallery remained open 12 months.

“Artists have to produce,” he said. “We had to reallocate time.” And sales statistics buoyed the decision. “It became obvious. In the winter, it was not going to fly,” not to mention a boiler malfunction in the building that kept temperatures below norms.

The $100 membership fee “helped pay the bills,” he said. But three loans were required.

And the first year, 13 classes were scheduled for adults and children. “Teaching also takes away from production.”

The members saw “a great pool of artists in the region,” said Judy Wegenast. “We decided to pull from guest artists, for a wonderful, rotating product.”

The gallery would become a venue for 70 artists, members and guests, not including group exhibitions by White Birch Artists, the Leech Lake Arts League, woodcarvers and others.

Members found guests arriving from mid-August through October to be a strong market, “not the traditional tourist,” but revering the changing color of leaves.

Blank Canvas was self-juried, initially, Bender said. “But we realized we had to make a change.”

Members recruited an external jury of professional artists and college faculty who, through a prescribed process, ranked artists’ works on a cumulative point system, with a minimum threshold for invitation. The decision proved advantageous.

Guests at the gallery are amazed at the quality of work exhibited, Judy Wegenast said.

Discussion on another physical site for the gallery has “two speed bumps,” Jerry Wegenast said.

“Rents are high on Main, and we don’t have high gross margins, especially when we’re closed for four months, and there’s a four-month selling season.

“And staffing,” he said of the second hurdle. Narrow profit margins don’t allow salaried workers.

“We had a sound business plan, we executed it and were successful,” Wegenast said.

Summer art shows are in the discussion phase, but a location has yet to be determined.

“As difficult as it is to close these doors, there’s something ahead,” Bender forecasts.

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