BIGFORK – Walking up and down Electric Avenue, one word seems to stand out among the rest: “Gallery.” Bigfork, a small village of 4,200 along Flathead Lake, has 17 galleries and art has become a major economic driver for the community.
“Bigfork is known for being an arty community,” said Frame of Reference co-owner Christine Vandeberg.
This spring, gallery and shop owners along Electric Avenue and on the outskirts of town are getting ready for another busy tourist season. For some shops, it all kicks off during the May 11 Bigfork Spring Art Walk, going on from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tammy Riecke of Riecke’s Bayside Gallery is one of the organizers of the event and has been a part of the Bigfork art scene for almost three decades. She said there were only four or five galleries in town when her shop opened in 1986. Over the years, Riecke has seen galleries come and go, but for the most part the number has only grown in recent years.
“If you have an art gallery, you have it because you like it. You’ve got to love what you do,” she said. “You don’t move to Bigfork and get rich quick. You’ve got to pay your dues.”
Those “dues” include building a relationship with customers and other galleries around town. Marnie Forbis, director of the Bigfork Museum of Art and History, said although the galleries do compete against each other, there is also a fair amount of cooperation. Forbis also said that each shop offers something a little different. For the museum that means a constantly changing lineup.
“We get people from all over the state coming to see our shows and that helps the community as a whole,” she said.
Vandeberg at Frame of Reference echoed that feeling, but also credited the fact that some of the shops and galleries in Bigfork are owned and operated by the artists themselves.
“You can go into a place and see the artists work, not just their work,” she said.
Frame of Reference has been located in downtown Bigfork for 15 years and Vandeberg says she is still one of the newer faces in the local art scene. She said the art scene and number of galleries will only continue to grow, although there are limitations to how many more storefronts can fit into Bigfork’s compact downtown area.
Riecke likened the downtown area to an open-air mall, where people can park and walk to multiple shops, something she says works in their favor. But events and craft fairs are also contributing to the scene’s growth, Vandeberg said.
In August, the Bigfork Festival of the Arts takes over downtown with vendors and artists presenting a variety of arts and crafts. Riecke said trying to rally the art community around more events like that would only make the scene stronger in the future. Vandeberg agrees.
“The more galleries that come in, the bigger the pie gets,” she said.
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