Keeping Artists Afloat in the Flathead

Canceled art shows nationwide are causing a drop in revenue for artists, but Montana has suspended fewer shows than elsewhere, giving local artists a lifeline

By Maggie Dresser
Mel Mendez, a Zapotec weaver, creates a rug at his booth at the annual Arts in the Park event in downtown Kalispell on August 28, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Back in March, Mel Mendez was almost finished setting up for an art show in Scottsdale, Arizona to showcase his and his wife’s rugs, when organizers told all of the artists at the event to pack up their things and leave.

For the next four months, Mel and Lucy Mendez wouldn’t go to a single art show due to COVID-19 closures, whereas they usually go to two shows a month with their business, Mendez Rugs. They’ve had 13 show cancellations so far. Kalispell’s Arts in the Park at the end of August was only their third show since the pandemic hit.

The rug business is their main source of income, and Lucy says revenue is down about 50%, which led them to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) business loan.

“We did the PPP so we could pay ourselves,” Lucy said. “It’s not as much as we requested, but we got some help.”

Hailing from Prescott, Arizona, the Mendezes have been traveling to art shows for 20 years and haven’t ever had to deal with cancellations, even during the economic downturn in 2008.

“In 2008, the art shows were not closed,” Lucy said. “Here, the shows are closing left and right, so there’s no opportunity.”

While the Mendezes qualified for a PPP loan, Hockaday Museum of Art Executive Director Alyssa Cordova says it can be tricky to qualify for loans if artists are independently employed.

The Montana Arts Council offers Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act grants, which range from $1,000 to $3,000, but Cordova says there’s not much other funding available for artists.

“Artists fall in the gaps,” Cordova said. “There’s still some money there, but it’s really challenging.”

Even as many artists are struggling nationwide, John and Jeanne Wdowin of Kalispell say their wooden vase business is doing well, despite the canceled art shows.

At Huckleberry Days Arts Festival in Whitefish, John says he had one of his best-selling shows since he moved to Montana two years ago. He’s also seeing an uptick in sales at farmers markets.

John speculates that since the east side of Glacier National Park is closed, visitors are concentrated on the west entrance and spending more time in the Flathead than they might otherwise. And since there are fewer cancellations in Montana compared to other states, visitors are eager to attend art shows.

But if the Wdowins were still traveling around the country to art shows like they did for more than 40 years, they say sales would be a different story.

“We’re fortunate here,” John said. “A lot of states are still shut down. We are very lucky.” Although Montana’s art shows and markets are less impacted than the rest of the country, John has noticed that artist attendance is generally down, even accounting for organizers downsizing events.

“Most people in this profession are elderly,” John said. “There’s not many young people, and most of the elderly are compromised and people just aren’t coming.”

John says he has a lot of friends around the country who aren’t selling art right now, and speculates the art world will suffer long-term. But for now, he will continue attending art shows amid the pandemic as long as they aren’t canceled, although as summer transitions into fall indoor shows are canceling.

“It’s a lifestyle,” John said. “You meet so many interesting people. I love it and I’m at a point now here I’ve been doing it for 42 years. I love what I do and I love where I’m doing it, so why would I stop? I will do this as long as I physically can.”

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