Monticello Riverfest Art in the Park celebrates 25 years

By Vicki Ikeogu
Monticello Times

The passion for arts and crafts runs deep in Lynne Dahl-Fleming.

The longtime Monticello resident used to spend her summers during the late 1980s traveling around the region selling her handmade jewelry at various art and craft fairs.

“It was very therapeutic,” she said. “And it was fun.”

But what seemed to be missing for the local artist was a sense of home.

A place in her backyard where she and other artist could come to see and sell their work in the community of Monticello.

“There was nothing in Monticello (at the time),” Dahl-Fleming said. “And with my background as a seller, I thought I could be the one to start something.”

That was 25 years ago.

While Dahl-Fleming retired from Riverside Art in the Park festivities nine years ago, the show continues to thrive in the spirit in which it was started: a niche handmade only show dedicated to showcasing original artwork in a variety of categories.

It started with an idea. A lot of the criteria Dahl-Fleming used to develop Riverside Art in the Park came from her three-year experience as a jewelry vendor.

“It’s hit or miss when you go and do shows,” she said. “Sometimes you just didn’t make anything.”

Trying to figure out why some shows were a success and others a flop, Dahl-Fleming came to the realization that the shows with too many of one style of vendor hurt sales in that category overall.

“If vendors don’t do well they don’t return the next year,” she said.

That thought process became one of the key points in developing the show.

“I understood what it was like to be behind the table selling and displaying my original works,” she said. “I had participated in shows that were a waste of time and also shows that were outstanding. I knew what worked and did not from a vendor’s perspective.”

In brainstorming with others to create a proposal to bring forth to the Monticello Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s board, Dahl-Fleming decided to lay out several ground rules for the Art in the Park event.

And that included limiting vendors across categories.

“I would limit the number of vendors for each category that I accepted into the show,” she said. “We had to do a show that would best benefit the sellers. Because without them, there would be no show. I would turn away vendors in a full category rather than fill the spaces just to fit them. Quality was more important than quantity.”

In addition, Dahl-Fleming specified that Riverside Art in the Park would be a show that would highlight artists and crafters and not a space to market resale items.

With a solid idea and determination, Dahl-Fleming successfully pitched her idea.

It was an idea that started a year-round commitment for the Monticello artist.

Getting the show was the easy part. Filling it with vendors was the challenge.

“I always spent time soliciting new vendors for each year’s event,” Fleming-Dahl said. “I would go to art and craft shows and just look for artists.”

Each artist in the early years of the show were hand-selected by Fleming-Dahl. She would spend time meeting with artists across the region inviting them to give Monticello’s Riverside Art in the Park a try.

And many of them did.

“My experience and the feedback I got from vendors on the show really helped shape the event,” she said.

The Art in the Park vendors come from all walks of life. Wood carvers, pottery makers, jewelers and photographers are just a few of the regular vendors.

Dahl-Fleming said about 25 to 30 percent of vendors each year were new to the show.

“It keeps the show fresh and interesting so that customers feel like they are seeing new items and not the same old thing year after year,” she said.

Word of mouth also helped grow the new art and craft event. Dahl-Fleming said it was one of the reasons the show has remained strong for so many years.

“People always responded back to our survey stating this is one of their favorite shows to participate in,” she said.

While the art was the main attraction to Riverside Art in the Park, Dahl-Fleming and members of the Chamber decided early on the show needed a complement: food.

In 1993, Riverside Art in the Park made room to welcome Taste of Monticello.

Monticello Chamber of Commerce & Industry Director Marcy Anderson said the same level of care used to select artists has been consistently applied when it comes to choosing food vendors.

“Vendors for the Taste of Monticello have to be Chamber members,” she said. “And we limit it to 10 vendors. And each vendor has to serve something different. That way we aren’t selling three different types of pizza or four different types of burgers.”

With success growing for the unofficial Riverfest event – the event is strictly a Chamber function that happens to occur on the Saturday during Riverfest – other organizations became drawn to the Ellison Park festivities.

Live music, kids’ games and the iconic “Harold Express” train have all been added. The Riverfest committee has even added beer gardens and a bean bag tournament during to help tie in Riverfest with Riverside Art in the Park.

“It really does complement the Riverfest (celebration),” Anderson said. “And it works.”

In 2008 Dahl-Fleming stepped down from her role as Riverside Art in the Park chair.

“I was proud of what had been accomplished,” she said. “My vision for this art and craft show was to have an excellent reputation as an outdoor event. And it had become a reality.”

Stepping up to the plate was local photographer Bob Somerville.

“I basically have become the consultant and helper in getting things ready and coordinated for the show,” Somerville said. For nearly a decade, Somerville has been combing area art and craft shows to find and help draw new talent to Ellison Park.

“I have a pretty good eye for what would sell,” he said. Like Dahl-Fleming, Somerville comes from the art vendor background, having participated on and off in shows since the 1970s.
Anderson said that over the past few years it has become harder to attract new artists to Riverside Art in the Park.

“A lot of our art vendors are aging,” she said. “And many younger vendors don’t really do art shows like this. A lot of them sell their work electronically. So, we are seeing a decrease in registration.”

Numbers last year were in the low 50s. This year, Anderson said vendor participation has creeped up into the 60s with nearly 15 new vendors. And those new vendors come from across Minnesota. Some, as far away as Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin and Texas.

“A lot of those vendors have family here in the area,” Anderson said. “So, they make this a destination stop.”

Riverside Art in the Park continues to bring back the crowd pleasers like pottery and wood carving. But the event has also drawn a henna artist and a homemade sugar candy display.

Somerville said lawn games like Yahtzee have also been big sellers. “Bring lots of money,” Somerville joked. “And cash is preferred.”

With prices ranging from 50 cents to $400, there is something for everyone – if you come early.

It’s been several years since Dahl-Fleming has been to Riverside Art in the Park. But she is thrilled to know the work she and others have put in for over two decades has paid off for the artists and the community of Monticello.

“It was my baby and I was proud of it,” she said. “I am happy to say I had a part in getting it up and running and then over the years established it as a fine arts and craft show.”

The 2017 Riverside Art in the Park will be held at Ellison Park in Monticello. The event will take place from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 15.

Vicki Ikeogu is a freelance feature and business writer for the Monticello Times.