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Downtown boosters remain optimistic despite travails of 2020


District still envisioned as arts, culture haven

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FARMINGTON — Bev Taylor, owner of downtown's Artifacts Gallery, says her business faced a number of stiff challenges in 2020, beginning with the Complete Streets construction, and continuing with the downturn in the oil and gas market and the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were plenty of bad moments, she said, but the lowest point came at the beginning of the pandemic in March. Taylor, her staff and several local art teachers were gathered at the gallery on a Friday afternoon, just hours before a show featuring the work of local students was to open with a reception at 5 p.m.

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The group had spent all week hanging the work, a total of approximately 300 pieces, and everyone was looking forward to the opening event that evening, when the students could have their work celebrated by the family, friends and members of the public. But at 3:30 p.m., word came that the rapid and unforeseen spread of the pandemic meant that all school-related events were cancelled, including that night's reception.

Taylor said the announcement was devastating.

"I remember it was so traumatic for so many people," she said, adding that her own gallery, located at 302 E. Main St., was forced to close as well, and remained shuttered for the new few months.

"The kids never got to see their show up on display in a formal gallery," she said. "To me, that was a heartbreaking situation. That was a pivotal moment of bringing it all home."

Taylor said Artifacts has limped along since that point, much like the other businesses in the corridor that are part of the effort to remake downtown Farmington into a thriving arts and culture district. Taylor and other supporters of that effort insist they remain committed to that ideal, but they acknowledge the past 12 months have been anything but easy on the them and the artists whose work they promote.

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"I don't have any great answers about how we survived," said Karen Ellsbury, who owns the Studio 116 art gallery at 116 W. Main St. with her husband Patrick Hazen, as well as a building at 305-307 W. Main St. they had been leasing to other arts-related businesses. "We survived by cutting back a lot, the kindness of others and talking about, 'What do you really need to survive?'"

Artifacts and Studio 116 serve as the anchors of the downtown gallery scene, and the owners of both businesses have worked for years to promote the district through their participation in gallery strolls and other special events. Those public events largely came to a halt with the onset of the pandemic, but that doesn't mean the work of reshaping the district hasn't gone on.

"We will survive this," said Flo Trujillo, president of the Northwest New Mexico Arts Council, a nonprofit organization that has continued to try to focus attention on the potential of downtown Farmington despite the pandemic. "I'm optimistic, and I'm also hoping everyone will learn more about how we can do things better and how creative we can be."

A strange blessing?

When Studio 116's Ellsbury looks back over the challenges of the last year, specifically the double whammy of the Complete Streets construction and the pandemic shutdown, she takes an unusual perspective on what has transpired.

"It was probably a strange blessing, because if it had happened one year after another, we probably wouldn't have been able to survive it," she said. "By the time of the shutdown, people couldn't get in here anyway because of the construction. Honestly, if we had to have a pandemic, this was probably a good year to have it."

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Ellsbury said her gallery was closed for most of 2020, although it remains open to visitors by appointment. She and Hazen also lost their paying tenants at 305-307 W. Main Street when those businesses closed, doubling the impact on them.

Even so, Ellsbury remains remarkably upbeat. She said she and Hazen have changed their approach to doing business, focusing largely on their digital marketing efforts. They also have tightened their belts to the point that they believe they can ride out the storm until the pandemic ends and things begin to return to normal.

"We decided the best way we could respond was, 'We'll go online,'" she said. "And when people got their stimulus checks, they were really good about supporting local businesses."

Ellsbury was so grateful for that support, she decided to meet her customers halfway.

"I lowered my prices," she said. "You can't eat art. You can't overvalue yourself. You have to lower your ego a little bit. I felt like lowering our prices would not just help us, but help people buy our work and give people some art to look at."

Ellsbury hastened to add that she is not arguing that art has been devalued during the pandemic. In fact, she argues the opposite.

"Now more than ever we need some kind of beauty in our life and some kind of community," she said. "So I feel like art is more important now than ever."

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Ellsbury said she and Hazen, who are both retired, have moved downtown and intend to sell their house, giving them a financial cushion should the pandemic drag on for a prolonged period.

"We've cut back, and we live smaller," she said.

They also continue to invest in the gallery, repainting the front of the business and pouring money into the outdoor HeArt Space gathering spot in back, which now features two stages, lighting, seating and other amenities. With the Complete Streets work almost finished, they believe they are well positioned to bounce back after the shutdown ends.

"It's up to us to make Farmington what we want it to be," she said. "It's up to the community to choose that."

Looking for a silver lining

In spite of the Complete Streets work that limited the access to her building, Artifact's Taylor said her business was enjoying a banner year in early 2020 because of her decision to focus more on digital marketing efforts.

That approach helped her attract a segment of the local market that she hadn't been able to reach before, and Taylor said she saw a noticeable bump in traffic in January and February.

That running start on the digital sales market may have left Artifacts better positioned than many other businesses when the pandemic shutdown occurred in March. But Taylor said it wasn't enough to make up for having the doors closed.

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"We were dead in the water," she said, explaining that the steep decline in oil prices was the other element that made it such a tough year for her gallery.

"We lost so many of the higher-end jobs in town," she said. "A lot of our clientele relocated to other places. Every time we were open, we still had great support … I realized people still love us. But it was a really tough year."

Taylor said her family owns the building that houses the gallery, so it had the advantage of not having to pay rent. It also leases out studio space to several artists.

"Them paying rent helps us keep the building open for them," she said. "We didn't lose anybody."

A silver lining for Artifacts was that Taylor her staff were able to complete a number of long-overdue maintenance and upgrade projects while the gallery was closed, including the painting of the exterior. The building now has a bright, new look that has caught the eyes of passersby who have ventured downtown to get a look at the Complete Streets renovation, she said.

"People are coming in out of curiosity," she said.

Taylor is encouraged about a change in perception about downtown because of the Complete Streets work. She believes that when the weather turns warm, the district will start to see a big increase in foot traffic – provided the shutdown is over by then.

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"It truly won't last forever, and things will get better," she said. "Our downtown will open up, and we'll be ready for business. It will be an asset on so many levels."

It's all happening online

The large public events that are a staple of downtown life during the warmer months were eliminated in 2020 because of the street construction and the pandemic, but the arts council's Trujillo said promotion efforts for the district have boomed in the virtual world.

She pointed to the well-received virtual art walk project undertaken by the Farmington Convention & Visitors Bureau, and she said her organization has been producing its "Virtual Spotlight" series streamed on its Facebook page since the middle of summer. The video segments produced by board member A.J. Begay help introduce downtown businesses to viewers, and Trujillo said they have proven to be very popular. Begay has completed 15 to 20 of the segments so far, and another 10 to 15 are planned.

Trujillo has other plans for 2021. She said she is very optimistic that a modified version of an art walk will be able to take place in April, with merchants displaying most of their offerings outdoors on the newly widened downtown sidewalks and only limited traffic being allowed indoors.

And she's even more hopeful about the return of the downtown Makers Market to Orchard Park in June, which this year she hopes to combine with a growers market. She also hopes to team up with other partners and help produce a series of podcasts that are focused on downtown businesses and events.

Trujillo, Taylor and Ellsbury all raved about the recent Festival of Trees, an annual display of Christmas trees that was moved from its traditional home at the Farmington Civic Center to the windows of downtown businesses in December. Even though many of the businesses were closed because of the shutdown, the event drew large numbers of pedestrians, they said, and served as a reminder of what downtown can be.

"I saw the potential," Trujillo said. "If there is something going on down there, there will be traffic."

Even if the pandemic does continue to keep large public events from being held in the district throughout 2021, Trujillo said her organization isn't going to stop working hard to promote downtown.

"We're doing all the virtual stuff we can until people get sick of us," she said, laughing.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.