Since opening the doors of 200 Main Gallery in 2016, Jo Ellen Burke has seen both her business and its environment change.
Over the last several years, Burke has looked on as the Chippewa Valley’s so-called creative economy blossomed and flourished right before her eyes in downtown Eau Claire.
In turn, what began as 200 Main Gallery & Studios, a traditional gallery that Burke created and launched with two fellow artists who have since left, has also evolved.
What has emerged is 200 Main Art & Wine — a space Burke heads with her life and business partner Terry Meyer — which combines art and wine in hopes of, first, breaking the stigma and intimidation that often surrounds galleries, then forging community and synergy in the midst of the ever-burgeoning creative economy.
“For a business to just be a business, to make money, to us that’s just never really made sense. I mean, we have to eat; we’ve both had jobs when we were younger,” Meyer said, “but this is about how we can generate events and ideas and conversations and collaborations here. To bring all of the people doing things here, to this gallery.”
But it took awhile for the enterprise to get there.
After both of Burke’s business partners departed 200 Main — Lissa Siedow for retirement and Jody Balow for an opportunity that involved moving out of state — she wasn’t sure what would come next for the gallery.
Eventually, Burke and Meyer decided they would embark on the gallery’s next chapter not just as life partners of more than 15 years, but also as business partners.
“It was kind of a big deal because we had to think about, ‘Well, do you want to do something outside of our partnership?’” Burke said. “We knew it could be a challenge because then we’d see each other all the time.”
While both Graham Avenue and Main Street were under construction this summer and 200 Main was completely inaccessible to traffic, Burke and Meyer spent the time re-envisioning the gallery’s business model and mission.
Burke often felt held back by the societal idea of galleries being intimidating spaces. She felt many folks didn’t stop in because they didn’t know how to look at the art, or weren’t sure they could wander through the space if they didn’t plan to buy anything.
“We want to take away that stigma and create a welcoming environment to look at art,” Burke said.
“You wouldn’t believe how (the gallery has) evolved from its original concept,” Meyer added. “You know, not enough people come in to just look at art. So we thought if we could combine the two, we give them a starting point with the wine, and then they can look at the art and learn to appreciate that too.”
After months of strategizing and work, Burke and Meyer reopened the gallery in October.
Now folks visiting the gallery can enjoy what they’ve grown to expect from 200 Main — an eclectic display of artwork from more than 30 regional and national artists — but also a selection of eight different wines (or beer) to sip on, from the bar or at one of the small bistro tables scattered throughout the space.
And it appears to be going well, Burke and Meyer agree, not just for their visitors but for them as well.
“It’s been a really good experience for us because we’re both artists and, you know, we’re kind of not known for being very good with business,” Burke said, laughing. “It’s really continuing to evolve — every day we’re building customers and getting the word out.”
The duo has also been pursuing Burke’s idea of creating a gathering space at the gallery by hosting a variety of events, which they’ve discovered have been important to getting the word out about their business.
So far, the space has hosted some live music nights, artistic demonstrations featuring Meyer himself and readings.
“We really want to include all kinds of disciplines, so we pair our art with music and we pair with sculptors and painters and that kind of thing,” Burke said. “We want to be inclusive and not have silos for these different groups of art. And, I think they all mesh well.”
On Wednesday, 200 Main Art & Wine will host its second Women Writers on Wednesday event, featuring Patti See, a freelance writer based in Lake Hallie and lecturer at UW-Eau Claire.
See said she’s excited to be part of the event because of the “beautiful venue” and the idea of giving women writers a spotlight with the event.
At the event, See will read excerpts from one or two new essays and also talk about the craft and structure behind the stories, particularly beginnings and endings.
“This is just another example of the vibrant arts scene here, and the idea that Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival kind of introduced, of bringing together music, literature and the arts.” See said.
Looking ahead, Burke and Meyer said they’re excited to continue forging new partnerships and collaborations with fellow artists and businesses in the community.
“We’re not here to make a million dollars,” Meyer said. “But this is about the evolution of an idea that Jo (Burke) had originally, and it’s just gone from there to this.
“And it’s not even close to having realized its potential,” Meyer added.