Saving a space for the arts in downtown ElktonDec 31, 2020 12:33PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
When the world ground to a halt last March, the owners of The Palette & The Page in downtown Elkton realized that the gallery’s status as a home for the arts might not be back in effect for a little while. And then that little while became a few weeks. And then a few months.
In mid-September, the three women who have steered the gallery through big changes sat together and discussed where the business began, where it is now, and where it will hopefully continue to be.
Patti Paulus explained that when she took over the space at 120 E. Main St., it was a warren of cubicles and offices, and the furnace had exploded and died. The downtown, she added, “was pretty dead at the time.”
But she had a vision, and in 2009, she opened with a roster of about eight artists and a dedication to operating a space where art and craft, writing and music could be shared by the whole community. On the first Friday of every month, the gallery spotlighted painters and sculptors and artisans, all of whom live within 60 miles of Elkton, Paulus said.
As the years went by, the partitions in the gallery came down, and today it’s a sleek, welcoming space that is larger than it looks from the street. Dozens of artists exhibit their work throughout the year. Some of them have been with The Palette & The Page since the beginning.
Lynn Strano Whitt has worked with Paulus to pivot the gallery’s business model to online sales since COVID-19 rewrote all the rules. “All of our artists lost every venue” when the Coronavirus locked down businesses, Whitt said. “This space is pretty much the only one left.”
Whitt is an artist who makes jewelry, but she also has a legal and bookkeeping background. She labored for weeks to expand the gallery’s online sales capabilities, and now customers can browse every object in the store and buy from home. That means more than 2,000 items.
The third partner in the business is Janet Youse, a devoted book collector who loves to share the printed word with the community in her tidy bookshop, tucked in the back of the gallery. She also has regularly prepared the food and beverages for First Friday events. Paulus and Whitt laughed and said she’s in charge of “hospitality management.” There’s a cozy cross-promotion of people who like to look at art and people who like to read, and they share a common space at The Palette & The Page.
There’s a large selection of children’s books and several shelves of fiction and non-fiction, all in pristine condition. “The bookshop started because, between my sister and I, we had over 2,000 books,” Youse explained. “I started here with about four shelves, and it grew from there. I have always wanted to operate a bookshop.”
The gallery owners bring a variety of tastes and backgrounds to the business. Whitt likes abstract art, “but I can certainly appreciate landscapes as well,” she said, smiling.
Paulus said there has to be a general agreement between the three owners when a new artist is added to the roster, but “it’s all accessible art,” she said. “It’s nothing threatening. And all of our artists are genuinely nice people.”
The shop is also a haven for local authors, and dozens of them have held readings and book signings in the gallery during past First Fridays. “We read all the books we sell here,” Paulus said. “And we jury all the artists. This is the biggest outlet for authors in the region. We have everything but dance in here, but that’s just because we don’t have quite enough space.”
“We want a sense of community here,” Whitt said. “You can be shopping here and run into the artists, meet them and get to know them. Every First Friday, we would have two authors and two artists here to meet people and talk about their work.”
Writers, especially, have been hurt by the initial COVID-19 shutdown and subsequent loss of marketing opportunities. Releasing a self-published book without a chance to network with the public can be a lonely business.
The three women have worked out a way to reopen the gallery that complies with all safety guidelines, bringing at least a partial sense of normalcy to the downtown. Visitors ring the doorbell to be admitted, so that occupancy limits can be observed. Masks are mandatory.
“We have traffic problems,” Paulus said of the small rooms in the gallery. “During a typical First Friday, we would get 75 to 100 people in here, so we can’t do that now. And there’s only one door.”
In November and December – critical months for any business – the gallery will bring back First Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m., with artwork for holiday gift-giving all priced under $100. The shop is also open Tuesday to Saturday from noon to 6 p.m.
“We’re fine if people just want to come in and look at art, just as an escape,” Paulus said. Private appointments can be scheduled.
Whitt said that when the gallery shut down on March 18, no one thought the lights would be out for so long. “That April First Friday, I just sat down and cried,” she said. “We had never canceled a First Friday before.”
Now, there’s a renewed sense that, somehow, art will go on. “Our customers have given us a lot of grace,” Paulus said. “They’ve been so understanding. Our message is: The whole downtown needs their support. Small businesses are your community. Half of them may be gone if you don’t support them.”
Whitt said that all small businesses have the same expenses, but are now juggling the bills with much less revenue. “We miss everybody,” she said. “We three miss each other, and we miss our customers.”
Downtown Elkton is ready to welcome shoppers back, Paulus said. “People can come downtown, get a meal or a sandwich, do what they can to support us. We don’t want to lose a single business. We’ve worked hard to be better, to offer more, and now we’re ready.”
For more information, visit www.paletteandpage.com.
Photos by John Chambless