A funny thing happens to Theresa Abel at Madison cocktail parties.

Abel manages Artisan Gallery in Paoli, a 5,000-square-foot gallery showcasing more than 140 artists from around the country. When she tells people what she does, she receives one of two responses:

"Either they say, 'Oh, I love it there, I go all the time,'" Abel said. "Or they've never heard of it."

Abel has worked at the Artisan for about 12 years, six of them as the owner and gallery manager. Artisan has become a destination for art lovers in Wisconsin and Illinois, especially during the beautiful autumn color change.

Abel said she's constantly surprised at how many people at art shows across the country know Paoli, and know the Artisan.

"People who travel to Madison, who have kids in school there ... they come back every year," Abel said. "It's a biking destination, a place people love."

With a main street lined with galleries and small shops, tiny, unincorporated Paoli is becoming a full-on destination in its own right. Though summer is the busy season, a cool day in fall is prime time to make the short 15-mile drive (or bike ride) to this rural community south of Madison.

"The town itself has been growing," said Christian Andrew ("Andy") Grooms, an artist who runs the Paoli House Gallery with his parents, Beverly and Michael Thom. The Gallery opened in May 2007 and hosts four to six shows a year.

The Paoli Schoolhouse Shops have always been busy, Grooms said. A year-old restaurant there has also had enough success to open for dinner two nights a week (from 5 p.m. Friday and Saturdays).

"Once school starts, traffic drops for a little while," Grooms said, "but it does pick up in the fall. We're a weather-dependent town."

The Paoli House, a former stagecoach stop, was refurbished in 2006 by Bill Hastings, who added a massive painted sign last summer to match an old photograph from the turn of the century.

Shows at the Paoli House often include works by Grooms himself, a printmaker. Most recently, the gallery curated a show of mostly black and white work by Pedro E. Guerrero, a famous photographer who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright.

The show that opened on Friday, Oct. 16 is called "Ink Spots" and features Grooms and 13 other printmakers from AGB Graphics in Madison.

It's not uncommon for Paoli galleries to capitalize on what people come to the country to see: rural beauty. Richard Judd at Zazen Gallery is adding a new artist this fall named Steve Kozar, who makes landscape paintings and prints of rural scenes.

"The art here is from friends and colleagues all across the country," said Judd, who makes contemporary wooden furniture.

When Judd goes to art shows, he meets people like potter Royce Yoder and porcelain artists Izuki Teraki and Jeanne Bisson. He sells their work, with watercolors by Paul Briskey and woodwork by David Hiller, in Zazen's small space.

Judd expects to get more traffic during this weekend's art tour. By Thanksgiving, he'll be bringing in and making more gift-friendly items, like cutting boards and trays.

Sally Borter helps run Totally Wired, an artsy gift shop that her daughters own. The store, formerly a house and a barber shop, sells plates, bowls and rows upon rows of silverware decorated with beads.

"Summer is usually busier for us," Borter said. "But there's more opening up here."

She and others in the town pointed to an old gas station nearby that's being remodeled, a space many hope will become another art gallery, and the flower shop that opened this July.

"Lots of people come to town just to come here," said Theresa Abel, looking around Artisan's bright gallery space. "But I feel like Paoli just has a positive, upswing feeling."