Culture wars

Fascination Street

Boulder is, famously, a weird place, and not just because of its rep as the liberal wack capital of the world. Pound for pound, there are more “Free Tibet” t-shirts and dreadlocks on the mall than anywhere else ( Disclaimer: I have nothing against weirdness and dreads, think they’re attractive enough, and I totally embrace the unlikely eventuality that Tibet will be free soon)

Despite the T-shirts that read “Keep Boulder Weird”, there’s actually a University at least half full of football-watching Republicans to balance things out (and they’re lobbying to be allowed to carry guns on campus, talk about weird). I’m not qualified to judge Boulder’s deeper zeitgeist; my booth at last weekend’s Art Fair was the longest amount of time I’ve spent there. But how is the People’s Republic of Boulder as an art town? About the same as any other mid-sized city, I think.

It certainly has its share of dedicated, Saturday morning art shoppers. But as the temps soared to 102, and the art crowd thinned, I was left with time to observe the rest. I have spent a lot of time at street fair art shows, and have identified a number of types who habituate in any city. It’s risky to draw conclusions, I suppose, especially when part of one’s income depends upon them, but here they are: ranked from most likely to buy, on down. 

Single Women: Whether wearing rings or not, women who shop alone are the drivers of American cultural life. Confident, decisive, businesslike, they embrace their traditional role of home decorator in concert with their more recent economic independence. Whether Grad-school aged, 30-Something, or middle aged they are a force to be reckoned with, and they know it. Despite this, they love hearing what you have to say about particular pieces. If you have them in your booth, your show prospects just got better. 

Couples: Whether gay, lesbian or hetero, they collect and buy together. Decision-making is naturally more complex, so you often get multiple visits and comparison shopping. I’m not a salesman and tend to let the work speak for itself, so this suits me fine. Unlike single women, they require little work, since it’s the couple that does all the selling, to each other. I get a very romantic feeling watching them decide. If they strart pointing to one of your larger works and discussing which wall it might look best on, you are about to make your booth fee. An important exception is the couple that is there as part of some quality time /sportsbar time trade off. The man usually stands impatiently outside the tent while the woman looks at art. I don’t know what this portends for their relationship, but no matter how enthusiastic she may be, you will not sell so much as a postage stamp to her until she dumps him.

Friends: To paraphrase Freewheelin’ Franklin- times of friends, and no sales, will get you through better than times of sales, and no friends. Friends fill the boring parts of a show, and make your booth seem more popular than it is. They help you break down and set up, which is hot grungy work. Besides, friends buy an amazing amount of art, even though they often know they can trade for it, or just wait till I give it to them. 

Students, hipsters: A relatively small, but very gratifying portion of my typical sales. Fun and enthusiastic, they are often artists themselves. Let us now praise those forward thinkers who spend more on tattoos, piercings and weird art than they do on their cars. 

Single Men: They seem fewer, and less conversational, than the women. But they do buy art. 

Overthinkers, Stalkers: For whatever reason, and it may be very legitimate, they have a hard time committing or permitting themselves to buy. They return often, or cruise by, are sometimes forthright about their circumstances, and sometimes hover just around the corner, peering at the object of their desire. Sometimes you can get them off the fence by offering a deal, usually not. I suppose that some, burned by the memory of the piece that got away, graduate to more stable finances or decisive frames of mind, and become buyers, but a few return years on end, inquiring about the same piece. 

Praisers, Activists: They tend to genuinely like the work. They solicit for art donations for charity ( I donate regularly, if the charity is competent and respectful), for other shows that need more artists, or sometimes they thank you for coming to their small-to-midsized town so that they will be exposed to more and better art. All very nice, and I know there are artists being paid by some public or private funding for this purpose, arts education. But once I’ve sweated the framing and the set-up, and it may be cynical, then the only meaningful praise is the kind accompanied by a checkbook being opened.

Giclee buyers: They’ve made the important leap from throwing up the first Bronco poster that comes their way, to seeing walls as an important place for personal expression. But you could make a case that hanging street corner band flyers, or old movie posters, or magazine or comic book covers would be a more authentic (and cheaper) form of expression. 

Strollers, Looky-loos They wear a lot of Nike, or Bronco apparel, and saunter by with their ice-creams without purpose, or even focusing their eyes. They sometimes will actually enter the tent, but only to cut through to the ice cream stand. They only stop to park their massive strollers or large, panting dogs (poor doggies!) in front of your hottest-selling bin while they chat about ice cream on their cell phones. 

The purpose of a street fair, is of course to attract a large, diverse crowd. And people change, moving up into higher levels of cultural sophistication, or simply giving up and heading to somewhere they are more comfortable, such as the Bronco game, or an ice cream parlor. But let’s not kid ourselves about who the artist wants to see walk into his booth, shall we? If we could sum up in one word: a conversationalista (yes, I made that up). I love a talker, and people who are engaged by their surroundings are often themselves very engaging. 

These blase, ice-cream slurping Americans have become an archetype around the world as a symbol of Americans’ lack of cultural engagement, but it might be an unfair stereotype. Especially in Boulder, Albuquerque, Casper, to name a few  small- to mid-sized cities I’ve been to. More of these cities are seeing street fairs, an outgrowth of ancient old world marketplaces, as a good way to lend vibrancy to a downtown, enliven a city’s cultural scene, and help the local economy. I think more people are becoming intrigued by this sort of social exchange.

I’ve always said the culture wars will be won in the streets, not in the media, and here’s one place where the good guys are winning. Who knows when today’s ice cream eater may become tomorrow’s art collector? As for artists, these shows can be a great way to widen your base, as the gallery scene can certainly be a bit clubby. It’s hard work doing these shows, and dispiriting when you watch gawkers parade by for hours on end. I hope to stop doing them at some point, but they have a lot to offer. For one thing, the people-watching is the tops. 

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