Art shows of the street fair variety have become popular.They come in a wide range of styles and sizes, but what makes for a good one?
Many new show are popping up along with the many that already have long histories. Organizers of art festivals typically charge $4-500 for a booth spot for the opportunity to meet those new potential collectors. It’s a real benefit for artists, especially emerging ones. At my favorite show, the Art Students League Summer Art Market, I see more new and returning collectors and would-be collectors than I see in all the year’s other shows combined. It’s a lot of work, but worth it. Other attractions are thrown in to create a crowd: food, music, merchandise sales. But the main attraction at a show should be the art, and there, not all shows are created equal.
Some shows, especially newer shows, don’t seem to put much thought into just who is showing. With the drive to sell all available booth space, there’s a temptation to welcome all comers. Democratic, yes, but often repetitious and limited for this reason: If not deliberately balanced by a jury or by category quotas, most shows are heavy on photography and crafts such as jewelry and stained glass. These are the people who have always found the art show circuit to be a good way to make money, and they apply in large numbers.
A new festival, such as ArtStir, which was held for the first time at Denver Pavilions downtown this last weekend, can be flooded with these sorts of exhibitors, leading to a large spread of artistic intention, and wacky pricing. Some booths seemed to feature unique personal visions. Many others showed fairly routine wildlife images, or tchotchke-like items for home decor. Photography, though clearly one of the century’s great art forms, is also often used as hobby or craft by those who simply love wildlife and mountains. Jewelry can be creative and fun, but low prices and stock-in-trade designs don’t attract the kind of crowd a show needs to sustain itself. An art show, even a street-level one, needs to be curated for diversity and creativity, or dedicated art buyers get bored and leave, leaving only lookers and strollers. Hey! Where’s the beer tent?
Another difference in a quality show and a newer or less curated show? Reproductions. These mostly take the form of “art prints” or “Giclee prints” which are digital images printed onto canvas or good paper. It’s one of the nicest forms of reproduction one can find, but essentially, they are fancy posters.
Giclees and “art prints” can really muddy the waters for traditional fine art printmakers such as me, since they are deliberately marketed as “fine art prints”, even though they are machine reproductions. Some shows control for this confusion by setting quantity limits on clearly marked reproductions that can be sold, but many, such as last weekend’s ArtStir, clearly do not. I saw one booth that was nearly ALL giclee-style reproductions with only a small legend, e.g. ‘canvas print’ to help customers distinguish. The organizers should know better.
By contrast, the Cherry Creek Festival places a target on number of exhibitors in each category and clear, strict limits on what can be displayed. Exhibitors juried in to the show tend to be polished in their work as well as their presentation, but this, along with high end booth fees naturally leads to a higher price scale.
The Art Students League Summer Art Market offers one of the more pure selections in town, as it controls by category and no reproductions whatsoever are allowed. By coincidence, this means no jewelry or photography since only things taught at the school are allowed ( this may change, as the school has formed an alliance with Colorado Photographic Arts Center to team up on photography classes).
At the same time, the League resisted charging market value booth fees for a long time, allowing novice artists to try their hand and learn the trade. Even now, fresh new faces and students can enter by demonstrating involvement at the League, and simply teaming up to defray costs. Faculty and established professional artists make for a nice mix of work. Yet prices remain within a reasonable range, since many showing have talent, but no commercial track record.
The Summer Art Market features food and music, demos and kids’ activities. But the League makes few mistakes when it comes keeping the focus on the actual art and artists. The show is very interesting and walkable with wide lanes and a variety of styles. Many people make it a must-see each year and the dynamic, especially on Sunday morning, is relaxed and sociable. That makes it a favorite destination for people looking to add to or start their collections, and for artists like me, our favorite show of the year.