Off the Cuff: Art Fairs-Is it Art? Is it Fair?

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

Charles Shepard, President & CEO. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

But for COVID-19, this would be the traditional boom season for outdoor art fairs of all types and sizes across the country. Despite being held in the open air, art fairs just don’t easily configure into something that even vaguely resembles the social distancing which has necessitated their closing for this year. The economic impact of these cancellations will be devastating for the artists for whom art fairs have become their primary business model. And these artists who live and operate in the realm of open air art fairs are, in many ways, the foot soldiers of the art world. What I mean by that is that these creative, eternally optimistic, and resilient artists brave the heat, storms, winds, and market forces in a quest to simply make a living from that which they create and sell directly to their buyers.

If it sounds like I have a bit of reverence and respect for this group of artists, I do. I gained it right after finishing graduate school and being unexpectedly appointed Executive Director of the famed Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair. My original goal was to teach art history or play a significant role in some grand art museum, but no such offers presented themselves. I was broke, but not out of luck. A friend told me of  an executive opening in the group that ran the University of Michigan’s portion of the Summer Art Fair. Wisely concealing my complete lack of knowledge of that or any other art fair, I spoke more generally of my passion for art’s impact on people and landed the job. As luck would have it, my staff were seasoned art fair veterans who were very happy to teach me the ropes and, thus, avoid any catastrophe that also might ultimately threaten their own livelihood. I spent the first several months of my new post listening to my staff and meeting with the artist-led committees which were charged with different aspects of actually running this gigantic fair. It was immediately obvious to all of them that my “art world” and their “art world” were entirely different realms. Maybe my Brooks Brothers suit and wingtips gave me away, but they realized that my experience was all galleries and museums–a far cry from their pop-up booths set out for just a few days on the asphalt streets of Ann Arbor. I had never met artists who worked so hard to build up an inventory of work to sell directly to customers who strode right into their tent showrooms. I had also never met artists who were so keenly and responsibly aware of the financial implications of every judgement they made about their work and about their market. It was new to me, but it was immediately impressive. Our common ground, initially, was my retailing background and the hands-on retailing component to their lives as artists. I also understood the importance of advertising and marketing, and I was confident that I could promote a show or fair. For their part, they knew how to create and sell their artwork and were thus the stars of my shows.

On a whole other level, however, I began to see the art fair artists as successful rebels or pioneers who had struck out on their own when they saw no warmth or welcome coming from the art world that I knew. No SoHo galleries, no curators, nor collectors beat a path to their doors. So, following in the footsteps of the jewelers, ceramicists, fiber artists, and woodworkers of the ’60s and ’70s, they took to the streets, set up booths, and brought their art to the people. Pre-internet, pre-website, pre-virtual anything, these artists set up in the sun under a tarp, event after event, to sell their art to the public at large. Weekend after weekend in cities small and large around the country, printmakers, painters, photographers, and sculptors set up their booths alongside their traditional craft colleagues. The result is a harmonious co-mingling of the arts without the divisiveness of “functionality” vs. “art for art’s sake.” In doing so, in having taken such an inclusive, more democratic approach to connecting art to its audiences, they have chosen a career path that long has thrived off the art world’s grid. Success within the art fair business model isn’t easy: a careful balance has to be found between studio time in which to create inventory, travel time to drive to different fairs, and time on-site in the booth which serves as each artist’s sales gallery. There are other, more complicated issues: is this the right market for your kind of art, are the attendees willing to spend, and has the art fair organizer spent enough on marketing? On top of all that, there is always a concern about the weather. Even a simple thing like rain can ruin an art fair. In my first year running the Ann Arbor Art Fair, a tornado was sighted in the morning of the second day and I frantically sounded the alarm to shut the Fair down. A seasoned artist grabbed me by my shoulders and looked me right in the eyes and said, “Son, we don’t shut down until it hits us!”

Being an art fair artist demands full attention to a process and protocol that leaves little room for superfluous things like gallery exhibitions, resumé building, and the courting of critics and collectors. That said, every successful year in an art fair artist’s career tends to increase that artist’s livelihood even as it tends to decrease that artist’s chances of ever transitioning out of the art fair circuit and into the gallery environment. Most of the artists that follow the art fair circuit are lifers. Each summer, as I visit art fairs throughout the Midwest, I still run into artists that I worked with back in the ’80s. Often their grown children are now running their booth.

By now, you might have gathered that I love art fairs. I feel very close to the artists and I feel equally close to the patrons who attend the fairs by the thousands because they are interested in art and feel very comfortable in the art fair environment. At our museum, I strive to create a similarly comfortable environment and constantly offer exhibitions that are magnetic to what I believe is people’s natural inclination to come see what artists have to say about the world. I also take great pleasure in extending an “on-ramp” to art fair artists who might be seeking new paths into institutional presentations of the works they have long crafted for the art fair circuit. We want to celebrate these artists. We want to honor their works and their heroic commitment to bringing art to the people!

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