My wife and I spent several hours this past weekend at a local art and wine festival. Such festivals, fairly common in this area, are the current version of what used to be called craft fairs, an institution that, as best I can tell, originated in the U.S. about forty years ago, although of course trade fairs of other sorts go back much farther. A little googling found an interview
with Carol Sedstrom Ross, apparently one of the originators of the idea:
Probably 90% of the 500 people who showed in that first fair I organised
at Rhinebeck in the early 1970's had some other job. When I left
Rhinebeck ten years later probably 90% of the exhibitors were making
their living from selling their craft.
Two things strike me about such festivals/fairs. The first, suggested by the quote, is that they represent a new way in which individual artists, broadly defined, can support themselves, an alternative to selling through art galleries and stores. It seems clear, chatting with the artists, that there is now a substantial population of people practicing quite a wide variety of arts whose life alternates between making stuff during the week and selling it on the weekend.
The other thing that strikes me is the range of quality. Much of what is sold is cheap in both senses of the term, items with little originality or artistic value produced in quantity. But many of the artists are selling art, sometimes at prices one would expect to see in an upscale store. I was shocked to discover that one pendant, containing an impressive opal, was being offered for just under nine thousand dollars.
But perhaps I shouldn't have been, since one of the sellers we enjoy visiting at art festivals and, very rarely, buy from is Hudson River Inlay
, a firm that produces marquetry, detailed paintings done in inlaid wood (and turquoise and mother of pearl and ...) and taking the form of tables, wall mirrors, and the like, much of it priced in the thousands of dollars—and worth it. What they are doing is, in my view, easily the equal of the pieces in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a museum in Florence exhibiting similar work done in inlaid semprecious stone (free plug for both).
makes me wonder, if one could look at early 21st century art from a
perspective a century or two in the future, how much of what art
historians thought worthy of respect would turn out to come from work
subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts, how much from work
produced to be sold in high end art galleries, and how much work sold on
weekends, out of booths, by the artists and their friends and spouses.
The prices people are willing to pay for art provide a very imperfect measure of its quality, but at least an objective one. My subjective opinion is that quite a lot of what I see at art festivals, including inexpensive as well as expensive work, is both good art and, in one way or another, original. What we actually ended up buying last weekend consisted mostly of dresses for my daughter, shirts for my wife, a dress for my granddaughter and a shirt for my grandson, as well as a few pieces of jewelry—all items more than two orders of magnitude less expensive than that opal pendant. My wife commented that she and our daughter could spend several hours in a shopping mall, try on three dresses and buy none of them, while less than half an hour at the Harmony Enterprises (another free plug) booth, including the time to take pictures with my cell phone, email them to our daughter in Chicago and get back her decision about which ones to get ("all three of them"), provided three tie dyed dresses for one, three shirts for the other, and gifts for both grandchildren.