Monday, June 03, 2013

Art and Wine Festivals and Art

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). 

Which 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.


At 12:42 PM, June 03, 2013, Anonymous Power Child said...

The style of art found in galleries vs. fairs is typically very different. The former is often requires long artist's statements, while the latter is epitomized by folk art or functional art. So, I'd bet many artists at the fair didn't even consider going the gallery route in the first place.

Still, controlling for the properties of the art, it is interesting to think about the two venues as alternatives from the artist's perspective:

Art galleries provide artists with a measure of both security and prestige.

In a gallery, an artist's work is contained within a secure building with dedicated staff monitoring the location, presumably also with some sort of agreement between the artist and the gallery about what would happen should something happen to the art.

Within the world of artists, at least, being carried in certain galleries is itself a sign of the art's quality. Arts fairs, by contrast, are often looked down upon by "high" artists as places where what is sold is kitschy and tacky, more like souvenirs or keepsakes than art.

I don't know if any of this remains relevant at the auction house, but at the art fair both of these possible advantages to the artist seem at first to be gone. How might they be recovered?

The demographics at and around art fairs are typically different from those at art galleries. Art fairs tend to attract families with children, older people, and drawn-in passersby. Are people in these demographics less likely to steal or accidentally damage art than the typical art gallery fare?

What about the typical setting of art fairs (outside, in the heat)? Might that attract or deter certain types of artists?

At 12:52 PM, June 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

With regard to demographics, one thing that occurred to me was that I am in Silicon Valley. Selling an opal pendant for $8900 may be more practical when there's an off chance that the random passer-by has a wealth in the many millions.

I don't think stealing is much of an issue, since the artist or his representative is present and everything is in public. I can well believe that artists who exhibit in galleries look down on artists who sell in fairs but, as was probably clear from the post, I don't think they should. I expect the fair, being more nearly an unfiltered sample, has more low end stuff, but it has a lot of very good stuff as well, at least by my judgement. One reason I go to fairs and don't got to galleries is that I have found more things worth looking at in the former.

At 2:15 PM, June 03, 2013, Anonymous Power Child said...

True, the proportion of art lost to thieves or carelessness at fairs is probably negligible. I generally agree with your judgments about the quality of art at fairs vs. galleries, too. (With apologies to my brother, who produces high-end artistic paintings in New York City.)

It's also a good point about the location of the fair in question. In your post you mentioned 90% of the artists at fairs being actual full-timers. Do you suppose that's true generally or just in places like Silicon Valley? I find it hard to imagine that the folks sitting under tent booths at the Sage and Songbird Festival don't need to work second jobs to support themselves.

At 4:19 PM, June 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

The 90% figure was for a different fair in a different decade. I don't know what the figure is for the local fair. There was only one person I spoke to who said he was an amateur, but mostly the question doesn't come up.

At 9:34 AM, June 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

I know a few people who make a living this way. They sell stuff on similar fairs or similar occasions - in Pilsen there is a more or less regular event called "Bizaar bazar" which -at least by description - seems to me to be similar to your fair...but usually visited by "alternative" (I know it is a hazy term, but for simplicity imagine a hippie, hipster or something like that kind of a person) people. I think some of them are sort of snobish "vice versa". They would prefer a piece labeled as "alternative" (by being presented at such a fair instead of a gallery or a brand clothes shop) to the exact same one that is not "alternative". It doesn't mean there are no interesting things there, though. But the clientelle different there in this way, I think. Maybe some of them would rather buy the expensive pendant there than for a lower price in a jewlery shop.

And also all of them (those artists I know who make a living by selling art this way) sell on this website:

It is in czech, but pictures are omnilungual (is there such a word?), so you can browse it and judge the quality. I have observed the exact same things as david has. Some things are very good there and some are rubbish. And prices also vary a lot.

If actually wants to browse, there is a menu on the left and here is a little dictionary of some categories:

Móda - fashion
šperky -jewlery
sklo - glass
umění - art

The prices are in CZK of course..cca 19 CZK per USD now.

At 9:38 AM, June 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...


is I think an equivalent of your USD this amounts to a little bit above 4 000. And it is sold at an online equivalent of an art fair. There are a couple more things at that price there.

At 12:50 PM, June 11, 2013, Blogger MSU Law Poland Program said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:24 PM, August 21, 2016, Anonymous Rama said...

They both serve different purposes. The art fairs serves to have a high nukber of potential buyers have eyes on your work. The problem in an art fair is that you blend into a crowd. Building a name and following as an artist is much tougher. Personally if its just showing on the wall at a gallery vs at an art fair there really is no difference. Having a feature solo show either at an established gallery or holding your own exhibition is a different approach altogether. Its more akin to a performance of your art. It becomes an event and is more about promoting the artist himself. I think each approach has its pros and cons and markets it serves. If your goal is simply to sell art then the fairs may br the way to go. If your goal is to develop a name and a legacy for your art then going with galleries and trying to put together feature exhibitions is the better approach for that goal.


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