State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

The Festival of Festivals Festival

Summer’s here and with it comes the outdoor art festival; a zany mix of a million different things as well as a possible dehydration nightmare. To be successful at one of these festivals artists should take it seriously and make sure that their prices are such that a lot of thought does not have to go into a purchase. I bet at every public area throughout the province, throughout the summer there is some kind of festival happening with some amount of little booths set up with artists hawking their wares.

There is something about having a festival with hand made things that just won’t go away. We love it. It’s like browsing outdoors with street food and a beer tent. Actually, I just made that sound awesome. I don’t have anything against these outdoor art fests because they are usually free or very inexpensive for the public and they can help an artist make some badly needed sales or at the very least enhance a mailing list. I have also known artists to get picked up by galleries through showing at these festivals. There really isn’t any downside to it except that the cash and carry philosophy toward art making can sometimes be a degrading experience for an artist. If you’re making thousands of dollars – yeah!! But if you are the artist who stands in their booth watching someone else make thousands of dollars then you are suddenly in high school again watching that Sharon girl be surrounded by guys at the smoking corner.

The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition a long, long time ago. Days in, cuz I look terrible but my friend Andy looks hot which he literally was I bet.
The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition a long, long time ago. Days in, cuz I look terrible but my friend Andy looks hot which he literally was I bet.

Festivals are usually seen by serious artists as a good gap between having a commercial show and a public gallery exhibition. I think this is perhaps the best way to approach them because they aren’t for everyone. I used to naively think that bringing my catalogues, reviews and c.v. to my booth would help with sales. It never did. The festival buyer was the same person as the gallery visitor but with a whole different agenda. Smart artists figure this out and exhibit only stuff that they know will be popular. It’s not a place for experimentation.

The festival is a rite of passage in many ways for artists as they figure out who their audience is and who they are to their audience. Lumping artist’s into these simplistic categories isn’t very nice but I think it makes the point that the trajectory of a career in the arts is very limited:

The Occupier
– they go about making work with a defiant in-your-face attitude that vies for smashing all that has come before, setting up collectives, running their own galleries, doing everything they can to break the standard model of conventional art making and exhibiting

The 1%er
– they are savvy and play a good game vying for a dealer who then helps them become a star by a complicit understanding of the art market without it looking like they are… ahem… complicit

The Quitter
– they get bitter, quit and teach, perhaps getting back into their work later in life, settling for the kinds of exhibitions they would never had done when they were young and figured they would be a genius by this age

We all vie for the same few spots on a public gallery’s calendar and/or hope to get noticed by a successful dealer. It’s no wonder that festivals are popping up everywhere; artists need them. But I think we need patrons more. I would like to see a festival dedicated to art appreciation and how to purchase works of art and as of writing I don’t think there is one…

While the growing love affair with festivals may provide some opportunities for artists with more of a craft bent others such as installation artists and painters can find it a difficult fit. It is a very strange experience trying to discuss complex ideas and dark sentiments while standing in thirty degree heat in the least amount of clothing you can decently get away with, talking to someone who is also eating a hot dog at the same time. As a painter I know once told his dealer who had a booth at the prestigious Miami Festival, “If you concentrated on showing my work properly and not trying to sell it in a food court, you might get the price you want.”

The thing is all artists want their work to be appreciated in some kind of context that puts all their hard work behind them. They want the public to find a way toward their work. We should really be concentrating on finding patrons and I am not convinced this festival trend is the right way. Or maybe it isn’t the best way now; perhaps the festival idea will develop toward a more fruitful arena all artists can love like they love a gallery.

State of the Arts will return July 18

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5 thoughts on “State of the Arts”

  1. I avoid festivals and certainly never expected to enjoy reading an article about them. You’re incredibly insightful, Vic, and I love your writing.
    You deserve a good publisher (a good publisher would do well to have you).

    signed, a huge admirer..

  2. agreed, good read. Festivals, tied to music are usually a bust. Festivals, where art is central, usually means some success. You’re right, it’s all about what product.

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