By Michelle Marcotte
Buffalo News reporter Mark Sommer, reporting on the Allentown Art Festival, made a pithy observation when he wrote, “Yes, tens of thousands look at art in the hundreds of booths that line several streets. And they buy food from vendors.” True and true.
Artists, whose work does not usually provide enough income to live on, or even to pay for their art supplies, pay hundreds of dollars each to set up a booth at any of the several art festivals in Western New York. It is a lot of work to bring your paintings, photography, pottery, sculpture or jewelry, set up the booth and then, with hope in your heart, just watch people walk by, barely taking the time to look at your work, and rarely buying anything other than food. Fine artists, with more expensive works, very rarely, often never, sell anything. We offer a range of small things such as cards, calendars or plaques hoping to cover some expenses.
People flock to art festivals as a free, fun thing to do on the weekend. And the sales tell the story. People buy food from the many food vendors who do pay higher fees than the artists to be there. But artists, who actually provide the reason for the art festival, often sell very little art. I believe most of the artists do not sell enough to cover the cost of the booth space.
Essentially, artists are paying a hefty and increasing price to provide free entertainment for the public. We cannot afford to keep doing so. Festival organizers have used the funds to grow big organizations and to pay for other cultural events. Local businesses profit. People have a fun, free event. But artists pay for it.
Festival organizations that continue to increase costs for artists – without examining the effect on artists, considering profit sharing or asking the tens of thousands of visitors for an entrance fee or donation – should realize they have built an unsustainable house of cards on the backs of artists. Arguing that some of the booth fees go to cash awards to a small handful of artists is not persuasive. The cash awards are often awarded to the same artists, and often to that cadre of professional out-of-town, traveling art-festival artists.
Attendees who do not contribute toward the costs of the festival and who do not buy art from local artists should realize their free entertainment is not sustainable.
Artists are stuck. We need to sell our work. Art museums have no budgets, and sometimes no inclination, to buy the work of local artists. Grants are few and far between and usually offer less than $3,000 for a year’s work. Artists are supposed to be grateful for the exposure of being in an art festival, but exposure only pays the bills in very few, very shady professions.
Festival organizers need to cut booth rentals for artists by half. Yes, this will mean less money for your organization, and this reduces the funds available for other culture events, but you have built your organization on an unsustainable premise. Approach government and local businesses to increase sponsorship. Raise the rates for food vendors. Charge people $1 or $2 to attend. Allow artists to share booths to further decrease their costs. And for heaven’s sake, buy art from local artists! Buy your paintings, pottery, garden sculpture, photographs, jewelry, gifts, etc., for your home, office and family from local artists. If that isn’t possible, buy their cards, calendars or whatever.
Government funding organizations should gather data on sales made by artists to evaluate and report on the festivals to help improve artists’ incomes. Data about the economic spin festivals provide local communities is also needed. Don’t keep funding festivals that continue to raise rates for artists without making the fundamental business changes that will ensure sustainability for artists.