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In Focus: Rita Harrington-Lippman, Allentown Art Festival

About 400 exhibitors from across North America will take part in the 56th annual Allentown Art Festival this weekend. One of the region’s largest events will be held from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer visited the Allentown Village Society, the festival’s sponsor. He sat down with Rita Harrington-Lippman, vice president of the nonprofit, volunteer organization.

Meyer: Give us a profile of the exhibitors.

Harrington-Lippman: We have close to 400 people coming this year from as far away as California and Florida. A lot of people from Florida, and I think a lot of them are snowbirds ... We have Canadian artists coming. But many of our artists are from right here in Western New York. We love to support Western New York artists. That’s something we would like to do even more. We would like to reach out to them and explain to them that our show is a wonderful venue for them. And it’s inexpensive. I think some people may think that we’re quite expensive. We’re really not. We have so many people coming down here. ... The crowds are phenomenal, and I think that we would love to really reach out to even more people in the community.

Meyer: The festival has an interesting history.

Harrington-Lippman: The festival began 55 years ago. It was started by a group of businesspeople in the Allentown area. They thought it would be a wonderful idea to just exhibit artwork and bring it into the city. The show grew and grew and grew, and got quite large in the ’70s. It was decided at that time to make it more of an art show than a craft and free-for-all-kind of thing. So we actually have professional jurors who look at the work of each artist, and people are allowed into the show based on a scoring system. We don’t just have people come and set up a booth.

Meyer: Some have grumbled over the years about, you know, “Gee they seem very selective.” But you’re really trying to do almost quality control.

Harrington-Lippman: Exactly. We’d like to maintain the quality in the show. One thing we want to do, and I think we’ve done a good job at, is make it accessible for everyone. There really is something for everyone down here. There’s jewelry that’s inexpensive. There are prints. There are originals for people who really want to get that perfect piece for their home.

Meyer: There actually are experts who look at art shows all over the country and say: “This show, the exhibitors are happy with their returns. This one, not so much.” Where does Allentown fall into that mix?

Harrington-Lippman: Allentown is ranked in the top 20 in the nation, which is really exciting for us ... Our crowds are so large that artists do very well here.

Meyer: Do you see sales slide when we’re in tough economic times?

Harrington-Lippman: We really don’t. The artists that we’ve spoken to have done quite well. It depends, though. Sometimes there are things that just don’t go over well in our show. Some of the maybe high-end, really expensive furniture. I know there was an [exhibitor] who wasn’t happy a couple years ago. But that’s unusual.

Meyer: Do you have any feel for what might be the next big trend?

Harrington-Lippman: The next big trend is outdoor artwork. People love to decorate their homes. Maybe that’s part of the “staycation” trend. But people really love to decorate the outsides of their homes. We have paintings for outside. They won’t run in the rain or anything like that. It’s a local artist who does that. A lot of sculptures, a lot of woodwork, just a lot of beautiful items to decorate gardens.