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Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 11 June 2006

Art in Stephens Lake Park

Congratulations!  Congratulations to the Columbia Art League, to the participating artists, to the various not-for-profit groups, to the vendors, to the volunteers.  This year's Art in the Park, the first time at Stephens Lake, was a smashing success.

But I especially want to congratulate you.  The public.  For attending, yes - something like 14 to 15,000 people went in the course of the weekend - but more importantly, for actually supporting the arts in the most tangible way possible:  by buying art.

Most of the artists I spoke with had sales sufficient to entice them to return in the future.  Sure, it wasn't nearly as good as it could have been, and the bulk of the sales were at a price point under $100, in my informal survey.  But even the painters I know selling original works sold a few pieces, enough to cover their costs and make the event worthwhile.  This is critical, because without sales Art in the Park would quickly wither and die as good artists decided that it wasn't worth it.  That would mean the hotel rooms the artists rented wouldn't be filled, the area restaurants where they ate would see fewer customers, and the other businesses catering to them wouldn't get their patronage.

So congrats to you.  Your purchases make all the hard work of hosting such a large festival worth doing.  Because it is a lot of work.  This year not only did the organizers have to work with a new landlord (Columbia's Parks and Recreation), they pretty much had to start from scratch in designing the layout for the event, arranging parking & shuttles, et cetera.  And with a 20% increase in participating artists, the whole scale of the enterprise was significantly larger.

Was everything perfect?  No.  Many artists complained to me that the loading/unloading process was very difficult, as they were not allowed to bring their vehicles to where their booth site was.  This presented a real hardship for some who have physical disabilities, and caused a fair amount of grumbling.  Perhaps next year the Art League can work out something with the City Parks & Rec folks to either allow vehicles closer, or to have on site small trailers behind ATVs or something to move large amounts of goods from the parking lots to the booth sites quickly and easily.

Also, there was a certain amount of jealousy from the artists down by the lake towards the artists clustered up by the food & entertainment, since people did tend to spend more time in that area.  Likewise, the artists who were up by the food & entertainment were jealous of the ones down by the lake, since those booths were typically the first and last ones the public encountered.  I'm not sure either group really had a solid cause for jealousy, but the perception was there on both sides.  Whether next year's organizers decide to consolidate all the artists or in some other way tweak the layout, something should be done to address these concerns.

The artists need to make some improvements, as well.  Many of the booths were well designed and laid out, but a surprising number didn't have the artist's name displayed.  Good signage is very important.  Also, artists should see such festivals not simply as selling opportunities, but more generally as marketing opportunities, and have plenty of business cards/postcards/flyers available, with information on how they can be reached, the url for their website, what galleries carry their work, and what other art fairs they will be attending.

I'm not sure the Les Bourgeois wine tasting/sales worked out quite as envisioned.  A friend of mine suggested that perhaps having a wider selection of wines from different producers would work better.

And there was a minor kerfluffle over whether community activists could hand out informational materials and gather signatures in the park at the same time as the art festival was going on.  Um, yeah, they can, it's a public park.

But these are all minor issues, easily addressed.  That the festival went so well for the first year in a new location is a credit to the organizational skill of Jill Stedem, Executive Director of the Art League, and her hardworking volunteers.  Kudos to everyone associated with hosting this wonderful event - I hope they get a well deserved rest!

And again, congrats to you for actually buying art.  As one of my artist friends always says:  "purchase is the highest form of praise."

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