Tempe Festival of the Arts – what’s going on here?

Barack visits the show

Barack visits the show

Yikes! What to say about this show? Is the economy REALLY this bad, or has the art show just died and gone to heaven? Granted, my spot at the far end of Fifth Avenue was not optimum, but I did have a corner spot, lots and lots of traffic, especially on Saturday, but people were just not buying. If you didn’t have cheap trinkets and trash, it’s likely that you didn’t sell much of anything. The optimum price point seems to have dropped to $20 or less. 

My neighbor, a metal artist, made some work specially for this show. He had flat plasma-cut whimsical animals on stick (you know, garden art), and his budget line was pretty 2-d, in comparison to his more expensive work which was welded and had cute eyeballs and stuff. He sold the shit out of the low cost items.

But the real problem with the Tempe Festival of the Arts is that they don’t enforce their own rules. Quality is very very wide. I mean as wide as the Rio Grande. Walk up and down any aisle and you’ll see loads of buy/sell. Although the show rules claim that no buy/sell is allowed in, it’s obvious that that’s just not the case. In Tucson, which is a street fair, this is acceptable. You know that it’s a carnival going in. But at Tempe, the organizers pretend to police it, and have a stated policy against it. Unfortunately, they don’t enforce the policy. Painted light switch-plates rub up against tie-dyed t-shirts. The fine artists have a very tough time here competing with the cheap crap promulgated by the buy/sell vendors. And word gets around. The buy/sell vendors stream in, and the fine artists stream out, never to return. That’s how a good show goes bad. What’s going on here?

No vehicles in the show after 9AM? Not!

No vehicles in the show after 9AM? Not!

Another related issue is security. The rules state that no vehicles will be allowed into the show streets after 9AM on show days. But we witnessed a large garbage roll-off truck allowed into the show to pickup a dumpster, remove it from the show, and then bring it back into the festival area. A total of four trips by a large semi tractor and and a 40-foot roll-off. UPS and the US Post Office trucks accessed the streets at least a couple times a day, and even some private vehicles were allowed access, while the show was in progress! Bicyclists, on the other hand, were cautioned to ride their vehicles inside the show. I overheard one security guard comment to another that the first time was a warning, but the second time he saw a bicycle violate the rule, he would personally wrest the handlebars away from the rider. One photographer that I know had his awnings ripped off by a large truck driving down the street in the middle of the night. There was plenty of room on the other side of the street, so he figured he was safe in leaving them off. Big mistake. In the name of public safety, what’s going on here?

Here comes the UPS truck! Everybody duck!

Here comes the UPS truck! Everybody duck!

Communication is a problem for this show too. I sent in my money and acceptance within about two weeks of notification. I guess that was way too late, though. When the booth assignment email came out in mid-January, I didn’t have a booth number. I emailed Steve Remington, the show director, and asked if it was an error. No reply. I tried calling a week later, and when I got no response, again a week after that. Finally I got Steve on the phone, and he said that “they were working on it”. He couldn’t locate the request that I’d faxed along with my credit card payment, so I had to send it again. Another week went by. Finally I got a booth number, but the spot was way at the end of the show. I hear the local buy/sell vendors run their their checks over the day the acceptance letter comes out. I might as well not have been there, but unfortunately, the deadline for refunds was now over a month past!  Fair treatment? What’s going on here? I bet you can guess.

I have a really tall booth!

I have a really tall booth!

And, while I’m on the subject, a couple of other things. The artists dinner was eliminated, even though on the Zapp payment page, the two “tickets” for the dinner are included as part of the booth fee. As are a number of postcards. Well, the dinner was eliminated, as it costs $12,000 last year, and the show just couldn’t afford to do it for free. No postcards were sent, but they did email three jpegs that you could print and mail yourself. The judging itself is the usual drive-by affair, three people and a clip-board, checking your name off the list as they breeze by. If I’d blinked, I would have missed them. And the free parking shuttle for patrons was eliminated, too. The story was that the principal vendor (Centerpoint Condominiums) went belly up and pulled out. But the daily newsletter stated that they had more small sponsors than ever before. What’s going on here? I bet you have a pretty good idea.

The Tempe Festival of Arts needs to define itself as either a flea-market (ala Tucson), or as a fine-art show. The really good artists can’t co-exist with buy-sell, sloppy security, shitty judging and crappy communication. The show would be a lot tighter with 100 less artists. The entire block on Fifth where I was could be eliminated, as well as the cottage-craft block. Leave that stuff for the farmer’s market. Just put 250 really good artists down the center of Mill Avenue, and two blocks of Fifth. Then you might have a decent show.

This guy'

Good art won't match your sofa!

Like Tucson, I want to like this show. I want it to succeed. But when a show is run by a merchants association for purely profit motives, generally the first to suffer are the artists. And there are some good things about the show. The venue is pleasant, it’s safe, and there are lots of places to park. The security guards kept people from breaking into your tents and stealing stuff. Mostly. There is some very very good work here, but it’s hard to find sifting through the garbage. And I think most art lovers have given up on trash picking.

A comment on failure and ethics

I had an interesting experience at the Tempe Art Festival last weekend, one that I thought raised other issues as well as the one I’m about to describe. My booth was set up on a small side street off of Mill Avenue, the main shopping district in Tempe. Another artist, also a photographer, was set up with a double booth. She had done the show before and was able to answer a couple of my questions about the show, which was helpful, as we had not been in Tempe before. The set up itself was confusing, and most of the volunteers had no idea what was going on — just getting to the location took time and patience, and I very nearly took out a booth more than once with the Artanic.

The Artanic and Blutan the Truck

Friday morning, the weather was perfect for an art show. We were at the end of a small side street, which is usually the kiss of death for sales, but there was an elegant jazz stage and the Arizona Wines tasting area across from us. A large parking lot also brought customers by the booth, so I wasn’t too worried about foot traffic. But what did worry me was the photographer across the street. She had plastered several crude signs on her print bins: “Going Out of Business — 50% Off Everything”. This type of blatant self-promotion is not allowed at most high-end shows, and Tempe has a clearly stated rule against it.

We watched all weekend as customers swarmed the booth, buying multiples and large framed work off the walls. More stock appeared. More prints went home with happy customers. Meanwhile, at the end of the street, I had many wonderful conversations, and many interested patrons. Until they discovered the sale booth down the street. This went on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, the markdowns continued. The signs had been changed to 70% off! I thought to myself, why not just give it away?

Lonnie Brock Fire Sale

The other artists on the street were also dismayed — one neighbor agreed with me that it just wasn’t right for the photographer to blatantly disregard the rules. A painter wondered if they had created extra stock to make up for the money lost by giving it away. You know the old saying, “Sell at a loss, but make it up in quantity.” When one artist devalues their work so much, it tends to devalue everyone else’s work as well. I’m sure that the woman and her husband thought about this, as she apologized to me for doing it. I love you means never having to say you’re sorry, I guess. Pfooey.

We as artists can’t control how other artists choose to value their work, or the price points at which they sell, but we can speak up when somebody violates the written rules of the show. I finally called the festival hotline on Sunday, and spoke to one of the show directors about the situation. I asked if the show had any restrictions on “fire sale” selling. She told me that while it was prohibited, that it might be okay if I “didn’t bark”. I said that it wasn’t my sale, but the photographer across the way, and that they had large signs proclaiming the sale. Obviously it was too late to do any of the artists on the street much good, but I felt better anyway. The woman I spoke told me that she was glad I mentioned the issue.

It would have been better for everyone if the sale prices had been marked on the pieces themselves, and the artists had mentioned it to customers who stopped in. Were they so lazy that they couldn’t make new price stickers? Instead they chose to Walmartize their booth, and drag down the rest of the street as their business failed. She knew it was wrong, but she and her husband did it anyway. To top it off, their web site says nothing at all about going out of business. Looks as if they will continue to sell prints at full price and to do workshops.

What I find especially disturbing is that other artists have no compunction about breaking the rules in order to gain unfair advantage. It is no different than the big business world many of us tried to escape when running away to join the circus. Unfortunately, there are those of us that still have high standards, and are forced to compete with low-life dirty pond-sucking scum. Such is life. After the show was over, and we all stood around counting our wads of cash, I made enough money to fill the tank and get to the next town, so I guess it worked out all right, but it certainly left the taste of rat in my mouth when I was hoping for steak. <End rant>

A big thank you to all of the patrons who felt my work was worth the price they paid! Happy Trails to you!