Earlier this month, I participated in my first art festival – ever. I was part of the Great American Art Festival, a newly-added (since last year) visual art component of the Great American Brass Band Festival (GABBF). The Brass Band Festival has been going strong in Danville, KY for 28 years and always draws an incredible crowd for a great weekend of music, food, and fun. Having never done this before, I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for such an endeavor. Although I had participated in a few local garden tours and shown my work in that kind of temporary capacity, I had never set up a “booth” – the 10’ x 10’ white canopy tent that serves as a weekend gallery.
My setup (consisting of a borrowed easy-up tent and re-purposed folding gallery wall from the Community Arts Center) was functional, but not quite as elaborate or streamlined as the other weekend warriors in the lineup, with their modular walls, excellent signage, and merchandising props. Before you judge my lack of professionalism, please be aware that this was my first rodeo and I was hesitant to invest a lot of money in the “art festival” game. Going in, I wasn’t sure if this type of exhibition was right for me or my work. Having arrived safely on the other side with some money in my pocket, I realize a few things that I could do differently to improve my presence and sales, which I may cover in a later article, but this article is all about the public reaction to art.
The art that I was showing was from my “Reclaimed” series – square assemblages made from recycled roofing tin that seem to be equal parts sculpture, painting, and collage. My rules for this series are fairly simple: pieces of recycled metal go onto a square wooden stretcher frame, wrapping around the edges in the same way one would wrap a canvas for a painting. The metal is nailed into place on the front and sides of the frame. In this series, I do not paint the metal sheets that make up the surface, but rather let the textures and natural aged patina of the work create all of the visual impact.
Although I’m more than a bit of an introvert, I love to discuss art – particularly my own. As we were setting up, I had to warn my art festival neighbor that they would likely hear my “elevator speech” about my art several hundred times. Having your explanation of your art whittled down to just a paragraph that flows easily and meaningfully is an important part of working a festival crowd. Remember that they will only be in your booth for a few minutes at best. You don’t need to memorize your entire artist’s statement or manifesto; you just need something that resonates with everyday people. Save the big art words, buzzwords, and obscure artist references for the galleries. At a festival, you need to have people identify with your work and feel welcomed without being intimidated by your intensity or encyclopedic knowledge of art history. They need to know what your work is about and how it relates to them. If you know your work, this shouldn’t be too difficult. It takes little preparation to tell the truth.
As visitors would float by, I’d try to gauge their interest level. If my work didn’t stop them, I’d let them just walk on. If your art doesn’t give someone an immediate reaction, there’s little you can say that might convince them to take a second look. However, to my delight – my work did manage to stop most people passing by, most likely because of the novelty of the materials involved. Although there is a lot of reclaimed metal trending right now among furniture makers and interior decorators, few are using the raw, found material as their primary medium and presenting it as standalone art.
With the body of work that I was presenting, I found that I could easily make the art make sense for quite opposite audiences. The rural, southern crowd enjoyed the reuse of barn roofs and it reminded them of their family’s old homestead while the urban, modern crowd enjoyed the industrial rusty patina and abstract compositions. The pieces could work equally well on the side of a farmhouse in the countryside or inside a modern loft apartment and I found that resonated with a lot of people. Both college students and retirees found something to enjoy in the work. It was quite interesting as people approached the booth that I couldn’t always tell if they were going to understand what I was doing. The demographics were all over the place and it wasn’t easy to tell if I was going to be able to win someone over.
While most conversations about the art elicited at least a, “huh…” or, “that’s interesting,” from visitors, I could easily tell that they were in one of two camps – they either loved it or they hated it. The ones that loved it thought that re-purposing metal to make art was a great innovation, while those that hated it thought I was a complete hack, charging good money for a pile of rusted garbage on the wall. Those who loved it thought my prices were great (someone even told me I could probably charge a lot more), while those who didn’t “get it” surely thought that any amount of money would be too much.
Most people that love your work will come right out and say it, but the ones that hate it are usually a bit more reserved – at least at this festival. As artists, we sincerely hope that our art reaches out and speaks to people and that they will enjoy it, and as much as it hurts to think that someone might not like your work – their dislike is also a reaction and should be appreciated as well. Whether or not your work sells, it is important that your art makes people feel something. It should resonate with them – positively or negatively. I am not disappointed that some people turned their nose up at my art or that some of my visitors actively seemed to dislike it because that was a reaction. I changed the way they felt about something. While some artists may see detractors as a loss, I feel that the real loss can be found in those that didn’t pause, that didn’t look and went along on their way searching for funnel cakes or the nearest bathrooms. People loving your work is a great reaction. People hating your work is also a great reaction. People shrugging it off and saying, “meh,” is not really a reaction at all, and should be avoided. Next time you present your work to someone and you can tell that they not only do they not “get it,” but that they actually hate it – just remember, your work isn’t for everyone.
All in all, the weekend was a great success. Although I had a very profitable festival run, I’m sure I need to make some adjustments to my setup (especially my ridiculously heavy gallery wall) if I’m going to stay in the game. If you haven’t tried the Great American Art Festival yet, I highly recommend it. It’s still a young festival with lots of room to grow and they are actively looking for artists of all media to participate. Be on the lookout on this newsletter for next year’s call to artists.