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Rough Economy Bears Mixed Results for Festival Artists

on July 14, 2011 6:49 PM

A few years back, Allentown glass artist Carlene Morrow would have set up shop at perhaps 20 art shows a year.

This year, she's visiting just 10 -- including the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in State College -- as she scales back in a rough economy.

"My opinion is that attendance doesn't appear to suffer much" at arts festivals, Morrow said, monitoring her booth on West Fairmount Avenue. "But people are definitely spending less (and buying) lower-priced items."

As the CPFA's annual Sidewalk Sale and Exhibition began Thursday, interviews with a cross-section of traveling artists found the national recession has landed a palpable impact across most artistic media.

Some said they're suffering a dramatic dip in sales; others, less-severe effects. A few said they've seen no drop-off in business whatsoever.

But among those who have been dinged by the economy, a common thread emerged:

Art, they said, often seems to be the first luxury that people eschew when their finances tumble.

"It's the first to go and the last to come back," said Brad Kelly, an international photographer from Winder, Ga., just outside Atlanta. "In a bad economy, they (people) can't eat art."

He has been a photographer for 51 years, and this is the worst market for his work that he has ever seen, Kelly said. His sales have been down for the past two or three years, though he had a relatively good sales showing at the State College festival last year, he added.

Kelly said the overall economic conditions have made him more willing to negotiate with buyers on pricing. He has become more selective about which shows he travels to, as well, he said.

Still, "I'm always optimistic," Kelly said outside his booth on Pollock Road. "There's an old saying: 'If you lower your expectations enough, you always can meet them.'"

A key for him, he said, is to take a relaxed attitude about it all.

Back on West Fairmount Avenue, sculpture artist Susan Griggs Allen, in her second year at the State College festival, said business for her is actually improving. She's been on the art-show circuit for six years, having given up a gallery that she ran for 15 years, she said.

"Right now, I think more-functional little things are selling," said Allen, of Sarasota, Fla. She said items priced in the $20-to-$50 range sell pretty well -- along with those in the over-$5,000 category.

"But the middle (pricing) place is gone, I think," Allen said.

Like other artists interviewed Thursday, Allen said the State College festival is known for hosting a crowd that's relatively educated and willing to buy. At this early stage of the 2011 festival, though, it's too soon to know how overall sales will shake out this week, several artists said.

The State College festival, in its 45th year, will run through Sunday. It features more than 300 artists in its Sidewalk Sale and Exhibition, a key element along with performing arts and street food.

On South Fraser Street, Brooklyn, N.Y., painter Kevin Liang said he has appeared as a Sidewalk Sale artist here several times -- going back to the 1990s. In his 25 years of visiting art shows, he said, "this is probably the worst (set of economic conditions) I've seen."

But unlike artists who have scaled back their art-show travels, Liang said that "sometimes you do more shows to try to make up" for slowing revenue.

He said "everything under $100" seems to be more popular these days. Items priced higher than that -- not so much.

"Sometimes people buy something for $100 and not think about it," Liang said. "Now they think about it."

Compounding the complications, he said, are rising expenses -- including festival-application fees. Add up application expenses, travel costs and hotel bills, and it's easy for an artist to spend a few thousand dollars on an art-show outing before bringing in a dime of revenue, Liang said.

That rising fiscal barrier to entry, he said, is making it tougher for young artists -- who may not have as much capital stowed away -- to get a foot in the door.

"The young people, if they want to get in -- I think there's no way," Liang said of the well-regarded festivals.

On the festival circuit, he said, he sees a lot of artists in their mid-40s and older, and very few in their 20s and 30s. That marks an abrupt shift from his observations 20 years ago, Liang added.

That doesn't mean he's totally pessimistic, though.

"You have to find a market, to find your style," Liang said, noting that there's value in adjusting artistic labors to suit buyers' tastes.

"You change to fit the market," he said.

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July 14, 2011 11:55 AM
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