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Art fair thrives by treating artists right

The annual Park Point Art Fair has grown just a bit in 32 years. The first one, in 1971, had six artists exhibiting; now the juried show culls 110 artists from about 200 applicants each year. The growth in money is even more dramatic -- the fund-...

The annual Park Point Art Fair has grown just a bit in 32 years. The first one, in 1971, had six artists exhibiting; now the juried show culls 110 artists from about 200 applicants each year. The growth in money is even more dramatic -- the fund-raiser for the Park Point community raised $24 its first year but brought in more than $6,000 last year.
But in a competitive world and a fickle business, competing on the same weekend with bigger events in St. Paul and Des Moines, Iowa, the Park Point Art Fair -- slated for next Saturday and Sunday, June 29-30 -- works at being something special.
For most artists, said Karen Monson-Thompson, the art fair coordinator, the year breaks down to working winters and building up inventory for a busy summer of work. "They're out at art fairs every week," she said. "That's how they schedule their lives."
And that business is increasingly sophisticated, said Monson-Thompson, an artist herself. Artists used to sell out of the back of vehicles. Now they have to send out slides in advance, go through the jurying process (sort of like an artistic audition for acceptance at a fair) and set up a canopy.
"You're setting up like your own little storefront every weekend and hoping that your work is what somebody's looking for," she said.
So Park Point Art Fair staff not only works to draw good crowds -- potential customers -- but also to treat the artists right for the two-day event. In addition to the popular setting at the Park Point recreation area, near the airport, the fair provides coffee and rolls for the artists and even dinner Saturday night.
It's an approach that resonates with Denise Koch of Bayfield, Wis., who has come to the show for more than a decade and was one of 10 merit winners in last year's fair as determined by judges. (The judges also select one best-of-show winner.)
"It's one of the best small art fairs," Koch said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's run by artists for artists. The quality of the works is really good."
Koch, who has been doing fairs for 42 years starting in Chicago, said most fairs have turned into merchandising events. "They don't even call us artists anymore, they call us vendors," she said.
She said she makes money at the show, loves the setting and appreciates the crowds, including repeat customers who come back and buy paintings from her year after year.
She also likes the way she's treated on Park Point, and she says other artists feel the same way.
"They treat the artists like they're really important people," she said. "They even feed us."
Monson-Thompson said the appeal seems to be growing. The fair draws from all over the region, with a growing number of artists from Wisconsin, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Dakotas, as well as people from as far away as California and Florida.
"We seem to be doing something right," she said, noting that as soon as the jurying is done for one fair, the mailing list is growing with artists wanting to participate the next year.
In turn, the high caliber of artists is a boon for Northland art fans.
"If we didn't have artists coming and we didn't have good artists, we wouldn't have a good show," Monson-Thompson said. "The crowd wouldn't come, and people wouldn't look forward to it."
Since the event is free with no particular single entry point, it's hard to gauge numbers, she said, but a loyal local crowd comes out even in mediocre weather, and the fair generates a lot of tourist traffic.
"If I can't see down the walkway on Saturday afternoon, I know we're doing pretty well," she said.
The Park Point Art Fair has a turnover of about 35 percent of its artists each year, in part due to jurying. The fair showcases a variety of fine art and fine craft mediums and also caters to many price ranges and tastes. The fair has ceramics, jewelry, wood, fiber, leather, photography, painting, clay, sculpture, glass and mixed media.
Six food vendors will be there, with fare ranging from kettle corn and burgers to a new vendor with a more vegetarian-oriented menu. However, the fair does not bring in additional entertainment, preferring to keep the focus on the artists.
The show also goes on rain or shine, barring a serious storm.
"We seem to luck out pretty well," Monson-Thompson said of the weather.
Some proceeds from the fair go to benefit the Park Point community, particularly children's services at Lafayette Square.
News to Use
The Park Point Art Fair takes place all day Saturday and Sunday, June 29-30, at the Park Point recreation area at the end of Minnesota Avenue. The event is free.
Kyle Eller is features editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at kyle.eller@duluth.com or 723-1207.

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