by Carolyn Edlund
During the pandemic, art festivals were forced to make sweeping changes in order to survive. The results have changed the way artists do business.
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In early 2020 when the pandemic hit with a vengeance, show directors and event staff everywhere scrambled to deal with cancellations, postponements and an unknown future. Many artists on the show circuit who depend on art fairs for their livelihood faced a complete loss of sales for the year.
Sharon McAllister, Diversity & Strategy Director for ArtFest Fort Myers, stepped up as an industry leader and guided a group of show directors. Meetings were dedicated to addressing a myriad of issues, discussing options and finding solutions.
I interviewed her on the severity of the crisis, the timeline that unfolded, and some of the positives that came out of a very difficult situation.
AS: When COVID shuttered art festivals and fairs, what happened to the industry?
SM: Like all industries, the art festival world came to a screeching halt in mid-March, 2020. Festivals such as ArtFest Fort Myers, that happened as normal the first weekend of February, were grateful for their timing. But we became immediately and deeply concerned about festival and artist friends who faced a daunting situation, seemingly overnight.
After the initial shock to the industry, decisions needed to be made regarding:
- Does our festival cancel or postpone or launch a virtual version or other options?
- How do we protect the organization’s financial and human assets?
- How can we help artists in this challenging and confusing world?
- What was available through Federal and Local COVID funds, for both festivals and artists?
- And much more
Festival directors, artists and industry organizations like IFEA1 , FFEA1 , TFEA1, NAIA1 , Americans for the Arts, US Chamber of Commerce and many others started support groups. This turned into what would become a massive number of Zoom calls and webinars. Directors and artists created lasting synergy as they came together on Zoom. Attendees sometimes acted as leaders, and sometimes they just attended for their own benefit as part of the art festival industry.
Now that time has passed, a question could be: Were there any benefits that came from this challenging time? Many festivals and artists say yes.
- New relationships were forged that will benefit artists and festivals into the future.
- New revenue streams were discovered, learned and implemented.
- Time to revisit everything affecting festival and artist success was valuable–accelerating ideas that probably would/should have been happening anyway.
We are all going into a post-COVID Crisis time with new skills, new insight and new industry-supportive friends.
AS: Now that shows are open again, what is the status? Have they come back 100% or have they changed?
SM: The effects of the COVID Crisis may forever change the art festival industry just as the effects will change many other aspects of our world and lives. The evolving status of art festivals is as varied as the art festivals themselves.
Some festivals, including ArtFest Fort Myers, were able to go forward in February 2021 with strict protocols. There were massively reduced crowd sizes, fewer artists, and stressed staff and volunteers in states with less restrictive guidelines. Overall, artist sales were solid and the communities enjoyed an outdoor venue.
After the 2021 Spring and Summer shutdown, the first art festivals to reopen on their postponed dates in the fall took a financial risk. They put a lot on the table to benefit their community, artists and the art festival industry overall. Comments from those festivals have been overwhelmingly positive from everyone involved.
As art festivals and the overall society move through winter 2022, we hope to see the community return to the joy of seeing artists in beautiful and safe-as-possible outdoor settings. We look forward to artists meeting new collectors and welcoming back their past collectors. We want our staff and volunteers to once again enjoy what they create for everyone involved–with minimal COVID Crisis stress.
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AS: What type of sales options does your show offer exhibitors?
SM: The COVID Crisis motivated art festivals and artists to explore many new sales-generating ideas, technologies and resources. New platforms developed, and online streaming and group virtual sales events were some of the myriad of options. In this fast-paced technology-driven world, additional opportunities are developing almost every day.
The integration of sales options for artists is varied and ever evolving. ArtFest Fort Myers is currently focused on on-festival-site sales. Meeting artists in person and hearing the stories behind their art is the greatest joy. Promotion through both traditional channels and online are artist-centric. ArtFestFortMyers.com features an Online Gallery with links directly to the artists’ websites, enabling pre-festival browsing and year-round purchasing.
AS: What do you feel is the future of art shows post-COVID?
SM: Art festivals are one of the few venues where the public still can meet the maker. They provide an experience the public desires. There is no better place to meet artists in person and hear the stories behind their art while enjoying artwork with your community and sharing art with our youth.
As our society’s demographics evolve and younger generations mature, art festivals too will evolve. They may offer experiential art, new formats, technology integration, enhanced diversity of art forms and more still to be imagined. Artists by their very nature and art festivals as creative platforms will continue to be valued members of our communities.
1 International Festival & Events Association; Florida Festival & Events Association; Texas Festival & Events Association; National Association of Independent Artists.
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