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A Walk-Through At The Des Moines Summer Art Festival, 2013

A Walk-Through At The Des Moines Summer Art Festival, 2013


Welcome to the Cooper studio, Jefferson, Iowa.  Yup, that Jefferson.  The one about an hour northwest of Des Moines, close enough so that it was perfectly logical to drive in and spend the day, just to review an art show that I was not exhibiting in.

And so, here we are:  a review.

Saturday, 1PM.  Husband and I park the car at the nearest parking ramp and head towards the southeast corner of the festival.  First impression:  food court.

We instantly ask the question:  "why do we need this massive a food court in an area of Des Moines replete with excellent cafes and restaurants?"  Later we realize there are TWO food courts.  Hmmmm....

As we round the corner from Locust onto 15th, there is the green space with the "Interactive Arts Activities".  Please insert "sponsor booths" at your convenience.  Way more than a few.

Now let's talk art.  We stopped and looked at every booth, except for jewelry  (sorry y'all) and it did not take us long to notice something.

Packages.   All seven of them.  We were there four-ish hours, and saw seven packages of note.  Yes, again we are ignoring the jewelers - but this time, because as everyone knows, jewelry packages get tucked into a pocket or purse, and just aren't all that visible carrying around. But let's get back to my point:  visible packages:  seven (7).  Yes, I know we were only there for four-ish of the 31 hours of the event.  But do the math, and we sincerely hope that the hours we weren't there were a lot more productive.  (math at the 7/4 rate equals 54.25 packages for the festival)  Artists please utter in unison:  ouch.

Okay, enough rant.  Let's dissect.  If you click on the festival map, there's a legend in the lower left corner to help you find things.   I cut out the restrooms/parking/firstaid for you.   At your leisure, buzz down the rest of the list, and note the things that will involve visitors time. Also please note that none of the performance stages were included in the legend.

Arts Festival Shop


Beer & Wine

Food Vendors

Information Booth

Interactive Arts Activities

Artist Village

Soda & Water

Hy-Vee Recycling Station

West Food Court

Interactive Sculpture Project

DMAF Sculpture Garden

Emerging Iowa Artists Demo

Nurturing a Student’s Vision

East Food Court

T-Shirt Painting

Artists, who wants to be the first to ask:  are we exhibiting/selling art, or are we entertaining the masses for the weekend?

And I'm not out to get Des Moines, I like Des Moines.  But they are a convenient example, an example of art festivals in general, and the now present trend of "how can we entertain them?"  Attract the populace?  Get that top ten rating?  Be an award winning event?  Because everybody knows you are not an award winning event if you don't draw a crowd.

 - This statement is from the 2013 artist prospectus:

DMAF is a show dedicated to the highest standards and works diligently to maintain a positive environment for artists and their clients.

- And this statement is from the DMAF mission statement:

We strive to educate, inspire and engage our audience toward a heightened appreciation of visual and other forms of art.

I contend that art festival directors all over, not just Des Moines, are telling the artists one thing, and the patrons another.  I believe in the back of their minds, the festival directors know that they wouldn't have much of a festival if all the willing artists and their little white tents didn't show up.  And they think if they get the crowd, all's well.  The crowd I saw was not buying art.  I know, I know, I was only there four hours.  But, still, they weren't buying art.

Possibly all the great art purchases were made at 5:07 on Friday, and 1:31 on Sunday.  And I know we will hear from an artist who made thousands of dollars on the weekend - but I didn't see it.   And I witnessed, all the rest were not.

So, what to do, what to do? 

1.  Personally, individually, artists can stop following the carrot on the stick - I had a lot of empathy for the woman who drove 900 miles from the south to help entertain a crowd that wasn't buying.

2.  As groups of artists, we need to share with show directors that the size of the crowd is not nearly as important as the intent of the crowd. A carnival atmosphere discourages serious art buyers.  Competing for sidewalk space with slushy sipping toddlers, and taco dribbling cell phone texters is not their gig.

Personal note:  Omaha, I crossed you off my jury list this year because of that Nebraska Lottery sponsor roulette wheel that cluttered your event with non art atmosphere for the past several. 

Are we entertainment, or are we showing and selling our art?  You tell me.

And thanks for reading.  :)


Views: 1570

Comment by Bill McLauchlan on June 30, 2013 at 6:29pm
Great post - Thank you.
Comment by geri a. wegner on June 30, 2013 at 6:44pm

A good art festival needs--around 200 artists.

soothing background music is ok but really isn't needed.

accessible food

a kids area to park the kids and give the parents a chance to leisurely look at booths and keep sticky fingers out of booths

if there must be sponsor booths, they should be together at one end so they can be ignored if desired

plenty of inexpensive parking

no buy/sell or production work

Great post Karen.  We live in a world of sensory overload and many art festivals seem to think they must contribute to the problem rather than being a haven from it.

I hope the buyers showed up. 

Comment by Ruth Jellema on June 30, 2013 at 9:09pm

So well put and well written!  All sad but true.

Comment by Jacki Bilsborrow on June 30, 2013 at 10:42pm

Geri, yes, we do live in a world of sensory overload.  Sometimes, actually many times, I get sick of it.  Everything we go to doesn't have to have a sensory overload effect for people to enjoy themselves. 

Thanks for your post, Karen.  I hadn't seen you around much lately.  Glad to have you back.

Comment by karen cooper on July 1, 2013 at 8:26am

Jacki:  Thanks!  Lots going on lately, not necessarily art fairs  :)

Comment by Elle Heiligenstein on July 1, 2013 at 10:21am
Karen, this is amazing and thank you very much. You took this show apart and explained everything beautifully. I am so impressed. Great job!!
Comment by Kathleen J. Clausen on July 1, 2013 at 10:55am

Thanks, Karen.  This seems to be the state of affairs as more and more art fairs pop up, and all are contending for the crowds.  I can almost see Judy and Micky: "Hey, Gang!  Let's put on an art fair!"

Comment by MIchelle Monet on July 1, 2013 at 11:04am

Excellent post Karen. Thanks. 

Comment by B. David Kay on July 1, 2013 at 11:11am

Karen,  I have to agree with all the other comments here.   You did a wonderful job of observing and reporting exactly what you saw.   Unfortunately, you could post the same review with many other art SHOWS.  A show or a place to see and purchase some fine art?   More are of a show nature and the money to support the show is coming from the booth fees.  I am getting to the opinion that the only way to make money at shows is to be the promoter.  

Comment by Lyn Chevrier on July 1, 2013 at 12:39pm

I am not taking the defense of Art Show promoters, but I see and understand why they put so much "other stuff" into a show.  They are hoping for more "patrons" for the artists, although it always back fires. I do write a letter to the promoter a day or two after and give them a critique of the good, bad and ugly. Then I take them off my list do a different show elsewhere.  Very sad. :(  This type of art show is taking place in Cedarburg, Wisconsin at Strawberry & Wine Festivals.  Key word to watch out for is "Festival".


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