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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.  :)


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Comment by Sue Hooper on July 5, 2013 at 9:19am

Well put, Thank you for putting into words what I have experienced in the past.  I agree with Lyn Chevrier that a key word to watch for is "Festival".

Comment by Michael Bryant on July 3, 2013 at 5:41pm

Erik is spot on.

If one is not interested in entertaining crowds, art shows probably aren't a viable way to make a living. You can't sell to someone who has no desire to come to the show. Gotta get butts in the seats, so to speak.

Entertaining the ones who will never buy are part of the deal to get to the ones who will. Sometimes I have to talk to someone many times before they actually buy. Sometimes I talk to someone for a while and realize they just want to copy me. That's just part of the job.

Some work will sell anywhere and some need large masses in order to find the few who get it AND are willing to buy it. The work that I see at large major events like Des Moines tends to be the latter. Krasl and Geneva are smaller (more neighborhoody) and the work is less edgy. We need both kinds of shows.

Comment by Erik Gable on July 3, 2013 at 4:29pm

As a show promoter I appreciate the need to have a strong focus on the art and to not be like every other community festival.  And while I can't speak for every show out there, I know that our organizing committee is very aware that without the artists, we don't exist.  I'm the marketing guy, and making the weekend successful for our artists is at the top of my mind in everything I do.  But there are still two (or more) sides to the issue.

Yes, we need to define a niche and stay focused.  No crafts, no buy/sell, no carnival games.  That's not who we are.  But we are also passionate about exposing new people to art.  I look at it this way ... yes, there are people who will come out to an art fair even if there's no music, no food, and no kids' activities. The hardcore fans.  Now, obviously we love the hardcore fans, and the artists do too.  But then how do we create new art lovers (and buyers)?  Without the music, the food and the festive atmosphere, how do we draw in the young couple who just bought their first home and otherwise would be decorating with things they bought at the mall? Without ways to engage and excite children and teens and show them the wonder of art, how do we reach out to the next generation, the people who will be attending and buying in 10 or 20 years?

Comment by karen cooper on July 2, 2013 at 9:17pm

Oh, and population note:  The city proper is 200,000.  Des Moines metro is 600,000 ish.  Not Chicago, but not too shabby either.

Comment by karen cooper on July 2, 2013 at 9:11pm


Your comments jumped right out at me:

"attendees do expect and receive quality in return for their time"

What? Their time?!  What about the artist's time?  And mileage?  And hotel expenses?  Not to mention booth fees and jury fees?  

Back to my original premise in this blog post:  can we afford to, do we WANT to continue to be entertainment for people who like you said:  "At any outdoor event that is free the number attending who buy art is small".

Think about art fairs like Krasl, or Geneva, where the focus is the art.  Obviously, art fairs can exist and succeed, without having a habitat house built on site.  Or two blocks worth of food court.

Comment by Elle Heiligenstein on July 2, 2013 at 1:18pm
A word about Spring Green, since it was mentioned....I did it last week and did not mention the jurying for the show. While I thought they did a good job with the jurying, there was way too much SOS and a small bit of crap. Pretty standard for most shows. I get so sick of seeing SOS walking by in masse, it's cheap and semi attractive, so they buy it for their yards. Every time I see it, I instinctively know they ain't gonna buy what I'm showing.
Comment by Judith St. John Peterson on July 2, 2013 at 12:55pm
I couldn't agree more, having been stuck in shows watching people going by with a turkey leg in one hand and a beer in the other!
However, Sat we went to look over the Spring Green, WI show. We'd heard it had been cleaned up. And it had. No more PVC pipe pop guns! There were one or two food booths at each intersection. They seemed to be run by local organizations. There was one band, but it was in a vacant lot behind the show proper. We did this show several times in the 90's as it was going downhill. Now we'll apply again
Comment by Bill McLauchlan on July 2, 2013 at 11:40am

@Alison - watch out for those wine fests.  Lots of drinking; not much buying.  I did a review of the Maryland Wine Fest last year that was deleted when Staci's account was deleted.  I can email it to you or I can re-post (Connie??) but it's for 2012.

Comment by Connie Mettler on July 2, 2013 at 10:24am

I am in complete agreement with Michael and thank him for weighing in here.

Yes, there are other things going on at the event. This show is a regional draw -- people come to Des Moines and spend time and money there. When we did the show people came from Minneapolis, Kansas City and from a wide geographic area. They loved the art. The local community is thrilled to have this stellar award-winning festival in their city.

Des Moines is kind of "in the middle of nowhere." It has a population of around 200,000 and is a major center for the financial services and insurance industries, let alone the powerhouse of publishing, the Meredith Company. My kids who work in a couple of those industries travel from the West Coast for meetings. Those companies support this festival.

If you are a sponsor of this festival you can't just put your name on something and advertise, it is part of the contract that your booth makes a contribution to the arts aspect of the event, with activities that are arts-related.

Their Iowa Emerging Artists tent is full of young people's work, juried into the show just like the rest of the artists. Where do the new artists in our business come from? From stellar programs like this one.

Here is the other thing about the other festival activities: would all these people attend just to "buy art?" I doubt it. There are other things to do on a summer weekend. Yet, the PR for the show rolls out and rolls out through the media drawing the curious who might only come to hear a concert, or one of the other activities, yet because of the class of the event (this is not your beer guzzling crowd, carrying around SOS) attendees do expect and receive quality in return for their time.

These adjacent activities build an audience for the fine arts. It turns uninterested attendees into a new audience. There is a healthy economy in that town, new homes, a younger demographic and the festival is the coolest thing that happens all year and people do show up and return the following year and bring their friends.

At any outdoor event that is free the number attending who buy art is small. The statistics are eluding me now. Another way to gauge the success of the event for artists is the number of applications they receive. I do not have access to that info, but if you look at the list of the artists who participated in the show, it is a solid cross section of the best ones in the business. Speaking for ourselves, when we were still participating in shows we applied every year and were very happy to make the trip when we were accepted.

Comment by karen cooper on July 2, 2013 at 8:34am

And the Habitat for Humanity house?  Nice attention getting gimic with a good cause, but not related to an art fair, and those people were too busy to buy art.

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