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The No Holds Barred Coconut Grove Arts Festival Review

Prologue:

Up until 2005 or 2006, the Coconut Grove Arts Festival was, by far, the best show in the country.  From the minute you got there you were treated warmly, with respect. AND, the show was a dream.  Everyone sold well.  They used to bring in the supporters/sponsors on a trolly at 8 AM on Saturday morning and those people had pre-committed dollars to buy work and they used tickets to purchase the work.  They got to see the work in a slide show and they would race to the people who's work they wanted, so, they could get the best pieces.  This was great for the artists.  I always did around $2500.  And, those buyers would come back throughout the show.  One year, I had my best show ever and it wasn't even 10 AM.  The show hadn't even started. Needless to say, they got rid of that program.  Around the same time, they tripled the show fee, started charging the gate fee, and started expanding the corporate booths.

The skinny:

I called the day before the show started and I was told to arrive after 2PM, park by my space, and check in before I started unloading. I arrived around 2:15, down 27th ave where I have always entered the show and I'm told by a smarmy 20 year old bee-atch in a green security shirt, that I have to turn around, drive a half mile, make a right on a non-existant street and come back through, even though my booth was right beyond the barricade. Of course, I can't find this entrance and I finally went down Darwin Street, ironically and appropriately named and talked the cop into letting me in which brought me past the bee-atch and right to my space.  Unloading was easy because they left us alone and artists are good about leaving room, etc., except for the cars, beer trucks, and carts zooming through. Apparently, artists needed credentials to get into the site but anyone off the street could get in, no problem.  One of these days someone is going to get run over unloading their vehicle. You can double the risk on load out. It gets worse every year. Setup is stressful enough without the added tension of worrying about getting run over.

The artwork at the show was superb, even the photographers.  The credit for this belongs to Lilia Gracia.  She picks the jurors and oversees the judging.  She has held this job for a long time and does not get paid.  If fact, Lilia and the artist liaison, Katrina do a phenomenal job. They are the jewels of this show because they know the shows reputation is built on the fact that the artists are top notch.  I was proud to be in this show. If they ran this show, in total, it would be the show it once was. No other show would come close.

Every location, in this show, has it's problems.  The first thing I noticed was that the food booths and the beer concessions were closer to the artist booths.  I felt like my space was being invaded. As far as my work is concerned, beer and greasy fingers do not mix with my work.  On more than one occasion, I've had a drunk break a piece or a greasy fingerprint ruin a piece.  However, I consider myself lucky where I was in the show.  I could have been near the Verizon stage.  In the past it had been the Verizon booth, which has expanded every year since 2005-6.  Now it has morphed into the Verizon stage.  It is the most obnoxious thing I have ever experienced at an aft fair in 30 years of doing shows.  They constantly hawked their crap, playing hip-hop so loud that it rattled the work in the booths near the stage.  Of course, they get the 4 most prime booth locations.  I know one person who lost a $1200 sale because the customer couldn't take it anymore and fled the scene.  The person who decided that allowing this obviously has no regard for the artists. There is no rationale for Verizon creating this spectacle.  I'm thinking of dumping my Verizon account because of it.  I'm sure they lost more business than they gained. Other fun things included people driving around in carts continually beeping their horns for people to get out of their way and beer hawkers that would be more at home at the ballpark than at an arts festival.  I guess they needed to be employed during the two months after football season and the start of baseball season.

In spite of this sales for some people were great.  In fact, there was no middle ground.  You either grossed over 10-30K or you did less than $1500, with a number of people zeroing out.  If you had the right work you did a bang up business. I know someone who sold everything except one piece.  3-D wall pieces and jewelry did really well, from my conversations. It's really hard to tell what percentage did well.  I'd say not more than a third.  And, it changes from year to year.  I spoke to someone who had sold only one small painting this year, who did over 20K last year.  Of course, if the show wasn't trying so hard to get rid of the real buyers and replace it with beer drinking partyers, everyone would do well, like they did prior to 2006.

So, who is responsible for the conditions of this show, that has changed since 2006 from artist friendly to beer drinking partying friendly? I put the blame squarely on the current management team that coincidentally took charge in 2006.  I was told they will be there as long as they want so don't think conditions are going to change anytime soon, unless we do something about it.  Of course, that will never happen.  I was told that for anyone who wants to give up their space near the Verizon booth there are 1000 artists who would gladly take their space.  I can't argue with that one. I wouldn't give up my space and I was promised that I could say anything here and not get blackballed from the show.  The elimination of the strong sponsor program, the increased number of beer hawkers, the food booths being on top of the artists, the rudeness of the so called volunteer security, the rudeness of those people driving those carts, and last but not least the out of control aggressiveness of the Verizon booth all took place after current management team took control of the show.  

I'm sure that the CGAF association is happy with the job management is doing because they are making a lot of money.  And, I'm sure they are all patting themselves on the back deluding themselves into believing that they have the best show in the country.  The only way they can believe that is by ignoring the artists because 99% of them would echo what I have written, here.  In fact, I'm just reflecting what I heard from others.  A little thing happened the other night which I found to be so telling, from the artists perspective.  After the awards dinner, around 6 artists were going to another artists room at the Residence Inn, to have a shower party.  They were taking showers in this persons room because they were staying in their vehicles.  This is a very common thing at this show.  I'd say over half the artists doing the show sleep in their vans. Now how is it that the artists participating at the show that is supposed to be one of the best in the country have to stay in their vehicles because they can't afford a proper place to stay? If it were my show, I would be embarrassed by that fact.  Yet, if you read the coming press reports in the Miami papers will be extolling the success of the show and grossly inflating the amount of money spent of the artwork. You will never hear about the conditions of the artists that do the show.

I never give a review or make a criticism without giving solutions to the problems that I have talked about.  And certainly, it would only take minor changes to make this show the model for all shows, that it once was.  First of all, train the security staff to direct people to the proper entrances and paths to the booths and make sure they welcome us and treat us with respect.  Secondly, move the food booths and beer tents back 20 feet. Give us some room. Third, tone down the Verizon stage.  There is no reason why they can't lower the decibels and get their point across.  Make them play music that is complimentary to the artwork.  Hip-Hop? Come on!! Make the show classy again. Get rid of the schlock. Fourthly, bring back the trolley with the buyers.  Fifth, how about more wine booths instead of beer tents. Sixth, keep the vendor trucks out of our way during set up and take down.  Make it safe for us instead of dangerous and make no mistake, it is dangerous.

Epilogue:

Every corporation reflects the style of the officers that run the operation.  I think it's time for the CGAF to get back to being a sophisticated event instead of the shlock fest that you are so desperately trying to become.  Try creating an atmosphere that is commensurate with the artwork.  Lilia and Katrina are doing their part.  It's time for the rest of you who run the show to step up to the plate.  You think that the way you are doing things is maximizing your income.  I can assure you that if you went back to taking care of the artists and making this the sophisticated event it should be, that you will dwarf what you make now.  I guarantee it. 

Views: 3802

Comment by Geoff Coe on February 23, 2012 at 3:23pm

Brilliantly and courageously written. Hope you sent a copy to the show.  Most of all, a damn shame that it was necessary to write it. 

Comment by Barry Bernstein on February 23, 2012 at 3:36pm

I wrote this for two people. One will go unnamed.  I know she will read it.  The other one is you Geoffy.  I wanted to show you what your reviews should be like instead of the "What I did on my 3 days at the show" milk toast reviews. Since you used the term "courageously" means you think the same thing.  Don't take this personally, lol. After all, I have to see you this weekend.  I think you should do some in depth investigative work and find out what everyone else is doing to get a proper perspective of the shows you are writing about.  

For the rest of you, my motivation is to make this, and every show, better and better for us.  If I hadn't had the perspective of doing the show for the past 25 years, I wouldn't be able to say the things I did.  I know what this show could be because I was there. Connie was there.  Many of us were there. And there is no reason why the Grove and every other show  shouldn't be the fantastic experience it once was.

Comment by Geoff Coe on February 23, 2012 at 5:23pm

Gee, Barry, I called your commentary brilliant and well written.  Sheesh, can't you take a compliment? 

Barry, I can't write from a perspective of 25 years doing shows because I don't have that.  That is why the contributions of folks like you and Nels, and others, are valuable: you do.  If memory serves, you have never commented on one of my reviews.  So please, the cyber-door is always open: If you want to add flavor to my, um, "milk toast reviews", feel free to jump in anytime.  This is, after all, an online community of peers, and the point of the forums is to encourage differing points of view: The veterans of 25 years, the guys in the middle like me, and the newbies alike.

ps:  I stand by my original comment on your post. 

Comment by Barry Bernstein on February 23, 2012 at 5:50pm
Geoff, I was just jerking your chain a little. I just want to see you ask a few people around you how they did to get a proper perspective. And yes, I do have a hard time accepting complements unless I'm getting award money. I'll take that every time. Please promise me you won't break all my pots at Naples when I am not looking.
Comment by Connie Mettler on February 23, 2012 at 9:52pm

If you look at your "My Page", Barry, you'll see you did get an award -- if not money (sorry this award you can't take to the bank). Excellent review -- told directly without malice. You are the third or fourth person who has mentioned the problem with the loading in, lack of directions, and the zooming golf carts. These are things I'm sure Lilia and Katrina can address and probably get fixed. I'm sure they can. They both read these posts and I hope they are sharing them with the staff and board.

Oh yes, the good old days. I'm still longing for Marla Bercuson. She was marvelous and really represented the artists, which is what this show is supposed to be about. I am more jaded about these things than I used to be. I know where the money is really coming from, although if you take the current booth fee x 400 exhibitors, that is nothing to sneeze at either.

I was very pleased to hear about the good quality of the show. I tend to believe that if this show had any competition for this date they wouldn't have this fine a quality of exhibitors. Although, you are one of a few of us who used to annually make the trek from the Upper Midwest. Where is Ginny Herzog? where is Marian Steen? where is Aletha Jones? or how about Dale Rayburn, Mamie Joe, or Michael Weber -- all 2D people who are still in the business who no longer can make it work there. I want this show to be great and what solid suggestions you have given to make it friendlier for the artists. These are things that cost no money, just different policies. I hope they are taken to heart.

I dunno why you are jerking Geoff around -- didn't you love his line "like we were selling lemonade on I-95 where no one could stop to buy" or something like that?

Comment by Bert Herrera on February 24, 2012 at 8:16am

Well said, Barry.  I agree on all the points.  My experience, however is only 2 years old when it comes to the Grove. I just know what the old-timers say about what it used to be vs what it has become.  Perhaps the Grove should look at a show like Virginia-Highlands in Atlanta for a model NOT to emulate.  What was once a good selling art/neighborhood festival has become a beer drinking, music festival with very little selling of art.  V-H seems to have sold its soul to the beer sponsor, has the Grove sold theirs to Verizon?

Comment by lori kay on February 24, 2012 at 9:00am

couldn't agree more Bert, I've done VH for years and have seen it degrade into a drunken music festival.  It's a shame as it's a well run festival in a great neighborhood and the organizers are very nice and helpful. I'm voicing my opinion by not doing this show unless they refocus on the arts.  Given its location I don't know if the Grove would ever get to that point, but Florida in season offers many choices for the artist maybe not as prestious but perhaps better $$

Comment by Scott Martin on February 24, 2012 at 10:20am
Does anyone see a correlation to great sales and the massive housing boom in fl. House building peeked in 05-06. And let's face it we decorate walls in houses right? Just a thought.
Comment by Barry Bernstein on February 24, 2012 at 11:09am
So Scott, how about the correlation between the trippling of jury fees and booth fees in that same time period? And the fact that they want our money earlier and earlier. As an artist that is where you should be directing your energy.
Comment by maja maja on February 24, 2012 at 11:33am

I agree with all the comments about the Coconut Grove show - if anything they are understatements. I've done the show twice - once about 8 years ago and again this year. I couldn't believe I was at the same show. The vibes when I first showed were wonderful - customers were enthusiastic and having a blast; the show was about the art, NOT about the entertainment. Some artists did well this year but many I spoke with did not. I did less than quarter of what I did the first time I showed there. The Verizon booth was ghastly canned music and talking heads but equally hard on the ears was the cacophony between the "music" from the other end of the show, the Verizon noise and the screaming piano at the Mutiny trying to drown out the others. Much of the crowd was oblivious to the art, staggering down the aisles without so much as a glance at the booths. Clearly the show is all about the gate, not about the art, and the patrons show it. The buyers who came to the show 8 years ago were not there this year. Some other "good" shows are choosing similar formats, i.e. the sound stage(s) and the beer are given greater import - the art is the "entertainment". The promoters would be wise to consider that artists have other choices. I did not make the money I'd hoped to make at Coconut Grove because my buyers were not there. Smaller shows are more lucrative - less expense and aggravation, more sales and enthusiasm. It's very disappointing to see top quality shows succumb to the gate at the expense of the art. Across country is way too far to go for Coconut Grove.

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