It does get easier with time! But sometimes I feel a bit like a juggler - for every event you produce there are so many balls in the air, hundreds of details that have to fall into place. In fact, you could compare running an arts fair to planning a wedding, but imagine preparing the venue and reception for 175 brides and grooms and their guests all at once! We currently produce four shows a year. The one coming up is the spring event in Marlborough, which is in Boston’s metrowest suburbs. Then there’s our Festival in Northampton, in the western part of Massachusetts, which is held on Memorial Day and Columbus Day weekends. Each event has its own personality, its unique roster of exhibiting artists from all over America. This years Paradise City Arts Festival in Marlborough, MA has attracted an extraordinary collection of 175 artists, many of them new to Paradise City. And I love the theme for this spring: “American Beauty, From Landscape to Dreamscape”.
Both my husband and I were practicing artists who spent twenty years on the show circuit ourselves. “Making a living as a practicing artist is no easy thing,” my husband Geoff explains, “being creative in your studio, coming up with a body of work that excites you, hoping that customers will respond, then packing it all up and bringing it to a show. But you’re still not done. You need to put on your marketing hat and connect with your customers and display your work in a way that people will respond to.”
After talking about it for years, we decided to try putting our years of practice and observations to work in a new career. We wanted to put together an event that was different, that combined the beauty and quality of a high-end indoor show with the best parts – great food, live music, outdoor sculpture spaces (but with all indoor exhibit booths) – of an arts festival. We wanted it to be beautiful, festive and fun, an event that would appeal to a broad audience without sacrificing excellence.
I am still an artist myself, and I work on large-scale paintings in my studio when I’m not working at Paradise City. One of my favorite parts of directing Paradise City is my role as mentor to up-and-coming artists just starting to exhibit in our shows.
I would describe the Paradise City Arts Festival as both a juried and curated show. What do I mean by that? Each prospective exhibitor must submit an application with digital examples of their work. All of the applications are separated into 15 media categories (ceramics, glass, painting, sculpture, furniture, wood, etc.) Each application is reviewed individually and scored on the basis of design, technical skill, originality and imagination. The curation aspect of judging often involves selection for diversity in both media and aesthetics. Our goal is to create a show where you can stroll the aisles and feel that you must look at everything, that each artist is totally unique and extraordinary.
Applications for our events are due April 1 and September 8 – at least six months in advance of each show. Because just a portion of applicants can be accepted for any one show, it can be a heartbreaking experience for the artists and for us, too. But I can’t tell you how many times an artist who was rejected one year finds that a subsequent application with a new body of work is accepted the following year!
Our shows are actually fairs of “fine and functional art”. The artists accepted to participate in our events have to meet very high technical and aesthetic standards. However, that doesn’t mean that everything has a high price tag! One of the most important criteria for curating a show like this is to make sure that there is something wonderful in every price range. Our attendees have often written, “It’s like going to a museum but you can actually take some of the artwork home with you!” And it’s part of our job to make sure they aren’t frustrated, that even someone with a tiny budget can bring home a memorable piece of the Festival.
This is one of the great pleasures of Paradise City, meeting the artist in person and talking to them about their work. While websites like Etsy give art lovers instant access to the works of countless artists, the Paradise City Arts Festival continues to draw hundreds of artists and thousands of patrons to the Royal Plaza Trade Center in Marlborough. It’s the personal touch, the conversations with artists that are a vital part of what makes festivals like Paradise City valuable to the arts community in the 21st century. When you bring something home from a show like this, there’s a narrative to it. Those stories give an extra dimension and value to the objects that surround you in your home. People are really interested in learning everything about the artists and their work and, in this aspect, face to face contact is invaluable.
When Paradise City Arts Festivals first began, the percentage of “fine art” versus “fine craft” was definitely skewed more toward the “fine craft” end. But over the years we have attracted many more painters, printmakers, sculptors and photographers who found great success at our events. The public has been incredibly enthusiastic about the large-scale sculpture at our shows. But I think that all categories – from jewelry to furniture to paintings – have found an audience and a market at Paradise City.
Because our events provide indoor, carpeted exhibition space for the artists, it’s a much more gallery-like ambiance. The artists can customize their booths to create a perfectly lighted space that shows off their work to its greatest potential.
Paradise City’s shows are really the best of both worlds, combining the sophistication of an indoor art show with the liveliness (great music, food, extra activities) of an arts festival. Allowing the artist to customize their own space has given the shows a certain look and feel that appeals to attendees. Presenting art and handmade objects in a perfectly lighted space, designed by the artists themselves, is the best possible way for it to be seen. And comfort – for both exhibitors and patrons – is certainly a plus. Although outdoor events are popular, they are weather dependent. And I am not just talking about rain - wind is a huge factor as well as heat and cold. Having the art in a controlled environment is good for both the artist and the buyer. Having the ability to customize the booth instead of using a cookie cutter display allows the artist control over the presentation, which is so important. A customized presentation shows the full potential of how the art will look in the right setting. Very few people buy art to put it in a tent in their backyard! We think it’s always helpful to be able to visualize the work in your own home.
There are two ways to answer this question. Obviously, for many people, some prices are unaffordable. As desirable as the work may be, it simply doesn’t fit into their budget. But there is a lot of art that is very high in quality, original and affordable for just about anyone. If you can’t afford an oil painting by an established artist with work in museum collections, you can still bring home a piece by a young, emerging artist – and feel great that you’ve helped to support their work early in their career. Or maybe you are attracted to the stunning high-end gold jewelry you’ll see at Paradise City, but your wallet just can’t stretch that far? If you can’t afford gold or platinum, for $30 to $300, you’ll find a marvelous array of imaginative jewelry that will take your breath away. It all comes down to diversity again, in pricing and aesthetics.
Since many of our exhibitors travel to our shows from all over the country, they simply can’t participate in four shows a year that are so far away. And we always have a great selection of brand-new applicants to consider. So the short answer is – yes, there are some artists who participate in all of our shows, but ultimately each show has a very different look and feel to it. That is also why many of our patrons attend two or more Paradise City Arts Festivals each year – they know there’s always going to be something new! We strive for a nice range of media at our shows to enhance the attendee experience. Paradise City shows are large enough so that if someone is looking for furniture, wedding bands, dinnerware or landscape paintings they will have lots of options to choose from. Each event is a collection of 175 to 260 artists.
The very first show we ran was in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1995. That show has grown from a 150-artist event housed in a single building on the Northampton Fairgrounds to 260 exhibiting artists in four buildings, a permanent sculpture garden, a paved center courtyard and a huge music and dining tent. But just getting the Festival up and running that first year was exciting, challenging and nearly a disaster. The food vendor backed out two weeks before the show. Then a late-season hurricane hit New England during the set-up days (we laid down hundreds of feet of plywood over the water-logged grounds). Our spectacular opening night saw the city’s electrical transformers, which hadn’t been used to that capacity for 75 years, light up like candles as they caught fire all along Route 9.
When you get lemons, you make lemonade. The food crisis turned out to be totally serendipitous. We approached the chefs of our local restaurants, who rose to the occasion with style and grace, establishing the Festival’s reputation for world-class dining that very first year. The hurricane pulled out just before opening day to reveal sparkling skies – and all that plywood continued to protect the carpeting from mud, dust and artists’ dollies each year as we set up the show. As for the transformers, the power still available that night was limited to the booths, so the entire show floor glowed like a jewel box. The city replaced the transformers by morning.
That first year of Paradise City was a more beautiful show than any first-year event should be. After all, we had spent the previous twenty years as artists. The many loyal friends we made in the art and craft worlds traveled from all over the country to exhibit their work and make this into a first-class event. They also helped us spread the word, and the crowds appeared, driving for hours to see the show!
In this digital age, dominated by the production of objects without the touch of human hands, American craft makers have actually formed the cutting edge of a new movement. The younger generation, jaded by cookie-cutter products, has embraced the handmade like no other generation since the 1960s. I hope that we can guide Millennials to see the intrinsic value in owning original fine and functional art by American makers, painters and sculptors.
Know that as much as you plan, there are always surprises!