Monday, June 13, 2011

Where Are We?

William "CJ" Cowherd Jr - 57th Street Art Fair Vendor, Chicago, IL
Attending art fairs and gallery openings  is my newest past time.  I’m meeting artists, observing new techniques, and experiencing different mediums. But I’m also discovering a recurring trend – the minuscule number of African-American artists at mainstream art fairs.  I find myself asking, where are we?  Why aren’t more of us in juried art fairs such as the 57th Street, Gold Coast, and Old Town Art Fairs - all prominent Chicago art fairs?

Cheryl Toles - 57th Street Art Fair Vendor, Chicago, IL
My experience tells me there are thousands of talented, contemporary African-American and African Diaspora artist.  Even though an abundance of artistic talent exists in Chicago less than 2% of the approximately 200 artists at this year’s  57th Street Art Fair in Chicago’s historic Hyde Park community were African-American.  Why is this happening? I don’t believe the reason is a lack of talent.  America has a well established system of privilege, but I don’t think this is the primary reason either.  I propose the primary reason is a lack of professional preparation.  

Several weeks ago, I presented some of my artwork to a prominent Chicago gallery owner.  After reviewing my work, he acknowledged my creativity and artistic talent then he succinctly stated my art wouldn’t work in his gallery.  In his opinion, my presentation lacked the polish to appeal to fine art collectors.  My pieces weren’t ready to hang in collector’s homes.    I mounted my art on the least expensive pre-stretched canvas available not realizing collectors and galleries have acceptable standards for unframed works.  My presentation didn’t meet those standards.  He likened my artistic presentation to a well designed car with missing wheels – it looks good but it can’t be driven.

Mainstream art fair jurors are concerned with presentation.  They expect the artist’s presentation to mimic a fine gallery transported to a neighborhood street.  The 57th Street Art Fair runs concurrently with and adjacent to the Hyde Park Community Art Fair.  Both shows are juried, but are totally different.  The 57th Street Fair seems to cater to high end fine art collectors while the Community Art Fair draws the casual art appreciator.   Another outstanding difference was large numbers of African-American vendors at the Community Art Fair even though the vendor fees for each fair were identical.   I asked my children if they noticed a difference between the two art fairs.  My middle school son responded, "The 57th Street one is for professionals and the Community is for amateurs."  He explained further by saying that the professionals took time to come up with an interesting display.  
Do the jurors of mainstream shows see the same thing?  As African-American artists do we need to move from amateur to professional by investing  in  our  presentation? Are the photos we use to introduce our work to juries professional quality?  Do we need to educate ourselves on the expectations of collectors and galleries while maintaining our artistic creativity?  Are we operating like business owners who understand the expectations of its customers?  Are these the changes African-American artists need to make to increase our access to mainstream art fairs and galleries?  How would the fine art market change if more of us took these steps? What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't assume people aren't juried in. I might assume that a lot of people are not submitting. There is a fee to apply. If you are accepted it can cost between $500-$750.00 to pay for your space. You supply the booth and accoutrements: cards, labels, paraphernalia promoting your work, and you may travel for several days from a far distance in a rented truck, plus hotel to stay for the weekend and then you have to hope you make sales to cover your expenses and make a profit. It could involve a couple of thousands of dollars just to show up! So many artists I know have studio shows. They go to fairs that feature African American artists only and are assured of an interested audience.