Along with a smattering of other visitors, I may have gotten heat stroke during the two hours I spent under the scorching mid-afternoon Georgia sun at the Atlanta Arts Festival in Piedmont Park this weekend — but I’m still happy that I went. I came away with a smug sense of having supported local artists and my hometown’s art scene, and was enriched culturally as well.
Upon entering the park, I realized that I certainly didn’t know much about art festivals. I had expected paintings and drawings to predominate, but while the basic genres were represented, equally ubiquitous were the works of artists who specialize in glass, metalwork, jewelry and sculpture. I was even introduced to some fringe forms of art I’d never considered before — one artist was selling custom, hand-bound leather journals while another boasted a copyrighted fiber-based art technique.
The booths weren’t organized according to the type of art or where the artists were from, so visitors were constantly exposed to fresh concepts as they strolled by — on either side of a custom woodwork booth, one could find handmade purses and mobiles. About 200 artists’ tents were aligned in a circle around the heart of the park in a bazaar-type setup.
The impressive variety made it so that practically anyone should have been able to find a booth appealing to their tastes. I knew my mom would have loved the watercolorist who painted traditional Japanese-style nature scenes, but I preferred the more experimental works, such as the display by Julie Fordham, a 2-D mixed media artist native to Atlanta. Her works ventured into the macabre, including a portrait of a woman with her insides exposed and one of a girl with her lips stitched shut and a real needle hanging from the frame.
As I had expected, the festival had a strong representation of local artists from Atlanta, Gainesville and elsewhere in Georgia, as well as Southern artists from nearby states like Florida. However, I was surprised to see that many artists came from as far as Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and California. Each year, hundreds of artists apply to showcase their work at this festival through an online application process, and then the festival committee handpicks a selection to invite. The result is a diverse mélange of influences.
Most artists I talked to were very enthusiastic about the venue. The crowd that showed up was just as colorful as the variety of art showcased, with young, tattooed guys mixed in with parents pushing strollers and some older folks. I spoke to Liz Williams, a native Atlantan who has been doing these types of festivals for 20 years, and she said that Piedmont park is “the place to be” for an art festival.
“You’ve got a huge venue, you’ve got a venue that attracts a lot of people,” she explained. “Most artists would agree, a park situation is optimal.”
The park did provide a lovely setup, with abundant greenery and foliage, and it did seem like many visitors strolled through because they happened to be in the area at the time. But this might speak to a poor promotional job as well — I expected the park to be packed with people for the festival, especially in such a community that strongly promotes the arts like Atlanta, but many passersby were calling friends to let them know the event was going on. One man I overheard even mused to his companion, “I didn’t even hear about this being advertised!”
I discussed the spotty turnout with Karen Van Beest, a 2-D glass artist from Orlando, and she agreed that it seemed a big low: “It’s a great spot, I love the location — I don’t know if it’s the heat, but attendance is mediocre, I’d say.”
Other than the spotty turnout, the atmosphere of the festival was also a bit strange. All the advertising booths promoting their products alongside artists promoting their work made the event feel “sleazy” at times, as one passerby lamented to his wife. Indeed, thanks to nearly 90 degree weather, many were obviously more interested in monopolizing free Vitamin Water and LaCroix samples than in immersing themselves in the kitschy art booths.
And while some of the artists were in high spirits, creating art right at the scene, others seemed disenchanted by the low attendance. Some bided their time sitting hidden behind their tents, texting on their phones or simply pushing sales. Probably due to a combination of the heat and lack of effective marketing, what had great initial potential to be a genuine, inspiring festival for grassroots talent fell a bit flat.
Regardless, the Atlanta Arts Festival is an important event primarily due to the opportunity it provides artists to disseminate their work while making connections with local art collectors and other artists alike. These festivals are artists’ “work places,” as Williams explains.
Hopefully, people will keep this event in mind for next year — the art scene in Atlanta can only thrive as long as these important events are well attended.
— Contact Catherine Cai.