COVID 19: One Art Festival Considers the Consequences

Crowds at Valley Art Center’s Art By The Falls, in simpler times 

Facing Backlash, Valley Art Center Refunds ABF Booth Fees

The word “ecosystem” often shows up in discussions of the art economy, to describe the way different parts are connected. Never has the description held so true as during the COVID 19 crisis.

Consider the case of Valley Art Center, in Chagrin Falls. Beyond that quaint little community, people know Valley Art Center for its flagship event, Art By The Falls. For 37 years, the white tent festival has brought artists and patrons together to create a marketplace, where all that interdependence is on display.  As many as 120 artists rent booth space because, in the words of photographer / vendor Glenn Petranek, “It’s a big festival.” It draws 15,000 people. Petranek says he’s been a vendor there for the last “five or six” years. He sells his work at about 25 festivals in a given season, and says Art By The Falls is one of the biggest. He expects to net $4,000-$5000 for the weekend. That makes the $455 cost of a double booth well worth his while.

Valley Art Center’s Art By The Falls draws approximately 15,000 people.

Then along came COVID 19. Valley Art Center Director Mary Anne Breisch didn’t have the opportunity to make the decision herself before she heard from the village mayor, who told her she had to cancel. The town’s other major spring celebration, Blossom Time, was also cancelled.

At the same time, art organizations near and far had begun to respond to the crisis. Boards of directors—volunteers charged with governing nonprofits—had to make difficult decisions. It’s their role to keep that part of the ecosystem alive. Organizations big and small, from the Cleveland Museum of Art to BAYarts to the Morgan Conservatory had closed their doors and laid off staffs.  All those organizations took as much programming as they could online.  Across the sector, anticipated revenue vanished in the interest of controlling the spread of the Big Disease.

At Valley Art Center, Winter and Spring sessions of classes were cancelled, and refunds offered to students who asked. Breisch says students have been generous, with some letting the organization keep their tuition as a donation. Still, she estimates the crisis meant a loss of 50 percent of its revenue from Winter session classes, and 80 percent from Spring session.

The cancellation of Art by the Falls would mean another hit. Booth fees had become a significant source of revenue. So the VAC Board had to decide: Would they offer refunds? Apply the fees to a future event? And what impact would that have on the organization that was already suffering from other losses? Breisch spoke with event planners and directors of other festivals to gather information. She describes the board’s discussion as long and heated. “What my board came up with was a 50 percent refund–a loss for us, a loss for the artist, and hopefully we would both be left standing. “I think they were just looking to make sure the art center stays solvent.”

Shoppers at Art By The Falls

Some artists were sympathetic, but others—struggling already with hand-to-mouth existence that comes with depending on sales for their income—could not afford the luxury. To them, the lost sales from the cancelled festival were already a disappointment, and the loss of booth fees changed the festival from a potential net gain to an actual net loss, in the hundreds of dollars. Discussion erupted in social media. From a Facebook thread on the subject:

“Wow, so wrong.”

“Not cool.”

“OMG, I will never take a class there.”

“That is not right. Refund all fees.”

“Unless they apologize and refund 100%, they have really screwed themselves.”

Breisch says, “I was absolutely shocked by the response on social media. My email correspondence with artists was nothing like that.”

There was talk of legal action. Meg Matko, of Arts Cleveland, referred them to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and invited artists to an already-scheduled, weekly Zoom chat for artists who could talk about it and perhaps organize there.

Quickly it began to look like a much bigger deal than the lost revenue from one year’s festival. Art organizations have to look after themselves to continue offering artists a marketplace—but they have to treat artists well, or the artists will stay away.

Breisch continued the discussion with her Board in light of the backlash, and a day later, the decision was made to reconsider, offering the artists full refunds.

That came as relief to Beth Hess, who runs Tart Boutique. She sells vintage goods and screen printed tee shirts and linens, and supplements revenue from her bricks and mortar store in Rocky River with revenue from festivals in the Summer. But the physical shop was forced to close because of the COVID crisis. Her husband was also not working during the shutdown. “I was so relieved to get that email from Valley Arts Center regarding the full refund. It was the principal that bothered me more than anything.”

Breisch said as of Wednesday that about 20 artists have given some or all of their booth fees as a donation.  “People can be so generous when given the opportunity.”

Petranek, for his part, says he would have been happy to get full credit for the following year’s festival. But Breisch says she couldn’t in good conscience make that promise. “We don’t know what art festivals are going to look like in the future. I don’t know if we will be able to do Art By The Falls again, if the village will let us.”

Considering the uncertain future, Valley Art Center is working to create an online art fair, hoping to include virtual studio visits, performances, and analogues to the spectrum of sights and sounds that draw people to real life festivals.

In the mean time, the festival season is only beginning, and dozens of organizations in Northeast Ohio and across the country will have to navigate the changing landscape of conditions and the decisions that will go along with that.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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