It might be just my opinion and you can take it or leave it, but ArtFields is in sorry shape and in inexperienced hands. I’ve been putting off writing this commentary as I know you shouldn’t write something when you’re angry, but time is passing by and people have been waiting to see what I’d say about what happened at the end of ArtFields 2016. Four months have gone by and ArtFields has said nothing about the fact that now for the second year in a row it doesn’t have a director. What does it mean when your director resigns each year at the end of the event before a replacement can be trained as to what’s what? It’s not good.
Maybe ArtFields does have a new director but no announcement has been made. In fact in four months they have offered very little on their website or social media about what’s going on except that they will be doing it again in 2017. But they’re not alone – there has been little if any press in any media about ArtFields 2016. It’s a bad habit of theirs – going silent after the event is over, but maybe they have their reasons. No news might be the only good news they have.
I guess I could call them and see what’s up but I feel it would end up in a shouting match and I no longer trust anything they say anyway. Anything they have to say I want to see in writing or in official accounts. And, they have yet to answer the questions I had about the number of people who registered to vote in 2016 and the number of people who did vote. That was asked four months ago.
So here’s what I have to say for now and some photos of works I enjoyed seeing at ArtFields 2016.
My History With ArtFields
Sometime in the Spring of 2012, Karen Fowler, the first director of ArtFields contacted me to get my support for a new event they were going to be offering in Lake City, SC – a competition and exhibition of artworks from 12 Southeastern states in Lake City venues – in converted warehouses and local businesses, with $100,000 in cash awards that would be determined by voting by people who attended the event and a panel of qualified jurors. The top prize would be $50,000. The event was modeled after ArtPrize which takes place in Grand Rapids, MI.
My first reaction was how are you going to get artists to enter a competition/exhibition in Lake City, SC, and who will come see this exhibit? Lake City was in the middle of nowhere and I knew what nowhere is like because I live in Bonneau Beach, SC, just 52 miles from Lake City off Hwy. 52, which is in the middle of nowhere between Florence, SC, and Charleston, SC. A $100,000 in cash prizes will get the attention of artists – at first they’ll think it’s a typo – which many did, but it’s still going to be Lake City. Grand Rapids has 350,000 people living near by and it’s between Chicago and Detroit. Lake City on a good day has almost 7,000 residents.
I had traveled through Lake City hundreds of times while delivering our publication (back when it was printed) to areas in SC and NC. But, I never stopped to eat there or get gas and I never, ever wondered what was down Main Street in Lake City. I just never heard anything about it. I knew there was no visual art venue there so why should I be interested in stopping there.
I first mentioned ArtFields in my commentary in our July 2012 issue of Carolina Arts, ArtFields had also taken out a full page ad in that issue. From that day on I mentioned ArtFields a lot – more than any other event covered in our publication – in my commentary, on our blogs and social media. Over the next four years I spent more time in Lake City attending ArtFields events and exhibits at the Jones-Carter Gallery, which opened in Lake City with the beginning of ArtFields, than any other event. I invested a lot of time and money in ArtFields because I was hopeful that this event had potential. Carolina Arts started donating ads to the Jones-Carter Gallery to help draw attention to its exhibitions. By Sept. 2014 Carolina Arts was donating a 1/4 page ad to ArtFields every month in order to keep the event’s name out there all year long. We asked for nothing in return.
So, in May of 2016, just after the fourth ArtFields ended when I called to get some information from Hannah Davis, ArtFields’ current director about some results from that year and was told she resigned – I was shocked. I soon learned she was asked to resign with no other reason than that the event would be going in a different direction. What that direction was – no one seems to know, but for me, my anger has yet to subside and all I know is that I wouldn’t be going in what ever direction they were.
In my opinion, the fact that they put Hannah Davis, who was the director of the Jones-Carter Gallery and involved in every ArtFields, in charge, just months before the 2016 event was to take place – was finally a move in the right direction. The future was bright. So the fact that they would force her to resign after the 2016 event meant that the folks in Lake City were never going to make a go of this event other than it being an over-priced juried show of mostly local (SC) works.
That’s still good for SC’s artists, but too bad it will never be anything more than that. It all comes down to small town politics and a few very big egos.
I’m not going to ask artists not to enter this event or tell people not to go see it, but I’m not going to be the event’s cheerleader anymore and I’m not going to help them justify or explain some of their mistakes or missteps. From now on let the folks in Lake City, who are so good at saying nothing, explain their actions. But I will point out some of their BS and there is a lot of it.
For example let’s take a look at a statement ArtFields offers on their website today. In my opinion they have a problem with “words”.
“The South’s Most Engaging Art Festival and Competition
ArtFields® started in 2013 with a simple goal: honor the artists of the Southeast with a week’s worth of celebration and competition in the heart of a traditional Southern small town. With over $100,000 up for grabs, awarded based on the input of every visitor to ArtFields and a panel of judges made up of acclaimed artists and educators, the competition offers life-changing amounts of money to all artists in all media who live in the twelve Southeastern states. Over 400 masterpieces will be displayed in locally-owned venues, from renovated warehouses from the 1920’s to Smithsonian-qualified art galleries to upscale restaurants and start-up boutiques, in a mutual celebration of art and community. What was once one of South Carolina’s most prosperous agricultural communities now becomes a living art gallery as we continue to demonstrate the best of the Southeast and recognize the incredible talent we have to offer.”
I don’t know who writes this stuff but they have a real problem with numbers and words. It’s all over the top in describing the event. Making it hard for the event to live up to its promotion.
First – a nine day event is more than a week. Do they only want people to come for a week or do they think people will think nine days is too long?
Second – the $100,000 figure – they seem to always short change The Citizens Bank, a local bank which gives $10,000 for 10 awards of $1,000 for what are sometimes called Honorable Mention awards or Merit Awards depending on where you look on their website. Believe me artists feel differently about what they are called. And they always seem to forget they give another $1,000 to the winner of their Portrait Competition. So this figure should always be $111,000 in cash awards.
Third – ArtFields has yet to have very good participation from all 12 states. The bulk of the artists entering and on view are coming from South Carolina.
Fourth – “awarded based on the input of every visitor to ArtFields” ArtFields says about 20,000 go to their event but less than 7,000 register to vote and about half of them actually vote – so it is not based on the input of every visitor or is it. Maybe 7,000 is closer to the actual attendance. They can’t have it both ways.
Fifth – “the competition offers life-changing amounts of money to all artists”. This kind of statement could only come from small town folks who know little about the arts. $50,000 might seem like a lot of money to some folks, but many of the works on display have a price tag of $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 and more – artists who sell their works for that amount of money will be happy to win a $50,000 award, but I doubt it will change their lives. I’ve begged ArtFields to drop this statement, but they refuse. A $25,000 award would barely buy an artist a new van to drive their works to other exhibitions.
Sixth – “Over 400 masterpieces will be displayed” I don’t think there have ever been 400 works on display at any of the events in the past four years, much less “over” 400 and although many of the works are excellent, few are what most in the art world would call masterpieces. Masterpieces end up in Museums.
Seventh – “best of the Southeast”. This is a statement that many in the art world are guilty of stating. How can any event say this? In a juried show setting, all you can say is that these are the works our jury panel selected out of the entries we received. How do you get to saying it is a collection of the best of the Southeast without seeing all the other works produced in the Southeast? I’m sure when other artists hear that statement they just shake their heads – especially those who didn’t enter the competition.
I don’t know why people who organize these kinds of events always feel they have to overstate the facts. I don’t know why people can’t say – in this case – that we have a pretty big exhibit in a small town with works from artists from 12 states with big cash prizes. I’m sure a wordsmith can come up with a fancy way of saying that without overstating the facts. Cause people get mad when something doesn’t live up to its statements.
ArtFields has another problem with how they come up with their attendance figures. After the 2013 event ArtFields announced the results that a consulting firm in Columbia, SC, came up with: 22,000 visitors visited the festival, spending an average of $33. I don’t know how they could come up with that figure as attendance was free for most of the events. The Jones-Carter Gallery counts its visitors and they never saw over 7,000 during any ArtFields event. And, each year organizers would say that they saw an increase over the last year’s numbers, but numbers stated fluxuated from 22,000 to 20,000 from year to year. My bet would be it’s closer to 10,000, which is a good number for a small town like Lake City. The competition is based on the viewers voting for the works they like, but I don’t think too many more than 5,000 – 7,000 have ever registered to vote and less than half actually vote. The organizers have never offered exact numbers on how many votes the top winners received. It’s all a big secret.
And, the big problem in getting this event to grow is that most of the people voting are from the region or South Carolina. That’s why most of the winners, not all, are from this same region or South Carolina. There is nothing wrong with that but it won’t help artists from the other 11 states enter when they don’t think they have a chance at winning. Entering ArtFields, delivering work there and coming to the event is not cheap for artists from outside the state.
And, I want it on record that if in 2017 they come up with a prize given in a drawing from the people who register to vote and actually vote – that was my idea as an incentive to get more people to vote. If they don’t do that – it’s just one of many suggestions I’ve offered to make the event better that are just ignored.
Artists also don’t like that the jurors selecting who will be in the competition and then the final jury panel deciding the cash awards are mostly from those 12 states. They want all jurors to come from outside those 12 states.
Staff members also seem to be challenged when it comes to working social media or any media for the matter. They can’t seem to fix the Jones-Carter Gallery website. It’s been broken for four months now. In the last four months they have posted very little on Facebook or on the blog on the ArtFields’ website. What’s the problem? Do they have nothing to say to encourage new artists to enter the competition or visitors to come see the exhibition or Lake City for that matter. I thought the idea behind ArtFields was to make Lake City an arts destination. If there is any art to see in Lake City when ArtFields isn’t taking place – who would know about it? The whole organization seems to only be active during ArtFields and then after that – they are either exhausted or don’t know what to do – and without someone at the helm who knows what they are doing – can you blame them.
Recruiting artists to participate is a real problem and the event’s retention rate (getting an artist to return to the competition year after year is terrible – except for SC artists). Having a poor retention rate doesn’t encourage other artists to enter.
Making sales of art during the event would make a lot of artists feel better about not winning an award, but ArtFields can’t seem to make that happen. They think letting the public know they can buy works would interfere with the jurors selection process. If the viewing public knew people were putting their names on a list to buy certain works it would encourage more sales. Works should be marked to let viewers know someone is interested in buyng it.
Artists would also like to see more of those “Merit Awards” of $1,000 to offset expenses in entering the competition. Hannah Davis was going to try and get more sponsors for these kind of awards, but I’m sure if ArtFields keeps ignoring The Citizens Bank and the money they have been putting up, they’ll have a hard time keeping them invested in ArtFields. Or would that detract from the idea that Darla Moore, the event’s patron saint, is putting up most of the money for this event?
OK, enough bad news. One of the highlights of ArtFields is the merchants who display most of the works in their shops, restaurants and boutiques. With a few exceptions, most of these folks go out of their way welcoming visitors, showing off the works they have on display, and working for votes for their artists. I wish the organizers of this event were as welcoming and truthful as these merchants are. The event would be a lot better off. I know some of the artists don’t like being in these venues, but they have a better chance at collecting votes in these venues compared to the more gallery like venues.
Most of the folks in Lake City are friendly and helpful and I have always thought that one of the biggest selling points of getting people to ArtFields and Lake City would be using social media to tell their stories. I always enjoyed my visits there. But, I’m not sure they are as happy as some folks make them out to be as to how ArtFields is working.
There are a lot more things I could complain about and I probably will in time, but I’m sick of all the politics and lost potential. I had planned to take a broad look at ArtFields 2016 – which I thought was a pretty good event – as far as the art on display goes. It’s just too bad they had to ruin it all.
I think in 2016 participating artists were beginning to think about what they would enter in ArtFields instead of just entering anything the first couple of years. Top tier artists were beginning to enter and under the leadership of Hannah Davis many artists were looking forward to changes she knew needed to be made that were more artists friendly. Davis had dealt with a lot of these artists, people in the art community and she knew what their complaints were. We talked about a lot of changes she would like to make – if they ever let her really run things, but that was doubtful considering they didn’t make her the director until many things were set in stone and after pulling the event off in just three months – they ask her to resign.
The photos I’m including are just a few of the works I enjoyed seeing in the 2016 event. I took hundreds of photos and would have found a way to post them throughout the year leading up to 2017, but that won’t be happening. I apologize to the artists for that, but doing so would lend support to ArtFields and as I’ve said – I’m going in a different direction than they are. When someone discovers what that direction is – give me a call.
In the end, if ArtFields doesn’t like what I’m saying about their event and organization – you can thank Karen Fowler for inviting me in the door and now her husband Marion Fowler for his recent actions. When you have people who are “so” experienced in the arts as these two are at running things it’s no wonder ArtFields is just spinning its wheels. Back in 2012 if she didn’t know who I was and that I wouldn’t lie for them – shame on her. People who follow Carolina Arts know I’m going to say what I mean and not sugar coat it. Maybe one day I’ll hear from artists that ArtFields has gotten better and I should take another look. But, I understand Darla Moore is bored with ArtFields so I’m not sure it has much time left for that to happen.