Sunday, July 27, 2014

Madness on Museum Hill: The International Folk Art Market

Just above the town of Santa Fe, New Mexico is “Museum Hill.”   There one finds four museums, the Laboratory of Anthropology and the Department of Cultural Affairs administration building.  Once a year the International Folk Art Market takes takes over the plaza and parking lots of Museum Hill.  This year was it’s 11th appearance and it grows ever larger.   153 artists were brought from around the world and 1,700 locals volunteered to assist the professional staff.  On the opening day they had a limit of 10,000 tickets to sell, and every one of them was used.

Of Course, if you are willing to pay more you can come in early and for even more you can go to the preview the night before.   By 11AM on opening day there was a line to pay for objects acquired even before the larger crowds arrived.  Only at the Flag Ship Apple Store in New York have I seen lines like this to pay.

Obviously, they are offering something that people want.  In this case, it is the opportunity to make contact with foreign artists and buy their wares.  It is obviously more fun to buy directly from the artist particularly when there is an exotic factor involved and you can ask about their lives in Africa, for instance, and the techniques they use to produce their craft.

There is a rigorous vetting process of the artists and a complicated application form for which the umbrella organization the International Folk Art Alliance offers assistance.  Every year there is turnover even though in at least one case an artist participated for his 9th year.  This year’s market grossed 3 million dollars of which 90% was kept by the artists averaging around $19,000 each but, of course, some artists do better than others.  One artist brought clothes one year in a size too small for most Americans and did not do so well, but she was invited back the following year, and, having learned her lesson, she did much better.  The International Folk Alliance also offers on line assistance for the artists on subjects such as pricing, developing a catalogue for buyers, and customer relations.  The latter is a logical subject when you think about that some people come from quite different cultures.  In some places barter and bargaining is an important part of selling but not necessarily in the U.S.

There is another gimmick for getting people to come and volunteer to work at the Market.  I am less convinced of this one.  It is billed as your good deed for the day.  You are helping a village in third world countries.  We are told that an artist can make at market 10 times what he or she might make at home in a year. I worry that this may be like the person who wins the lottery and one day the money runs out. Some artists come from co-ops, however, and a cop-op with a good manager is probably a good thing for all. But what about the  artists from Israel, France and Italy.  I wonder how they feel about this third world classification.

Another large selling point is saving art forms that would otherwise disappear.  This is said about most art in most cultures at one time or another.  In our world of Native America we have heard this about several areas including Hopi textiles.  Often it is a trader’s gimmick to sell a piece.  Somehow, arts and crafts survive wars, genocide and famines.  It is a necessary part of life and, though it may lie dormant for a while, it is resilient.

Lowery Sims, Curator, The Museum of Arts & Design, New York and an exhibiting artist

One personal point…can you imagine what it is like living near Museum Hill with the thousands of people who are coming our way? The Market organizers have done what they can arranging for large touring buses to pick people up and bring them back to the parking facilities around town, but that can add up to at least a 20 minute wait and a 10-15 minute ride both ways, so people take there cars.   The surrounding streets are all parked in.  We have to block our driveway with orange cones and a trash bin to be sure we can get in and out of our house!  If they have much more success the Market will need to move… what about to the dormant race track south of town?
When all is said and done, however, the concept of the International Folk Art Alliance was summed up by Cheryl Mills, a lawyer who served in the Clinton White House and as Senior Adviser and Counsel for Hillary Rodham Clinton, quoted the former First Lady, “Talent is Universal; Opportunity is not.”

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