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Mixed forecasts for Arts Festival attendance, sales

Greg Marshall, Of the Record Staff

A sluggish economy has led some organizers at the Kimball Art Center, the Utah Board of Tourism, art-gallery owners and vendors to make mixed predictions for the 2008 Arts Festival.

The festival is today, Saturday, from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. and Sunday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Some say rising gas prices may discourage people from Evanston, Provo and Salt Lake City from making the 30-to-50 mile drive to attend the festival.

Others point to the high attendance of the Utah Arts Festival, which was held in Salt Lake City June 26-29, as a sign that visitors will not only come to Park City from elsewhere in the state, but also will continue to spend money on art. "Overall, because of the economy, our festival did really well, and I would predict the same thing for Park City," said Utah Arts Festival director Lisa Sewell. "People aren’t taking big vacations. They’re spending more money here in Utah."

Sewell said attendance at the Utah Arts Festival was up by about 3,000 compared to 2007 and informal feedback from artists has been positive. Organizers have not yet received formal surveys from this year’s vendors. "I think people were tired of all the negative stuff and just wanted to do something in the community with the arts," Sewell said.

Tracie Cayford of the Utah Tourism Board said out-of-state advertising campaigns have attracted crowds to Utah this summer at a rate in excess of the 20 million people who visited the state in 2007. With the rising fuel prices people are staying closer to home, she said, but a weaker dollar has drawn more international travelers to compensate for relatively flat interstate travel. "It will be a while before we get actual numbers, but everything we’ve been getting anecdotally indicates that this is a good year."

The experience of some local artists and organizers, including the Kimball’s executive director Bruce Larrabee, seems to paint a more dismal picture.

"I’ve been to several arts festivals this summer," Larrabee said, "and it seems like sales are down. It does put the squeeze on individual artists. Economics do come into play when it comes to the amount of art we’re going to sell."

Larrabee has spent 25 years in Park City as a potter, art teacher and gallery owner. He has, at times, participated in as many as 22 arts festival a year.

To travel out of state, Larrabee said he needed to sell $3,000 in merchandise to cover his costs. Now, because of the increased cost of living and higher gas prices, Larrabee’s magic number has risen to $5,000.

Average artist sales at the Park City Arts Festival were about $5,000 for 2007, Larrabee said, and the number of artists who applied for the festival reached near record levels for 2008. More than 900 sculptors, painters, drawers, jewelers and mixed media artists applied for 225 spots on Main Street.

Larrabee credits Arts Festival organizers for bolstering the reputation of the event in recent years, and thus attracting artists, but added that it remains to be seen whether visitors will spend big money on art. "Arts festival can make or break artists, especially if the economy is bad for several years. People may just come and buy a churro and a drink."

Kim McClelland is the vice president of operations for Premier Resorts and a member of the Utah Tourism Board. He said retail sales and attendance at the Arts Festival will be a good indicator for the economy in Park City. If attendance is up, McClelland said, it may mean that people along the Wasatch Front are staying closer to home and taking day trips to places such as Park City and national parks, where attendance remains high.

If attendance and sales are down at the Arts Festival, it means people are being more cautious with their money. "Our sense is that, at least for summer business, we’re down about 10 percent from last year."

McClelland said that while numbers have dipped overall, lodging from conventions has been solid. "We’re not having people call and ask for something less expensive than in the past. If they decide to come to Park City, they’re committing the resources to do what they planned to do."

McClelland’s lodging economic theory may hold true for the arts festival. "Park City has done a good job promoting itself as a year-round destination," Tracie Cayford said. "Our goal is to help get people to stay longer and spend more money at events like the Arts Festival. They’re important for bolstering the economy."

Business is not always a stroll for galleries

Jennifer Fargo, director of Montgomery Lee Fine Art, said her gallery started feeling the hurt from a slowing economy in November 2007. She said summer sales are down 15-20 percent from last year.

The gallery, which sells high-end oil paintings, bronze statues and other merchandise, remains popular.

The quasi-recession has not been without its set of hardships, and its economics lessons for Fargo. "Art is a luxury," she said, contemplatively. "It’s one of the first things to go and one of the last things to come back."

Fargo said customers are more likely to buy fewer pieces than in years past. They are more concerned with investment potential, the quality of a piece and an artist’s reputation. "In a market like this you really have to go to your clients," she said.

Even if sales have slowed for the galleries, it’s the artists who feel the economy acutely, Fargo said. "A lot of times, galleries will make a little less money to help keep their artists producing," she said.

Montgomery Lee will host wildlife painter Greg Wilson Saturday from 1-3 p.m. "The arts festival doesn’t bring us a ton of business," Fargo said. It’s not gangbusters for us."

Judi Grennery, co-owner of Phoenix Gallery, said the Arts Festival has historically been the gallery’s biggest weekend in August. She said the trick in a slower market it to appeal to niche markets and sell smaller pieces for arts festival shoppers. "People don’t necessarily go to the arts festival thinking they’re going to spend $5,000," she said.

The desire to appeal to casual art shoppers at the festival is one of the reasons Grennery decided to exhibit Jared Gillett’s work during the festival. Gillett’s 48 pieces are relatively small and picture birds, robots and rural scenes. His least expensive pieces cost about $400.

"People are buying smaller," said Karen Terzian of Terzian Gallery. "If it’s a visitor, instead of taking home a gift for the babysitter and the housekeeper, they’re buying just one thing."

Terzian has been in the gallery business in Park City for nine years and has survived other economic downturns. "The economy affects how long people stay and how they open their pocket books. Park City is somewhat insulated but not entirely."

She added that her gallery has seen a spike in buying art on lay away in which clients use payments plans to buy a piece of art over several months. "They’ll either pay for it over six months or not buy it at all," she said.

In addition to selling big ticket collectible art, Terzian Gallery also offers items for as little as $50. "The little sales are just icing on the cake," she explained. "What we’re really after is that higher price point."

However this weekend’s art sales turn out, Terzian said the Arts Festival is an important part of the community. "What’s great about the Arts Festival is that it brings so much attention to the arts," she said.


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