By: Sean Smothers, President of Cultural Festivals
There’s a clock on top of a tall, four-drawer file cabinet in the office. It’s not your standard-issue timepiece. It has its similarities: there are numbers and it does work on a time-based rhythm. But, it’s different in that it doesn’t tell time in the traditional sense. It’s a countdown clock—a digital box with a tally of each day, hour, minute and second ticking away to zero.
The countdown clock the first thing I see every morning as I enter the office. I didn’t put it there; it was a vestige from a prior Executive Director of Cultural Festivals. It holds significance to every staffer and volunteer who enters our doors; it’s often the first thing noticed and commented on by visitors. With each tick and each steady decrease of second, minute, hour and day, it’s an ever-present reminder of the work we do each day and why we do it.
I joined Cultural Festivals in March of 2018, and that’s often the first question that people ask me:
What does Cultural Festivals do?
Or, if I was to rephrase the question: when it comes to the countdown clock, what happens when the clock strikes zero?
Cultural Festivals is the organization that produces the Saint Louis Art Fair, presented by Centene Charitable Foundation. More specifically, as the clock counts down to the second weekend in September each year, we’re steadily preparing, promoting and building. The focus is steady: for the 181 artists from around the world and 130,000 visitors we will see over the three-day weekend, how can we showcase the St. Louis region as a premier arts destination?
There’s no one answer to that question.
It starts with the philosophy that was first cast 25 years ago when the Saint Louis Art Fair was founded: we are an advocate for the artist. A good example of this is how our jurying process has changed throughout the years. Many people may not know about the detail and precision that goes into the jurying process that makes an event like ours possible. Nearly 1,200 artists apply to the show annually (1,199 in 2018). After taking into account the artists who return to the show after winning an award the year prior, applying artists are competing for 131 available spots. Artists can tell you that the process to apply to high quality art fairs can be challenging; but jurying and artist selection is emotionally draining (for both artists and jurors). As a matter of fact, the jurying process (which typically takes place in April of each year) takes longer than the Art Fair is open in September. And our goal each year is to assure transparency of the process to the artist and quality for our patrons. We do that by offering the opportunity for artists and the general public to attend the opening rounds of jurying to see the process for themselves.
Another aspect of the Saint Louis Art Fair that may surprise you is the number of volunteers who run the show each year. As the weekend plays out, more than 1,000 volunteer shifts are filled, with work ranging from making sure artists have what they need to set up and tear down. Many of the volunteers who will participate in our 25th Saint Louis Art Fair in 2018 were on board for first in 1994. Again, artists remain central to our mission, and Art Fair volunteers help assure that the artist experience remains second-to-none. Volunteers truly own the Art Fair, and they are the ones who assure that St. Louis shines as the premier arts destination that we are.
Speaking of long-term partners, sponsors and funders play a key role in assuring the sustainability of this cultural jewel. Many of our supporters have been with us since the Saint Louis Art Fair opened its doors in 1994. And, it’s not only their financial support, but their partnership in many forms, including in-kind donations and volunteers. In addition, dozens of not-for-profit entities (from both the Arts and Social sectors) pitch in by bringing world-class entertainment to three music and performance stages, projects to the children’s Creative Castle area (a must see for the young and young-at-heart), staffing to the beverage and concessions booths and multiple other roles. In partnership, we focus on the attendee experience, each year seeking ways to make the event a consistent, yet new and exciting experience for attendees to experience.
Over the past 25 years, we’ve watched families grow up at the Art Fair. Children who first came to the event in 1994 are now bringing their children to take part in this interactive arts experience. We believe that our cultural promise to the St. Louis community is to assure that children who attend the Saint Louis Art Fair this year will have that same opportunity: to bring their children to the event 25 years from now. Our theme for this year’s event on September 7, 8 and 9—Perpetually in Motion—is a recognition of exactly that. It’s a look back in acknowledgment of our artists, volunteers, sponsors, partners, and founders.
We build a city within a city—literally overnight—for artists to come and showcase their life’s work. We welcome 130,000 patrons to our doorstep. And then, after three days, we tear it down and start all over again.
The countdown clock continues its forward momentum, itself perpetually in motion. And, as the clock continues to count down, we excitedly await the arrival of the artists, the volunteers, our partners and patrons in three … two …