What Have We Learned: Promoters Share Their Pandemic Adjustments

September 2021, by Angie Landsverk

During the past year, promoters found themselves postponing, canceling, and in some cases moving events to virtual formats due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some refunded the booth fees artists paid, while others credited them toward future events.

Sunshine Artist asked promoters to share what 2020 was like for them and when they began feeling comfortable moving forward with plans for 2021 festivals. How they handled the past year, and what they did to also support artists, varied.

Pandemic pivots

“In 2020, the Hinsdale Chamber decided to move the Hinsdale Fine Arts Festival [held in Hinsdale, Illinois] from June to August 2020 when the pandemic hit. We were one of the only venues that hosted a fine arts show in 2020 following all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. All artists were extremely grateful,” said Claudia Thornton, the Hinsdale Chamber’s marketing director.

The chamber hosted 50 artists instead of its usual 90 to 110 artists in 2020. This year, the show returned to June, with no more than 85 artists to allow for physical distancing between booths.

Artisan Promotions refunded 100% of the booth fees artists paid for the 2020 New England Christmas Festival. By spring 2020, the company realized artisans needed help and started a YouTube channel called Online Craft Fair, said Jackie Ralston. “It was free, and we interviewed four artisans per half-hour show. It took time, energy, and planning, and we hoped that we would generate sales for the artisans,” she said.

The Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation did not cancel its 2020 Festival of the Arts. It pared down the show to allow for social distancing between the artist tents. Some artists required patrons to wear masks to enter their tents.

“Because all of our events are outdoors, we actually had a very good year in 2020,” said Deb Nissley, the foundation’s director of operations.

Economic impact

The cancellation of 2020 events affected promoters’ budgets, especially if they did not receive federal or state financial assistance or grants. “Our nonprofit arts center counts on an income of about $15,000 from the festival each year, which is completely organized by volunteers from the Arts Center Board. The impact of canceling the event and reducing the number of artists to host a more COVID-conscious event was significant,” said Bev Ringenberg, of Florida’s Cedar Key Fine Arts Festival. “Rather than making $30,000 in two years, we were only able to make $10,000 over a two-year time period — 66% reduced income.” The organization did not receive any assistance.

Artisan Promotions also did not receive federal or state assistance or grants, which meant it had to “pull in our belt like everyone,” Ralston said. The company started an e-commerce site, shouldering the start-up costs with an eye to the future, she said.

Black Swamp Arts Festival in Bowling Green, Ohio, received assistance following the cancellation of its 2020 event. Grant funds from the Ohio Arts Council covered the festival’s cost of returning artists’ application fees, as well as its website for a year. A grant from Arts Midwest was “essential in allowing us to take a leap of faith in planning in early spring 2021, when we were not sure what the future held. We are a volunteer-run festival, so we do not have overhead expenses like salaries or office space. We are very grateful for the grant and community support,” said Festival Chair Jamie Sands. The fact that it is an all-volunteer-run art and music festival that decided in May 2020 to cancel that year’s festival made it easier to not lose as much money and be financially stable amid a financial loss and a heap of uncertainty, Sands said.

LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts also received assistance. Sheri Sanderson said she is not sure where the organization would be without it. Last year, the center first postponed the LeMoyne Chain of Parks Art Festival and then scrambled to relaunch it during the pandemic, she said. They ended up canceling the festival, and artists could roll fees over to this year or get refunds.

Castleberry Fairs got a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, and two grants from the state of New Hampshire, but was still down 87%, Terry Mullen said. “We have been producing and promoting arts and craft events for over 30 years, so we had a bit of a cushion. Otherwise, we would not have survived,” she said. “We also began an online directory of Castleberry Artisans so shoppers and artisans could connect. It was free in 2020 to all Castleberry Artisans.”

In July 2020, RiverArtsFest in Memphis, Tennessee, canceled its October physical show after consulting with public health authorities. “We hosted all our accepted artists on our website with direct contact information for our patrons to purchase directly from the artist,” said Denise Ford. Proceeds from the annual festival support arts education in local K-12 schools and provide master classes, teacher resource grants, and special project funding such as teach-the-teacher and teacher-artist project pairing, she said. The organization did not receive financial assistance. “Without the festival, funds were limited, so projects had to be selectively prioritized,” Ford said.

Collaborations

Throughout the last year, some event sponsors had discussions with other organizations that host annual events. In some cases, it was local groups, while in other instances, it involved contacting other art promoters in the country.

“We had a volunteer group of crafters on Zoom meet and chat on alternatives. We discussed all aspects of the show, from rescheduling it to changing it to an outdoor show,” said Cheryl Hoeft of Michigan’s Saline Craft Show. “Michigan had enforced a series of protocols, and it would have been impossible to have a show. Like it or not, we had to cancel an inside event.” It is a school-sponsored show, and she said both 2020 shows were canceled, with one of the cancellations three days before the event.

Sanderson said LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts had Zoom calls with other show directors, talking and sharing regularly about what other shows were doing and potential solutions.

Black Swamp Arts Festival collaborated with the Big Fab Lab and other groups for a drive-thru art show in summer 2020 and coordinated with the downtown business group this year to provide free outdoor concerts every weekend and art displays in empty storefront windows.

Planning Ahead

The first quarter of this year is when many promoters felt comfortable moving forward with planning their 2021 events. The availability of vaccines played a role in their decisions, with some remaining cautious due to emerging variants of the virus.

Hand-sanitizer stations and additional spacing between artist booths are part of many plans this year. Marcie Forster of the Mistletoe Mart in Westminster, Maryland, said there have been internal conversations about enlarging the event’s dining-area footprint and reducing some congested vendor areas.

Earlier this year, Helena Grossmann, a member of the all-volunteer group High Country Artisans, which organizes the Butternut Creek Festival in Blairsville, Georgia, saw some events canceled. After vaccines were available and the number of COVID-19 cases decreased, “our members felt comfortable in proceeding with plans for a July show. That improvement continued into late spring when we went ahead with full plans for this year’s show,” she said.

Hoeft said the Saline Craft Show is tentatively scheduled for November. However, there are concerns about new strains of the virus, the governors’ decisions regarding fall school openings, and crafters’ reactions to it, she said. “We have had one crafter cancel due to fears of crowds,” Hoeft said. “I am unsure if others will react similarly to this. Only time will tell.” 