Holiday Thieves Market Tradition Continues

December 2022, by Angie Landsverk

People browse and shop at last year’s Holiday Thieves Market. 
Photo courtesy of Lisa Barnes

Iowa Festival is a Favorite for Shoppers

When an Iowa City nonprofit took over a long-running holiday event three years ago, it was both the first winter and the first indoor show for the organization that is known for producing outdoor summer festivals. 

And the Holiday Thieves Market continues to be the only such event for Summer of the Arts. The nonprofit formed in 2005 to bring together three long-running festivals and one new festival to share such resources as marketing, fundraising, and operations, said Lisa Barnes, its executive director. 

She said Summer of the Arts’ mission is to build community by bringing people together in the Iowa City area to experience, learn about, and enjoy free arts and cultural programming. Barnes explained how the Holiday Thieves Market became part of this. 

“I personally was a long-time attendee at the University of Iowa’s Holiday Thieves Market. It was something my family and I looked forward to each year. In October of 2019, I saw an article saying that the UI Fine Arts Council had been dissolved and the Holiday Thieves Market would no longer be held. 

“That same day, I received a call from one of our local artists who participates in our annual Iowa Arts Festival asking if Summer of the Arts would take on the Holiday Thieves Market. We already had the systems in place to produce a fine art show, and after a few calls and meetings, we agreed to take on the show and reached out to the potential artists,” she said. 

Since it was the first indoor event produced by Summer of the Arts, the nonprofit learned a lot about the challenges of working in a unique space, which was the Iowa Memorial Union, Barnes said. “Artist interest was excellent, and overall, we were happy with the attendance,” she said of that first year. 

The biggest change the nonprofit has made since taking over the show is its location. “We loved the ambience of the Iowa Memorial Union. However, there were so many challenges for the artists and attendees as far as accessibility, so we decided to move the event to Coralville (what is now the Hyatt Regency),” Barnes said. “They have a large Expo Hall, which works really well for the artists to easily load-in and -out and plenty of available parking for attendees to allow easier access.” 

She said many people in eastern Iowa were familiar with the tradition of the Holiday Thieves Market being held at the Iowa Memorial Union the first weekend of December, and Summer of the Arts is still trying to educate the public that it is the same event — but in a different location. 

“The Hyatt Regency is a beautiful facility with a full-service restaurant and many adjacent businesses and restaurants in the Iowa River Landing,” Barnes said. “We did do some decorating in the Expo Hall to fit the holiday theme and concessions are available. We also have a local greenhouse on-site selling poinsettias and other plants.” 

The juried fine art show has now taken place for more than 50 years, with this year’s event set for Dec. 3 and 4. 

Barnes said the jury is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds (artists, curators, educators, etc.). The artists are scored from one to seven based on quality of craftsmanship, originality, and presentation, she said. 

She advises first-time applicants to have photos that clearly show the quality of their work. What Barnes would tell someone who has not exhibited in a few years is they are proud of the artists who participate, and the new location makes things easier for the artists. 

Summer of the Arts has learned a lot through the years. “Things change with our events every year, and it’s important that we review each event annually and make adjustments to keep things fresh,” she said. “It’s also important to have community support for our free events, and this not only includes financial support but also volunteers and committee members.” 

Barnes has advice for other organizations that have continued a show previously run by a different promoter. “Learn as much as you can about the history of the show and what the public’s expectation is regarding the show. Promote, promote, promote!” she said.