Rittenhouse Square Show Hits 95 Years
Professional Artists Manage the Event
The Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show is the oldest outdoor fine art show in the country. This year’s event is June 3-5, in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood.
“It has always fascinated me to think about how a group of art students sitting on the steps of their school in 1928, just one year before the Great Depression began in 1929, decided to have an art show in Rittenhouse Square modeled after the shows the artists in Paris were organizing,” said Steve Oliver, the show’s executive director.
The fine art show is run by a team of exhibiting artists and is led by Oliver, Board Chair Sandy Sedmak Engel, and Board Vice Chair Sharon Strine.
Sunshine Artist (SA): What is the event’s history?
Rittenhouse Square team (RS): The show began in 1928 when a group of college art students came up with the idea of exhibiting and selling their artwork in Rittenhouse Square Park. They hung their art on clotheslines between the park’s trees and light poles, and so the show was known as “The Clothesline Show” for many years.
As the art show gained notoriety and popularity, professional artists from Pennsylvania and nearby New Jersey and Delaware were invited to participate. Now, 95 years later, the park’s perimeter is surrounded by more than 140 of the country’s top fine artists from all over the United States and Canada, twice per year, in June and September. Savvy art patrons travel, too, to take in the inspiration and creativity of this prestigious show, recently voted as the #1 show in the country.
SA: Describe the show.
RS: It is a fine art, originals-only event, which means there are no crafts, no reproductions, and no functional pieces shown or sold. The artists who are invited to participate in the show are selected by a jury of art professionals, with different guest jurors for each show, keeping the jurying process and artist selections both fair and fresh.
SA: What makes it unique?
RS: The show is unique in that it is managed by its board of directors who are all exhibiting art professionals. As professional fine artists, the board members have valuable, relevant knowledge and experience with the wants and needs of their artist peers.
This understanding became even more valuable when the outbreak of COVID-19 caused extended cancellations of all art event gatherings. The board of directors quickly pivoted and provided extraordinary support for artists in the form of virtual art shows, online art demonstrations, artist interviews, studio tours, direct sales opportunities, and more. The repertoire of social media marketing that was greatly expanded during the pandemic continues to benefit the artists now that physical outdoor art shows have resumed.
The show works to promote every participating artist through frequent social media posts, regular e-newsletters, a printed show program, earned publicity, and paid outdoor and radio advertising.
It also works to support and develop emerging art students into the professional art world. Students apply to the show, exhibit for a nominal fee, and are mentored by professional artists. Priceless experience is gained by exhibiting their work and learning to speak to art patrons about their artwork in the center of the park.
The center of Rittenhouse Square Park is also reserved for community partners. The show reaches out to partner with community organizations that help engage and enrich fellow citizens through the arts.
SA: What is your jurying process?
RS: Our show is juried by a panel of six art professionals. Three are board members (all professional exhibiting artists), and three are invited professionals working in the arts field who are familiar with the world of outdoor art shows and galleries. This works well for the show, as the panel of jurors is never the same from show to show, keeping our show fresh and evolving.
SA: What would you tell a first-time applicant?
RS: If you are a fine artist looking for a true originals-only show in an urban, arts savvy environment, this show is for you.
SA: What would you tell someone who has not exhibited in your show for a few years?
RS: We work hard to stay current and nurture our educated patron base. We have a fresh set of eyes on each jury, so are continuously getting new insights into our artist pool.
SA: What are your best marketing and promotion efforts?
RS: Extensive email and social media following. Paid marketing campaigns that reach outside the city.
SA: What are the three most important things you have learned through the years?
RS: Listen to and implement the input from our artists. The artists appreciate when the show enforces the rules, and we strive to make sure the quality of our show is always intact. A staggered set up and breakdown alleviates tension.
SA: What are the most common mistakes a new promoter/organizer makes, and what is your advice for avoiding them?
RS: Treating artists like they are disposable, like they are lucky to participate in their show. Artists are our life blood and producing the best show possible for them is our only mission.
SA: What has changed for your show during the past two years that will stick moving forward?
RS: Our online and social media presence is key to keeping our artists in front of our valued patrons.