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Economy: Art festival sales track course of recovery

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Sue Middleton, a sweetgrass basketmaker from Charleston, watched a customer count out $205 in cash and hand it over at the 38th annual Atalaya Arts and Crafts Festival last weekend.

It was the kind of cash-on-the-barrelhead moment that Middleton and the other 100 vendors at the Moorish-style building in Huntington Beach State Park hope for when they set up shop and greet folks for three days.

Middleton said the festival is “slimming down” from past years. “It used to be much better,” she said.

Park manager Brenda Magers said attendance was down this year but blamed the threat of rain. Total attendance for the three days was 6,671 compared to 8,293 last year. “The festival was still a wonderful success,” she said. “The vendors reported good sales and the rain held off except for early Friday.”

Bob Osborne of Amelia Island, Fla., said art festivals, like other businesses, are up and down. “I don’t think it’s reached where it was four years ago,” he said. The Great Recession hit art dealers particularly hard. “Art is not a priority, so it got beat up pretty bad,” said Osborne, who sells originals and limited edition reproductions of fish and bird paintings.

Osborne’s wife, Gretchen, said they had a “fantastic show” at Atalaya in 2007 and saw so-so sales when they returned in 2009 and ’11. The Osbornes came to Atalaya from Michigan, where they did six shows. They travel from Florida in their Chevy van as far west as Houston, Texas, and north to the Hamptons in New York.

Ed Fadool, a painter from Burlington, N.C., said the park and the former winter home of the Huntingtons made a beautiful setting for the show. “I would probably come back for a weekend to vacation,” he said. “It’s very pretty as long as you don’t go on 17.”

Fadool paints landscapes and pastoral scenes on canvas and old wood. He has been to Blowing Rock, N.C., and Virginia Beach, Va., in addition to Atalaya and plans to travel to Norfolk, Va., this month in order to sell art. That’s the challenge for all the artists who came to Atalaya last weekend: the transition from visionary to vendor.

“A lot of times people ask you if there’s anything you can do with price,” Fadool said. “I get that a lot. I’ll come down on certain things, but the wooden paintings I don’t come down on. In a gallery they would cost $250 to $300, and here they are $175. They still want a discount of some sort, and I’m trying to politely say it’s already discounted.”

Fadool said he’s heard the theory that vendors cut prices on the last day of a festival. “Anytime during a show I would consider discounting a big painting on canvas,” he said, “but I don’t wait till the last day.”

Mark Ellis of Charlotte said this is the third time he’s showed his mid-century modern birdhouses at Atalaya. “I haven’t had great sales,” he said, “but it’s an enjoyable show to do.” He and his wife spent the week at Litchfield Retreat and made the trip into a vacation. He doesn’t worry about having to discount his distinctive wooden birdhouses made from tropical hardwood flooring scraps. “If people want to offer less,” he said, “I don’t have a problem with it. I sell them faster than I can make them. There’s no incentive for me to cut prices.”

He said his profit margin is “so pitiful,” he has little sympathy for bargain hunters.

Tim Moran of Brown Summit, N.C., doesn’t visit art festivals as a hobby. He and his wife operate Celtic Pottery and are the featured artists of the Greensboro Historical Museum. “We do 34 shows a year on a major circuit,” Moran said. “We’ve had friends who have asked us to come down here for years and got juried in this year.” He sold several pieces of his unique crystaline pottery on Atalaya’s first day. “It’s been well worth it so far,” Moran said.

A chemist by trade, Moran said he creates all his own glazes and discovered a method to “grow” crystals into the porcelain. “Very few potters in the world do this,” he said. His signature piece, “Sunrise,” is featured, along with two pieces by his wife, Janet Gaddy, in a book “The 500 best Raku Pieces In The World”

Moran said he makes six “Sunrise” pieces, an oval supporting a gong that’s a wine decanter in disguise, a year. “It’s a unique and unusual piece,” Moran said, inviting a visitor to bang the gong for some Celtic luck.

Warren Carpenter of Seneca was selling distinctive wooden bowls at Atalaya. “Having a juried show with lots and lots of artists wanting to get in means you have better quality,” he said. “As that word gets out and spreads you get more and more people showing. This is a neat environment.” His only complaint about the show’s location was that cell phone service was spotty and most vendors use their phones for credit card sales. “It’s hit and miss out here,” he said.

Kevin Duval of Wilmington, N.C., was selling art he made from recycled roofing copper. One piece had a price tag of $1,150. “I’m doing all right,” he said about his sales. A show like Atalaya proves to be worth his time, he said, because he will get a phone call or two later from prospective customers.

Duval said he’s open to negotiating on price from Day 1. “I’m here to sell my work,” he said. “You want to make what you can without pricing yourself out of the game.”

He’s only been selling his art for two years and has talked to other artists about setting prices. “They factor in what it took to learn the skills and the talent,” he said, “along with artistic merit and the time to sell it.”

He said he’s sold big pieces on shows’ first days and last days. “One thing I’ve learned,” he said, “is that you never know when you’ll run into the person. If I don’t sell it, I load it back in the trailer because I have a show next weekend. There’s no reason to dump it.”

Bob Moore of Shelby was selling paintings done by his wife, Martha. His theory is that customers buy when they see something they like. “It’s a snooze-you-lose situation,” he said.

James Smith of Sautee Nacoochee, Ga., operates at the other end of the price spectrum. He sells birdhouses and feeders made from reclaimed wood and metal with prices from $20 to $95. He and his wife, Vickie, are mail carriers and said they find most of their raw materials on the side of the road. They turned an old Orange Crush crate into a butterfly house, and discarded license tags and barn tin make good birdhouse roofing. He doesn’t negotiate with customers. “They understand our prices are reasonable,” Smith said. “They’ll ask what’s your best price, and I say about $10 more. I’ve cut them down for the show.”

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