I am an artist and I’ve been thinking.
Actually, more like daydreaming which is much more fun because you can free-associate and anything that pops into mind is a legitimate thought even if it’s not related to where you are or what you’re supposed to be doing like making a living, weeding, or returning messages from friends who think you are ignoring them just because they texted you and you didn’t immediately text back, which is ridiculous because you can’t just drop what you’re doing to text back, especially if you’re driving, which is now illegal in some places anyway.
I would never do that, but I know for a fact that I’ve seen some other people doing it while they were pretending to put on lipstick or talk to their invisible kids in the back seat. But back to thinking.
Why do artists pay hundreds of dollars to set up shop at a festival, often with the threat of severe heat stoke or rain, in hopes that they are going to go home rich? Are all artists essentially gamblers at heart? And what, if anything, is the ultimate prize? Fame? Fortune? A better booth next time? Also, it seems really strange to me that festival rates for artists have gone up as the economy has gone down. And yet they get bigger and bigger, meaning that more artists apply to do those expensive shows than ever before knowing full well that they aren’t going to make more from it even though the fee has doubled. Look around Atlanta, there are dozens of huge festivals every year and they’re not slowing down for a minute.
I have two artist friends that drove from Atlanta to Pensacola together for a show recently. Let’s call them Thelma and Louis. They are not anywhere close to being related, or quite as adventurous as the outlaw babes from the movie. In fact, they’re practically on opposite planets. One is a 60-year-old woman who might have been wild in her youth (I think she was a professional “dancer” at one point…), but is pretty set in her ways now (read: stubborn), and the other is a young gay guy who kind of blows with the wind and tends to solve problems with beer. Somehow they got together and said, “I know! Let’s drive together, stay in a hotel room together and help each other at the festival. It will be fun!”
Of course neither of them had ever been to Pensacola, and to be honest, neither of them has a very good sense of direction either. So this was already a recipe for disaster. But like good artists, they each paid $300 for a booth space in advance and prepared to hit the open highway with sunglasses on and scarves ready to blow in the wind from the tiny windows of their van. They were given instructions to arrive at 5 a.m. for their “check in slot.” This presented a problem way beyond how they would co-exist in a car or hotel room without making a suicide pact.
So after driving for eight hours, they arrived at their hotel and tried to figure out who was taking the top bunk, so to speak. Needless to say it was not a particularly restful night since I know that Thelma has “low alcohol tolerance threshold” and Louis would not notice. Somehow they made it through the night without having hotel staff use a ramming device to break them up.
In the morning, (still dark), they went in search of the festival site. They managed to find it and start setting up, happily several yards apart. And of course, it started raining cats and dogs. Actually, it would have been better if it really did rain cats or dogs since they probably wouldn’t do as much damage as swirling wind whipped rain and lightning strikes did. One friend finished setting up, then even before it was light out, lost hundreds of dollars worth of her pottery when the wind picked up her heavy shelving and toppled it. She can make more of course, but she can’t get her time and money back from the stuff that got smashed. Did she cry? Like a river, but then everybody knows that she’ll cry if she rips a Kleenex in half. But like a trouper, she set back up after the storm hoping to recoup her losses and make the best of it.
Oh, and Louis? He waited the storm out in the van, sound asleep. His style was more, “why set up now when they’ll just close the show anyhow and we’ll have to start all over again on day two?” This caused just a tad bit of tension when Thelma slogged her way back to the van and discovered the somnambulant Louis. He turned out to be right, and they had a reasonably successful second day before heading home equipped with IPOD earbuds to avoid the inevitable show recap and well, any unnecessary talking.
What the heck is the matter with artists that they are so willing to gamble on these events to the extent that they’ll risk life, limb and inventory? Well, I think I know because as I said, I’ve been thinking (or daydreaming if you want to be technical about it).
Artists need attention. Applause, praise, reassurance and compensation. That’s the order of importance I think. So that’s that. They will keep combing Sunshine Artist magazine looking for the next golden ticket as long as festivals keep luring the unsuspecting artists in. So I have another idea. What if festivals reduced their rates or agreed to give a percentage back to artists that get caught in the heat, rain, wind, sleet, snow…? Not only would that make these gamblers happy, but it would keep them coming back forever in the heat, rain, wind, sleet, hail, snow… It might just toughen them up so they can address their underlying addiction issues, too.
Patrick Dennis is an artist, gallery owner and President of the Atlanta Foundation for Public Spaces. He lives in Atlanta.