'Low on the totem pole' is an American idiom that suggests the lowest figure is of the least importance, holding up the entire cast of characters. Not surprisingly, popular culture has it all wrong. The best carvers often did the lower portion of the pole, while apprentice workers tackled the higher figures. Therefore the bottom of all totem pole is sometimes the best carved part of the whole pole. I only reference this because as an artist I can really relate to that lowest figure.
When customers visit their local summer festival they are overwhelmed by all the artists, hawking their works from neat white rows of tents. We reside in our outdoor galleries, surrounded by artwork, print bins, walls or shelving, and we smile at you from our folding chairs. Having done art festivals throughout the USA I can confidently say that most people are unaware of several things. First, we artists arrived in the night or early morning with that entire set-up and put it together ourselves; no one provides those tents or any of the fixings. We are required to have white tents and often times specific display walls to show our work. Second, we were juried and we paid to be there. This means that months before that hot August day, we sent in $25-45 along with some pictures of our work to try to get into that show. Then, upon acceptance, we paid anywhere from several hundred to more than one thousand dollars in booth fees to set up our outdoor gallery in your street, park or parking lot. Third, if the weather is poor or the show is cancelled, artists lose their booth fee, and are not reimbursed in any way. Fourth, we are often from another state, so we are entirely relying on the host organization to use our booth fee to advertise and bring customers to the event (organizations can rake in over 100,000 for a single day event, and there is no real way to check if the money was used for advertising or their personal gain). If an organization fails to bring in customers, we artists are the biggest losers. If all of this sounds like a bad business model, I 100% agree. Artists do it because it is what exists for us in a world of risky art sales and high gallery overhead costs.
At the end of the day, in a big city like Chicago, where an art festival with over 100 artists is blocking off streets every weekend, only the artist loses. The customer base is over saturated, exhausted and all the events begin to meld into one. Even customers who know that their favorite artist is at an event may come up empty-handed after navigating through the 200+ artists vying for customer attention.
The scene is only getting worse as local gallery shows become dwarfed by large companies that exist only to host hundreds of art shows all over the country. These corporate art show companies further over-saturate the market, and their strict policies and high rates tend to ostracize young or new artists.
Large sponsors are jumping on the art fair scene as well. Artists arriving might receive a bag and water bottle peppered with sponsor logos. I've yet to see a correlation between huge crowds and big name company sponsors.
The art festival would not exist without the artists, and we are becoming increasingly barraged with higher jury fees, booth fees and stricter display guidelines. We are the most integral part of the festival, and yet, in this art festival culture, the most under-valued. We are the proverbial low man on the totem pole.