As coronavirus cancels summer art festivals, ‘the business model for artists imploded’

Photographer Clifton Henri prepares his artwork for shipment at his studio in Chicago on April 28, 2020. He sells photographs at art festivals, but several scheduled for May and June have been canceled. He organized a flash sale of his work online. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
On June 18, 2020

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original post from The Chicago Tribune

The colorful T-shirts Kathy Kelly designs, each of which bears a comical black cat, have become a popular item at the Midwest art festivals where she sets up shop.

But Kelly, from Jefferson Park, said she couldn’t find the color of fabric she needed for one of this year’s shirts, holding up the project. Kelly designs four new shirts each year.

In hindsight, the delay turned out to be a blessing, because the COVID-19 health crisis forced organizers to scrap art festivals and street fairs scheduled to take place in the Chicago area in May, June and beyond. But while she saved money by not creating new shirts, Kelly said she’s anxious about what those cancellations will mean for her income. Kelly teaches high school art at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Skokie, but makes about 70% of her income selling her work at art festivals.

“Nothing compares to this. We’ve never gone through anything like this,” said Kelly, who has been selling T-shirts, calendars and notecards for 30 years.

For many artisans, their main source of income is selling products at art festivals. Spring and summer festivals filled with vendors selling photographs, jewelry, pottery, clothing, and more attract thousands of visitors during the sunny weather. Several Chicago events were canceled this year including the Old Town Art Fair, Logan Square Arts Festival, the 57th Street Art Fair and Maifest.

Those canceled shows mean lost revenue that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars for some artisans, many of whom don’t have a large financial cushion. Clifton Henri, a photographer who owns Flypaper, a private gallery in West Beverly, says he expects to lose about $50,000 in revenue he had expected to earn at festivals that are now canceled.

“The arts are fragile,” Henri said. “Right now I should be at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest, which has historically been the best show of the year for me.”

Some artisans are pivoting to sell their work online, but online sales don’t allow them to establish a personal connection with customers that could lead to more sales down the road.

And they worry about the impact the coronavirus will have on art festivals and street fairs going forward. Social distancing guidelines could remain in place for some time, causing additional events to be canceled and attendance to be limited at others. And with millions of Americans claiming unemployment in recent weeks, artisans say shoppers who do come out to festivals may have less money to spend.

It’s not just artists who are worried. Organizations like the Dank Haus German American Cultural Center, in Lincoln Square, fear losing the festivals that can bring thousands of attendees to a neighborhood will affect how they raise money.

Dank Haus sells food and beer at Maifest, a German American celebration put on by the nonprofit Mayfest Chicago. The cancellation of Maifest later this month means Dank Haus will lose out on more than $75,000 it would have brought in from the event. The nonprofit would have put the funds toward its language arts program and the maintenance of its center.

Dank Haus also is losing funds it would have generated by renting out its 93-year-old building for weddings, fundraisers, and other events, said executive director Monica Jirak.

Jirak said the organization will lose more than $140,000 from mid-March through the end of May, including funds raised from Maifest.

“It’s really only getting worse for us because we do a lot of events,” Jirak said.

The organization has pivoted, teaching online German courses and “trying to be the community cultural center that we are,” Jirak said.

Even as stay-at-home orders are lifted in the coming months, there is uncertainty about when large gatherings will be allowed again.

“Since they are large-scale events, they may not be able to happen for a while,” Frances Kite, a Chicago-area jeweler for 42 years, said of art festivals.

Art festivals are about more than sales for artisans, Kite said. The events also offer cultural elements, like music, tours, and art stations for children.

Kite, who makes most of her income from art fairs, said she is not currently making new jewelry.

“It’s a shock, and I am concerned about the people who are affected directly by this crisis. It’s hard to be creative at this time, but as time goes on I hope to regain my creativity,” Kite said.

Igor Menaker, 56, a photographer from Grayslake who has been selling prints at art festivals for 12 years, said he remains optimistic even though the canceled shows will hurt his bottom line.

“The business model for artists imploded,” Menaker said.

Menaker said art fairs help artists develop name recognition, which makes it easier to sell their work. Some juried fairs require artists to apply six months in advance, be selected by a jury to participate, and pay a fee.

Menaker said he paid a $650 booth fee to participate in June’s Old Town Art Fair, but he received a full refund after the show was canceled.

Henri, the West Beverly photographer, said the cancellations are forcing artisans to adapt and depend less on art festivals for income.

“It’s not how I envisioned the year,” he said.

Henri said he has applied for state and federal financial assistance, including a $10,000 grant through the Small Business Administration. If approved, the funds would be used to maintain his studio, pay utilities and keep producing art, Henri said.

Henri and other artists are trying to encourage people to support their work by purchasing online.

“It goes a long way for us because of all of our opportunities were taken away,” Henri said. “If artists can survive these times, it will make us better artists and business owners. It’ll make us stronger at the end of the day.”


Abdel Jimenez is a business reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He interned for the Tribune in the summer of 2019. He worked at the Phoenix Business Journal and for Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS, covering borderlands issues. Abdel graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in journalism.

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