The Denver Post
THE BUSINESS OF ART
Cherry Creek Arts Fest helps develop new collectors
Step out of the white cube, bypass the precious merchandising and the confounding prices, shut down the fast talk of dealers who quickly size up your wealth and savvy while staring at you through oversized eyeglasses and it’s easy to see what the art business really is: retail.
Somebody sells a product and someone else buys it. Art galleries are just Walmarts with better lighting, and they play an equally important role in a city’s economy — they keep cash flowing and put food on the table for local families.
That makes the things that happen there not so different from the commerce that takes place each July at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival. Only Cherry Creek is more fun for most people, because there’s beer and music and facepainting and not a lot of pretend.
Still, the fest, with its $3 million in annual sales, plays a crucial role in the art eco-system. When the painters, photographers and sculptors staffing the booths at the fest get it right, when they ease newcomers into art buying, trade their wares at decent rates and produce satisfied customers, they groom new consumers who feel a lot more comfortable purchasing art.
The artists are keenly aware of the opportunities the fest presents, both for themselves and their industry. And they know they’re on the front lines, welcoming folks with little experience into the world of collecting.
“As someone who is standing there, putting yourself out there, the desire is to make sales — but you also want people to come in and be blown away and excited and see something they wouldn’t normally see,” said artist Dolan Geiman.
Geiman, whose home studio is in Englewood, is a fest regular and one of its most popular artists. He’s been in the fair world since he was a kid, tagging along with his mother, who spent years setting up her paintings at art fairs. Later, he followed her into the business with his own work. “I’m from a family of art-show carneys,” he jokes, underscoring the salesmanship an artist needs to
close deals on the fly.
He does well for several reasons, though primarily because of his art, a combination of paper collage and metal collage that he creates by assembling tiny scraps of material, culled from found objects — vintage magazines, posters, signs and other things — into pictures of bears, wolfs, moose and various forms of wildlife. He also makes edgier pieces that portray, among other things, guitars or gun-toting “cowgirls.”
They’re colorful, representational and, perhaps most important in Colorado, very Western. People like them.
They also like Geiman, who talks frankly about his pieces — again and again and again — to a sizable portion of the 350,000 people who wander through the fair each year.
“I like to explain my process,” he said. “There’s no magic to it. It’s a physical, extremely obsessive thing I do,” he said.
When he chats about the hours of labor that each of his collages require, about searching out and storing raw material, cutting things up and shaping them, and then painstakingly assembling thousands of small bits to create his impressive scenes, customers start to understand why art is priced the way it is, “why for five grand or ten grand it makes sense,” he said.
But he’s often starting from scratch, with consumers who have never purchased a serious piece of art before. It’s hard work.
And that’s on top of the physical demands of staffing a booth for three straight days, after spending a full day pitching a tent, erecting walls to hang art on and — the whole time — worrying about the weather.
“What you get is a piece of asphalt to set up on,” said Geiman.
And artists pay for the privilege. The Cherry Creek Arts Festival is juried and competitive — more than 2,000 artists applied for the 265 spots awarded this year across 13 media categories, ranging from jewelry to ceramics to fiber to printmaking. But they still rent their booth spaces, last year at $800 to $925 each.
In return, they get to keep all the money they pull in from sales, which can average $12,500 per artist.
It’s not for every artist, especially those who are not great at talking to the kind of customers who often start the conversation with a line like, “I could do that myself.” For a lot of artists, Geiman said, “If they haven’t done it before, they hate it.”
“You’ve got to wade through a lot to get to the other side.”
It helps that the fair is so popular in Denver. Customers do show up, even when it rains, Geiman notes.
“People here are just tough,” said Geiman, who shows around the country. “They’re used to being outside and being in the mountains.”
And in 2019, the crowds could be bigger than ever. The fair has been working hard to add a major concert as an attraction to the weekend. This year, there’s a Saturday night event featuring Grammy-winning hip-hop band Arrested Development.
Tickets for the show, which is sponsored by Janus Henderson Investors, are $22, relatively low for a big-name concert, and the proceeds go to the fest’s yearround arts education efforts.
In addition, there will be food booths and a Stella Artois Beer Garden set up on Fillmore Street, and there’s an art-framing service on site.
Everything else at the fest is free, including admission, and there’s free parking at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center nearby.
There are plenty of other details — including the location of bike parking lots — on the website.