Don't get me wrong: I love the Salem Art Fair. I've gone to it every year since I moved here in 1977. But after attending the 2014 fair last Friday, my wife and I have come to a conclusion:
The Salem Art Fair is feeling old and tired. It needs to make some changes.
Now, it could be argued that we are the ones with the problem. After all, if we liked the fair more in the past, and the fair hasn't changed much, then isn't it us who need to make an attitude adjustment?
Well, yes and no.
But in our view, mostly no. Certain things have always bugged us about the Salem Art Fair. Here I'm just expressing publicly what we've thought for a long time privately.
However, I'll admit that going to the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, outside of Eugene, the Friday before our Salem Art Fair visit as we customarily do, brings into stark contrast what the Oregon Country Fair does much better. (Photos of our 2014 Country Fair excursion are here.)
In a nutshell, it comes down to a sense of community and creativity. The Salem Art Fair claims that it has this in two home page videos. My wife, Laurel, and I don't feel it much, though.
When we go to the Oregon Country Fair, we feel that we've entered a loving, creative, embracing realm where fair visitors, fair organizers, and fair participants (vendors, entertainers, and such) are All One. Which is far out, dude.
Sure, I understand that Salem and Eugene are very different cities. And that the Salem Art Fair and the Oregon Country Fair are very different sorts of events. Yet Salem could learn from what the Country Fair does so well.
Here's a grab-bag of Salem Art Fair gripes and ideas for improvement.
(1) Make entering the fair more inviting. We know some people who have stopped going to the fair after a fence was put up and an admission fee charged. This doesn't bother us much. We'd like a more festive feeling when we pass through the fence, though. Didn't there used to be brightly colored banners on the outskirts of the fair? How about having kids (of all ages, 7-70) in costumes greeting fairgoers warmly and humorously?
(2) Have more Salemians taking part in the art and music. Over the years local artists with booths at the fair seem to have become fewer. Maybe this is due to the jury'ing process. Regardless, I didn't see many artists with Salem as their home town. Local musical groups also seemed rare to non-existent. Showcasing talent from our area would foster more of a sense that this is "our" fair, a community event.
(3) Embrace spontaneity and unexpectedness. At the Oregon Country Fair, we never know what is going to be around the next corner even though we attend every year. That fair has plenty of arts and crafts, and also plenty of non-amplified street (well, path) performers. They don't interfere with acts on the main stage; they just bring some energy and surprises to the fair-going experience. The Salem Art Fair feels unduly staid and controlled to us. Isn't art unpredictable?
(4) Offer healthier and more creative food. Health-minded vegetarians that we are, Laurel and I have learned to eat lunch at home before we go to the Salem Art Fair. There's really nothing to eat that appeals to us. Every year there are the same food booths with, by and large, the same fare. Other than a raspberry Moo (milkshake, sort of), we ate nothing at this year's fair. How about inviting some folks from Salem's burgeoning food cart community so fairgoers have more eating alternatives?
(5) More interesting main stage music, please. I'll admit that we haven't gone to hear the evening headliners at the Salem Art Fair for a number of years. We used to, though, when there were bands that appealed more to our musical tastes: upbeat, lively, energetic, out of the mainstream. This year blues seemed to be the core offering. That's fine in moderation; but how about some more youthful, ethnic, unusual, danceable, and edgy musical groups with singers?
(6) Model artistic strangeness and uniqueness. Every volunteer at the Salem Art Fair should be strongly encouraged, if not required, to look fantastical -- in his or her own creative way. Putting on the same fair t-shirt doesn't cut it. Likewise, encourage fairgoers to indulge their inner artist. This is a big part of what makes the Oregon Country Fair so enjoyable: people-watching, since most fair-goers use this as an opportunity to express themselves creatively. Again, shouldn't the Salem Art Fair be about art? In all of its varied forms.
(7) Maybe loosen up some on the artist selection criteria. I have no idea how the juried artists are picked who become exhibitors at the fair. My wife and I have just noticed that over time, the art seems to have become more mainstream -- if that is the right word. Recently someone told me that she prefers non-juried art fairs because the artists are more eclectic. Maybe the formal artistic quality isn't as high, but the sense of Wow, cool, I've never seen that before is greater. Plus, some of the artists at the fair have been there forever -- or at least 10-15 years. This makes the fair seem overly familiar to those of us who go every year.
I guess my overall critique of the Salem Art Fair is that it's organized too tightly.
Not exactly uptight, but that word kind of applies. My wife and I want to feel more energy, creativity, and spontaneity when we attend the fair -- recognizing that Salem is what it is, not Eugene, Ashland, or Portland; we've got to work with what our community has to offer and is comfortable with.
That said, Salem has a lot of unexpressed potential, just as the Salem Art Fair does. The ideas I've shared here flow from a desire to see this marvelous community event become steadily better, continuously evolving and changing, just as art does.