- Howard Pousner For the AJC
Reaction has been mixed to last week’s announcement that Folk Fest 2016 has been canceled and that the massive show and sale of self-taught art and other uncategorizable funky stuff is unlikely to return.
Presented annually every August in Atlanta for 22 years, Folk Fest arrived on a wave of popularity for art that was hand-made, often repurposed and soulful, a lot of it produced in geographically isolated parts of the Deep South. The 416-page bible of the genre, “Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists,” had just been published, and new collectors queued up at North Atlanta Trade Center in Norcross during opening night parties to meet newly famous makers and purchase their pieces. One hundred booths lined the long aisles, tempting guests with a riot of color, pattern and texture.
The end came more quietly, with some attendees and exhibitors expressing sadness and others greeting the announcement by Folk Fest founders Steve and Amy Slotin with a shrug. Those in the latter group suggested that the show had declined in quality over the past decade and, in the view of the most critical, had jumped the shark.
Annual attendance had been a bit down, from 12,000 pre-recession to 10,000, and Folk Fest had long since drifted from being driven by dealers and gallery owners offering a wider array to featuring a sea of single-artist booths, like more garden-variety festivals.
“So many dealers have bailed in the last few years it seemed inevitable,” Decatur collector Jack Regan, a Realtor, posted on Facebook.
“It’s time,” wrote one of the dealers who, indeed, beat a retreat several years ago, Barbara Archer.
The Slotins cited upcoming changes at North Atlanta Trade Center, where operator Dave Work is losing his lease at the end of April after 25 years, as the main reason for the cancellation. The 180,000-square-foot facility stands to be converted into a rental truck fleet maintenance facility, pending rezoning.
But the Slotins, who orchestrate highly profitable twice-yearly folk art auctions at Historic Buford Hall in Buford that draw bidders from across the country, also seemed ready to turn the page.
“In 1994, we envisioned Folk Fest as an institution to help make the Southeast a hub for self-taught art,” Steve Slotin said. “Twenty-three years later, there are only a handful of the original (‘Folk Art Encyclopedia’) artists still with us, and the same can be said for galleries and dealers promoting this field.
“What we set out to do has been accomplished,” Slotin added. “Southern collectors are recognizing and buying the art from their region.”
Collectors such as Lynne Browne of Highlands, N.C., applauded the Slotins for helping popularize folk art, even as she acknowledged that Folk Fest had become “uneven.” Still, she called its end “bad news for our field.”
Rising artist Larry Ledford of Lula posted on Facebook, “So sad to see it go. Lots of great exposure.”
But others such as Archer criticized the Slotins for not asserting curatorial control, accepting all comers as long as they could pony up a booth fee that for many years started at $900. Increasingly in recent years, individual artists who couldn’t pay the freight received discounts, maintaining a critical mass of exhibitors but aggravating longtime dealers.
Archer said the work most of the individual artists displayed wasn’t nearly in a league with members of what might be termed the Greatest Generation of folk artists, including Howard Finster of Georgia and Alabama’s Jimmy Lee Sudduth.
“Unfortunately for the field of folk art, (Steve) Slotin never held any standards, which in my opinion, greatly contributed to the demise of quality in a field that has always had loose definitions and parameters,” said Archer, who closed her Inman Park gallery in 2013 and moved her base to Savannah. “For dealers of serious material, it became more and more difficult to explain to those who didn’t understand the difference, why a folk art master’s work had more value than a piece of faux folk art.”
The co-owner of one of Folk Fest’s longest-running galleries, Robin Blan of Dawsonville’s Around Back at Rocky’s Place, called the event’s end “bittersweet.”
Said Blan: “What we’ll miss is that energy, all the art under one roof, all the artist interaction. And we’ll miss seeing old friends, (customers) who came in from California or Maryland. We always had a good time even though we ended up exhausted. It’s just that energy that we’ll miss.”