The change in structure for the Shorewood Plein Air event in Wisconsin has some artists upset. Comments online refer to it as a “pay to play” model because artists are asked to pay an upfront fee to participate. The organizer of the event contacted PleinAir Today to explain the changes and the reasoning behind them.
Last year Shorewood took a 35 percent commission on sales. This year, artists selected for the event pay $200 to participate. Jenny Heyden, one of the organizers of the event, says the average amount of commission paid by an artist who participated in last year’s Shorewood Plein Air event was $229.69. “Artists who netted less than that from sales last year are going to see it as an increase,” says Heyden. “But in order to save the event, we had to come up with some way to fund it.”
The event was an official village function, which meant that any proceeds just went back into the village’s general fund — they didn’t go back to the next year’s plein air event. “We had to decide if we were a fundraiser or an event, and this year we decided that we were an event,” Heyden says. In the past, commissions were calculated and checks cut by the village, with the town board having to sign off on each check. “As an organizer, I was hearing from each artist asking, ‘Where’s my check?’ We needed to get the village out of the equation.” The solution Shorewood came up with is to step out of the handling of painting sales altogether.
Heyden says the Shorewood event was so ungainly that it was on the verge of being canceled this year, but the community showed strong signs of wanting it to happen. One community organizer volunteered a $1,000 purchase award a few months back, out of the blue. When the idea of having Shorewood families host the artists was floated, more than 100 families asked to do it. “We wanted to fix it, and we wanted to grow it instead of shrinking it,” says Heyden.
To Heyden, the hosting aspect allowed Shorewood to move the amount taken from the artists via a commission to an upfront fee. “If you are staying at the La Quinta outside of town, it’s a much more expensive proposition, and you don’t really get the warmth that Shorewood can provide. People are so excited to host. They say, ‘I can’t wait to get my artist!'”
The event has been scaled up. The goal is to get 100 participating artists instead of last year’s 65. The sale at the end of the event is moving from the local library to a 40 x 80-foot tent in front of the high school. “It’s going to be very visible,” says Heyden. “We are going to blow the roof off the final show, because sales for the artists is the thing we want. The silent auction wasn’t working that well, and the library’s size and confining nature capped the number of people who could attend. We had to move it in order to grow it. I think the artists who participate are going to be shocked by how huge it is.”
This approach has some artists upset that the event is taking on aspects of an art fair. Heyden asserts that she is listening. “Everyone wants the artists to be happy,” she says. “I hope this change doesn’t upset the whole apple cart. If it doesn’t go well this year, we will change it. We are listening. The artists are the guests; we value them. But we have to keep the lights on.”
So is it simply pay to play? Or is it a way to involve the community through hosting, and a way to get the event out of the middle between artists and collectors and avoid the headache of handling commissions?
Does it unduly favor the stars of the plein air world? That sentiment bothers Heyden. “I don’t think it’s elite,” she says. “It does favor people who sold well here in the past, but I would argue that the local collectors don’t remember the names of artists. They look at the art. It’s a huge value for artists who would ordinarily have to spend a lot out of pocket to be here. We are rewarding people who sell well here. They really capture the heart and soul of this place.”
Heyden says she is saddened by the negative reaction to the restructuring of Shorewood Plein Air, but she’s confident the show will be a success. “Facebook isn’t a good measure, because some people contacted me directly in support of the change, and others simply signed up without saying anything.” Heyden has a master’s degree in non-profit management, and she’s frustrated that the event’s efforts to help artists are upsetting some. “I did this because I wanted to help artists. And I think this change could be good.” As one veteran artist commented on Facebook, “Time sorts it all out.”