With the return of warmer weather and the lush foliage of spring, nationally renowned and local artists alike will again gather at Riverside Park in Chagrin Falls next month. New and veteran artists will set up their stations and showcase their handmade wares to those seeking a pop of color, a framed site to see or an abstract centerpiece.
About 120 painters, potters, crafters and other fine artists who have mastered their chosen craft will attend Valley Art Center’s 36th annual Art by the Falls June 8 and June 9. Along with interacting with artists near and far, festival attendees looking for a memorable experience should have the chance to admire stilt walkers, participate in art demos or listen to live music while perusing a market of high-caliber art.
What started as a handful of artists who gathered together in 1983 to sell their works and help promote the center has grown into a tradition that VAC Executive Director Mary Ann Breisch said is loved by the community.
Art by the Falls, however, faces a challenge to continue as a successful event with the shift in priorities and spending habits of younger generations, Ms. Breisch said. VAC is looking for ways the festival can adapt to maintain its relevance and started the Art by the Falls Task Force, which has created a survey for public feedback on how the festival “can be the best it can be,” she said.
“We attract artists from all over the country who come and share their art with the region,” said Ms. Breisch, 62. “In order for everyone to remain engaged, we need a critical mass to show up to the park.” Creating this survey, she said, could result in necessary feedback VAC needs to provide a better experience for artists, patrons and volunteers alike and encourage the public to keep returning to the art festival.
Ms. Breisch explained that the original patrons and artists of the festival are beginning to “age out,” and the attention of younger generations – like Millennials– is divided between several other events, like the LaureLive arts and music fest in Russell Township or Parade the Circle at University Circle, that fall on the same weekend as the VAC event. In addition, many younger artists are switching to online platforms like Etsy or Instagram to sell their work, especially with the uncertainty of weather for the outdoor art festival.
Jan Mettee, a VAC instructor, is one of the original artists who attended the first year of Art by the Falls, but she is in her second year of not attending the festival as a vendor.
“I would still be doing it if I were a little bit younger and perhaps if my husband was still living,” Ms. Mettee, 77, said. Moving the artwork for the festival is difficult, she said, especially with most of her watercolor paintings kept in heavy glass frames. Doing this during poor weather some years added to the difficulty.
The Russell Township resident recollected the first year of the festival. “It was small, and it was new,” she said. “A lot of the probably well-known artists didn’t even enter initially because they were kind of holding back to find out if this was going to be a successful show.”
She and some of the other artists were uncertain with how successful the first gathering would be at its start, but “it worked out beautifully,” she said. “We loved it and it felt very special.
While she may not be selling her artwork, Ms. Mettee still can be found volunteering on the Sunday of the weekend at the VAC tent.
“It was just a wonderful thing for me for all those years,” she said. “Now it just remains to be seen how it’s going to change and if it’s going to change at all.”
Ms. Breisch said that while Art by the Falls is still doing well, it is important to anticipate change and get feedback now when working to adapt to a changing society.
“We still think we have something special and something unique, but we want to kind of validate that,” Ms. Breisch said. “It’s just how can we do this really well so that as many people as possible can have a positive experience?”
Ally Dean, 35, onsite coordinator and a longtime volunteer, said the festival generally sees up to 15,000 people in attendance each season, confirming that Art by the Falls remains a well-attended event. She added, however, that the last few years have been a struggle with Millennials’ shift in interest when it comes to high-end, expensive art. She added that getting some of the artists to shift their marketing to engage younger generations’ spending also has been a challenge.
“I think the hardest part is the artists shifting their mindset as well,” Ms. Dean added. “It’s all marketing for the artists and how they know who they’re going to sell to and how they’re going to market. I mean, artists can be their own worst enemy or their best salesman. You can’t control how some of them market and sell items.”
Ms. Breisch explained that she has noticed younger generations are less likely to invest in expensive art at the festival and are more likely to walk away with purchases that elicit feeling.
“Millennials don’t necessarily want to invest in the high-end art that we have at the park. You’re buying it because you like it and it’s going to look great and you love it at the moment, but you don’t want to be shackled with it. It’s more of an emotional response than an investment.” The statement is not intended as an attack on the generation, she clarified; VAC is just interested in how it can maintain the generation’s attention and encourage them to continue supporting fine artists at the festival.
Some ways the festival has adapted already is by making the festival more of an event to provide engaging experiences over the years. “What we have heard is that Millennials are prone to enjoy an experience and the process more than shopping,” Ms. Breisch said. To accommodate this desire for experiences, Art by the Falls over time has added various forms of entertainment and methods of engagement.
“We’ve gotten stilt walkers, we’ve gotten onsite demonstrations, we have musical bands,” Ms. Dean listed. “There’s plenty of entertainment all the way around.”
The festival also has partnered with Chagrin Arts as another way to provide entertainment while also highlighting local musicians. “One of our partnerships that’s directly related to Art by the Falls is partnering with Chagrin Arts for the Music Crawl immediately following Saturday evening’s closing festivities,” said Dan Simone, 43, VAC gallery and marketing manager.
While the festival has worked to provide a wide audience of people with plenty of opportunities for experience, Ms. Breisch and Mr. Simone stressed that they don’t want to overwhelm people with too much entertainment and take away from the visual artists.
“The tricky part is we want [people] to buy artwork. In order for us to continue to have [Art by the Falls], we need patrons to support artists,” Ms. Breisch said. “It’s mostly about the visual artists, but how it also creates an experience.”
Mr. Simone added, “It’s a delicate balance. You want the artists to feel like you’re taking them seriously and being serious about what they’re doing, but at the same time, you need to create something that is relatable to as wide of a group of people as possible.”
“We need your help to know how we can make Art by the Falls the best that it can be,” Ms. Breisch concluded. “We want to make sure that we remain relevant and in tune with today’s society.”
Art by the Falls will be held at Riverside Park in Chagrin Falls Saturday, June 8 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, June 9 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.ValleyArtCenter.org for a link to the Art by the Falls survey.