The Valley Art Center’s annual early June Art by the Falls outdoor festival became the latest local tradition to succumb to the coronavirus pandemic when the 37-year-old event was officially called off.  

VAC Executive Director Mary Ann Breisch said on Monday that she hoped this year’s event would go on as scheduled. But after a meeting last week between Chagrin Falls Mayor William Tomko and the VAC board, the decision was made to call it quits for 2020, she said. Ohio currently is under a stay-at-home order at least until May 1, and social distancing is being advised by health officials all to stop the spread of the contagious and deadly virus.

Ms. Breisch characterized the board’s vote to cancel as “sad and unanimous but necessary.” 

 Reaction from VAC members, artists and instructors was one of understanding as it “was the only responsible thing we could do right now,” she added.

 Art by the Falls over the last 37 years has evolved into a premiere arts festival in Chagrin Falls’ Riverside Park attracting more than 120 artists nationwide, drawing as many as 15,000 art patrons from Northeast Ohio and engaging hundreds of volunteers for each festival.

 The festival became VAC’s flagship event and a major source of revenue used to cover operating expenses for the nonprofit organization.

 In recent years, Art by the Falls has become not just a lively cultural event, but has netted $45,000 to $50,000 for the art center over the annual two-day run, according to VAC officials.

That take amounts to about 10 percent of VAC’s annual budget, Ms. Breisch said.

 Participating artists, performing artists and food vendors likely will also suffer the loss of revenue because of the cancellation.

“There were signed contracts with artists and food vendors with no guarantee of a refund,” Ms. Breisch said, “but we kindly offered to give 50 percent refunds of all booth fees, though many shows provide no reimbursement.”

 Incredibly, many told the art center to keep the reimbursement as their donation to VAC. That included painter Rob Crombie of Cuyahoga Falls, an art center instructor and an exhibitor at Art by the Falls for many years.

 “Many of us are going to miss the revenue the festival generated and relied on for income but what concerns me more than how I am affected is how much the Valley Art Center is missing from their annual funding due to this cancellation,” Mr. Crombie said. 

Now he is challenging all others involved with the festival to follow his lead and donate back and pay forward “out of appreciation for the years the center and Art by the Falls supported them.”

 “Thousands of artists have benefited over the years by meeting serious art buyers and the exposure [the festival] has created for all of us,” Mr. Crombie said.  

Graphic artist Pam Spremulli of Chagrin Falls and the citizen chairwoman of the Village of Chagrin Falls Arts Commission expressed disappointment. “I am so bummed for the VAC, but I am confident that when this is all over it will be stronger than ever and Art by the Falls will be back and better than ever.” 

Like many artists, she is finding other outlets for her work.

 There is a bright side to all of the sacrifices artists had to make, Ms. Breisch said. All Art by the Falls participants will be invited to take part in VAC’s newest project, she said, of the upcoming virtual “Art by the Falls Art Marketplace” which will go online in mid-summer.

 It is part of the center’s decision to keep their students and audience members engaged through online participation via their new ARTLIVES initiative which will launch early next month with free artist demonstrations.

 A series of online paid classes are planned along with virtual gallery shows all of which aim to replace revenue. ARTLIVES is one of the ways the art center will fill the financial gap, she said.

“Our team is down to 50 percent in person power due to furloughs and hours cut,” she said. They “immediately began working on online classes, a gallery tour and a marketplace when we closed March 15,” Ms. Breisch explained.  

In addition to that help, she noted, “I have a very supportive and engaged board, they all volunteer all weekend for Art by the Falls” in years past. Board members now have stepped up and collaborated with her on other ways to ease the pandemic’s financial pain, Ms. Breisch said. 

“When COVID-19 changed our ways of living and gathering, the team at VAC pivoted to explore digital opportunities,” she said, and ARTLIVES became a means to that end and will help fill some of the financial gap. The art center has also applied for government stimulus funds.

 “This is a time when we are all struggling, some more than others. We are all being asked to make sacrifices. I am inspired by the many moving response that people have exhibited, the creativity, ingenuity, kindness, generosity and the ability to adapt,” Ms. Breisch said.  

Art by the Falls won’t occupy Riverside Park the weekend after Father Day this year and it will be missed by many, supporters are saying.  

“I will miss the way the entire community comes together to support our event, being in a beautiful park, alive with the energetic, creative vibe of artists and art lovers; the grit and kindness of hundreds of volunteers; watching thousands of patrons come to fall in love with and support our artists,” Ms. Breisch said.

A veteran reporter and columnist, Barbara Christian has been covering Chagrin Falls since 1967 and is currently responsible for Chagrin Falls village events, government and school board news along with her weekly column "Window on Main Street."

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