"The Independent Artist"
Issue IV, October 2008
The Annual Riverwalk Fine Art Fair. Participants in the show note that its policies are particularly artist-friendly, with previous evening set-up, free parking nearby, and a host of helpful and accessible staff and volunteers at the ready.
Held during the third week of September in Naperville, Illinois and sponsored by the Naperville Art League, this juried art exhibition and sale is staged along the beautifully designed grounds of the Naperville Riverwalk and its downtown city streets. The Riverwalk boasts plants, trees, fountains, covered bridges, and publicly commissioned sculpture along side a winding brick walkway, all providing a stunning setting for the art fair. We spoke to Debbie just before and during the 23rd annual fair, September 19-20, 2008.
What brought you to work in the arts?
I was very fortunate to grow up in a creative environment. My grandmother was a professional musician in Greenwich Village, New York, my brother Mike is a highly successful author/illustrator of childrens books, and my brother Tony is an award-winning filmmaker and film educator.
My parents encouraged our involvement in the arts, so it felt very natural to become involved in it. However, it took me many, many years to get where I am today. After receiving a degree in fashion design, I looked forward to career in this field. Instead, life took me in another direction and I ended up working in the corporate environment as a director of human resources for many years.
While the position had certain rewards, I felt eager to explore more artistic ventures. Realizing that there must be others in the area who shared her passion for cinema, I founded the After Hours Film Society, a not-for-profit organization that regularly brings specialty films to suburban audiences. The society has grown exponentially since its inception in 1988, and its bi-monthly programs attract over 500 movie fans per screening.
What is your history with the Riverwalk show?
In 2002, I was downsized, and instead of being terrified at the prospect, I was thankful I was given a chance to pursue more artistic ventures. I was hired as the executive director of the Naperville Fine Art Center and Gallery, home to the Naperville Art League. After a few years, I was promoted to Chairman of the Riverwalk Fine Art Fair, a nationally acclaimed arts festival that ranks among the most prestigious and successful juried art fairs in the nation.
What makes the Riverwalk Fine Art Fair special or unique?
It seems like more and more outdoor art fairs are emerging in this area to the point where you could throw a stone and go to any one of six each weekend throughout the season. What sets us apart from other fests is our setting. The Riverwalk is the crown jewel of Naperville: it is considered one of the most beautifully maintained park grounds in the Midwest. Also, in our 23-year history, we have earned the reputation of being one of the top shows in the country and are able to attract the attention of many prestigious and talented artists. And, of course, the Riverwalk Fine Art Fair is just an artist-friendly, well-managed show!
What is the level of support for the fair in your community?
The Naperville community embraces the Riverwalk Fine Art Fair on all levels. We receive an annual grant from the City of Naperville, secure sponsorships from established and high profile businesses like the First National Bank of Naperville and partner with many of the local resources like Community Radio Watch, Naperville Evening Kiwanis Club and the Police Explorers. We work closely with the city and the Naperville Park District and have built a strong relationship with them.
What is your proudest accomplishment for the Riverwalk Fine Art Fair?
We try to make a lot of improvements and additions every year, but I guess Im proudest of the new visibility Ive brought to the show with the introduction of the non-profit and charitable organizations that have a presence during the show. Its good for them and it brings a whole new audience to the art fair.
What is the most challenging aspect of mounting the show?
You can work and work and organize and plan and arrange and assign responsibilities to volunteers and do everything in your power to try to anticipate potential problems so you can have a solution at hand, but what you cant control are:
- terrorist attacks
- record-breaking rains
- and of course, the ensuing floods. This year, the Riverwalk was totally submerged under water five days before the show opened.
What makes your show artist-friendly"?
Without our artists, we could not have a show. I think of our participants as the actors in a moviethey are the celebrities that draw the crowds, so it is important to nurture them and offer help should they need it.
Many exhibitors are new to the show and are unfamiliar with the area. As a result, they have questions regarding overnight accommodations, want directions to local stores or are looking to find the best Chinese food in the area. Some artists come to the show by themselves and need assistance setting up or want temporary relief during show hours. A few years ago, an artist became ill and was looking for the closest urgent care facility.
The varying needs or our participants are endless and I try to anticipate and prepare for any requests that might surface. We partner with the Naperville Visitors and Convention Bureau and include the shopping guide in the artists packet. A force of volunteers is recruited from the Naperville Art League and is available to assist in set up, tear down, and booth sitting.
Three years ago, we hosted an awards reception on Saturday evening. It was such a great success that we now include it as a regular part of our event. We also provide a continental breakfast and bottled water. Each year, I try to add something, and this year, we will be providing free massages for the artists.
What is the most important amenity any art fair can offer to the artists?
At any given art festival, the artists are the best assets. And, with that as my philosophy, I think respect for the artists is key. Stressespecially at set up timeis rampant and can be significantly reduced by letting the participants know that we are there to support them and can provide assistance, answer a question, or offer a solution to a concern.
Is there something you wish that artists understood better about producing an art fair?
You know, I am in awe of the artistsI am amazed that they can do everything they do in order to exhibit at an art fair. As if creating the work wasnt a monumental task in itself, the artist then has to pack up tents and walls and their fine art pieces and luggage and food and all the other items necessary surviving their time away from home. Then they travel for hours on end to get to the next art fair location and the labor beginssetting up the display, getting a few hours of sleep so they can sell their goods for two or three solid days and then they tear down, pack up and go home again. This is really all they need to understand: my job is to produce a successful art fair and provide them with the space to do what they do best.