ArtFields — a 10-day festival during which more than 400 works of art from 15 Southeastern states are displayed throughout Lake City, a 6,500-resident community an hour-and-a-half east of Columbia — started out as a predominantly economic endeavor designed to give a shot in the arm to the historic agricultural hub.
To many, though, such an idea sounded too crazy to execute in a small, depressed place. When word got out last year that the tiny town would host an epic art fest, many people weren’t even skeptical — they pretty much dismissed the idea outright. Lake City’s only claims to fame were that it’s infamously poor and it’s the birthplace and seasonal home of financier Darla Moore and the late astronaut Ron McNair.
“We are a 1910, 1920s town,” Moore said in a 2013 interview for DiscoverSouthCarolina.com. “We never tore anything down and [we] held it all together with spit and tape.”
“Plenty of people said we didn’t know what we were doing,” says director Karen Fowler, including the town’s own residents — some of whom claimed that they just didn’t like artists, at all. “But the more the people pushed,” she says, “the more we pushed back.”
In its inaugural year, the ArtFields committee pushed back by committing to a grand scale. Last year’s event featured big installations, big crowds and Darla Moore’s big personality. There was big controversy, too, when a major prize was revoked and re-awarded after organizers ruled that the original winner had not met competition guidelines. This year, Moore has taken a step back from the spotlight as the festival and competition works to develop a unique personality that points toward a modern version of the big business of art.
Art isn’t quite the big business it once was. The aspirational art market bubble that briefly created the rich artist popped long ago; the current art market expects more from artists while paying them less. So the size of the monetary prizes offered at ArtFields — a $50,000 top prize, a $25,000 juried prize and two people’s choice prizes at $12,500 each — is hard to ignore.
The amount of money on the line is a huge draw for artists to participate.
“People are looking around this time and are saying, ‘Wow, I should have applied for that,’” says Ken May, director of the South Carolina Arts Commission. More than 50 Columbia-area artists are taking part in this year’s event, which began April 25 and runs through May 4.
The result is a seemingly accidental partnership between Lake City and the artists selected for the competition. Artists have been more willing this year to take a risk on a small town by submitting more installation pieces that tipped toward the explorative and daring. And as word spreads about the size, scope and variety of artwork spread throughout Lake City, more groups are banding together and driving in from Columbia and Charleston to see what the buzz is about.
“Artists are thinking about work that will draw attention — working bigger and getting votes,” May says.
But the bigger, bolder work isn’t just for attention.
“This year isn’t just about getting big installations and throwing them out there,” says Columbia artist Laurie McIntosh. “There was a lot of really thoughtful, quality work — much more so than last year.”
As the artists step up in year two, ArtFields organizers are getting a better sense of how they fit into the overall plan for the festival and for Lake City.
“Last year, we thought the [popular] vote was what would get people here, but we realized that for many it was about coming to see the art and artists,” Fowler says. “One thing we realized is that this year needs to be more about the artists.”
With that in mind, the ArtFields committee created a fine arts director position and hired Sandy Cook. A former employee of the South Carolina Education Lottery, Cook also has a background in interior design and studio art. As part of its effort to improve the experience for artists, this year the Jones-Carter Gallery has become an artists’ lounge where participants can network, collaborate and refresh themselves after walking around town. The gallery is also hosting a 2013 winners’ gallery showcasing the winning pieces from the event’s inaugural year.
Even as the artists step up their game and the festival moves to better accommodate them, the Lake City economic develop strategy is kicking in, too. Last year’s festival attracted 22,000 people who spent an average of $33 each, according to an economic impact study.
“This is clearly part of a larger strategy,” says May. “A lot of investment has been put into this. There’s a new, nice restaurant [Table 118] and a boutique hotel that will be ready for next year.”
“A rural coastal place in South Carolina is not necessarily what anyone is going to think of as an art mecca,” May says.
But Lake City’s activity flies in the face of the idea of what such a “mecca” should be. The city is actively promoting itself as a place for artistically and culturally minded people to relocate. And while that might still be a tough sell, ArtFields could make it less so. Without other major resources to draw tourists to the town more than once a year, artists themselves become the resources.
“It would make it a place where people go because there are artists there,” May says. As regional artists begin to recognize the special attention they’ll receive from the ArtFields committee and surrounding community, it’s possible that they’ll start looking at Lake City as a place they want to be — and that collectors and visitors will follow their lead.
To experience the beginnings of a small town’s big ambitions, visit artfieldssc.org for information about the festival. People’s Choice voting will continue throughout the week, with winners announced Sat., May 3.
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