Art Fair on the Square Celebrates 50 Years
Milestones and Memories
Art Fair on the Square Celebrates 50 Years
MADISON, WI -- When Art Fair on the Square debuted 50 years ago, no one at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (then the Madison Art Association) could have foreseen that the fair would become one of the area's key cultural traditions. The first “Sidewalk Art Show,” in 1959, took place at the Brookwood Shopping Center, at the corner of Midvale Boulevard and the Beltline. The one-day event featured 43 artists who sold, in total, 50 works, for a combined revenue of $550.
In sharp contrast, more recent fairs have lured hundreds of thousands of shoppers to the Capitol Square to view works by 400-500 artists chosen by a jury of arts professionals. The fair is routinely ranked among the top fine art fairs in the country by Sunshine Artist magazine.
The transition from sleepy sidewalk fair to major summer attraction has been marked with milestones along the way:
The second Sidewalk Art Show moves downtown, to a park overlooking Lake Monona, at the end of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
In its sixth year, with 175 artists scheduled to participate and the fair relocated to the North Hamilton approach to the Capitol, the event is canceled due to rain. Undaunted, the fair staff reschedule the event, only to be rained out a second time.
The Madison Art Associationnow renamed Madison Art Center -- expands the event to two days and moves it to the Capitol grounds. Prizes totaling $200 are awarded to artists receiving the most votes from the public.
Fair planners add a “Bavarian Beer Garden” and three performance stages around the Square.
The fair expands to three days (Saturday through Monday); 425 participating artists sell works totaling $320,000.
The event is officially renamed “Art Fair on the Square” and moves to the streets around the Capitol--its present location.
Planners introduce a more rigorous selection process: a jury of Wisconsin artists and art professionals review slides to determine participating artists.
This year's fair, on July 12 and 13, will feature more than 400 artists and an audience of approximately 200,000 shoppers. Revenues are expected to exceed $2.3 million, and shoppers can enjoy performers and delectable foods, as well as hands-on activities for kids. Planners for the 50th Art Fair on the Square have also taken steps to produce an environmentally friendly event--a concept unfamiliar to most shoppers in 1959.
In recognition of the fair's landmark anniversary, MMoCA recently asked several long-term participating artists to discuss their experiences at the event. Most of these artists also attend numerous other art fairs around the country, and they provide a unique perspective on what makes the Art Fair on the Square special.
Location, location, location
“The location is spectacular,” says Robinson Scott, a glass artist from Minnesota. “It's fun to have the fair around the Capitol--it honors the building.” Lee Ross, also of Minnesota, agrees. “We love that the Madison Capitol is so accessible. You can just go inside and cool off when it's a hot day at the fair.” Lee's husband, sculptor Dan Ross, appreciates the variety of marble and stone used inside the Capitol. “There's just nothing like that building anywhere else,” he says.
What stands out most in nearly every artist's memory is the people who come to the fair. During his first year at the fair, LeRoy Bayerl, a wood artist from Marshfield, was amazed at the size of the crowd. “I couldn't even step out of my booth,” he recalls. Robinson Scott agrees. “The attendance is great,” he says, “and the crowd is talkative, friendly and interested in the art.”
For many, the Art Fair on the Square is a huge social event. “It's very much a homecoming for us,” says Lee Ross. “Dan grew up in Madison, so we have friends and family who come and spend the whole day with us. We have a big picnic going on behind our booth all day.”
Photographer Lawrence Oliverson of Sullivan, who also grew up in Madison, says “I've run into old girlfriends, roommates, former professors. I even saw my prom date one year.”
“You just never know who's going to stop by your booth,” says Lee Ross who remembers one fair when someone from the University of Wisconsin stopped by. “Dan ended up getting a sculpture commission for the UW's new Pharmacy building,” she recalls.
So what keeps these artists coming back to Art Fair on the Square? According to ceramic artist Debra LeAir, “It's a really unique, comfortable, and fun show. The turn-out is amazing even compared to other fairs.” Another ceramic artist, Tim Marcotte, simply says, “It's just always a pleasure to come to Madison."
Hours for this year's Art Fair on the Square are: Saturday, July 12 (9 am-6 pm) and Sunday, July 13 (10 am-5 pm).
Generous support for Art Fair on the Square has been provided by Pizza Hut of Southern Wisconsin; The Evjue Foundation, Inc., the charitable arm of The Capital Times; Madison Gas and Electric; Covance; Pepsi; Wildwood Productions; Reinhart Boerner Van Duren, S.C.; Bluegreen; Saturn of Madison; Wisconsin Lottery; Atkinson|Dines, Inc. Downtown Real Estate; WKOW-Channel 27; Madison Magazine; 105.5-Triple M; Stoddard's Meat Market; Whole Foods; and Isthmus|TheDailyPage.com.
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