If you were in Bronson Park on the first Saturday of June in 1952, you would be standing amid a crowd of 15,000 people. A swing band is playing nearby, and paintings by 70 artists are hanging along 1,100 feet of clothesline strung between the park’s trees. Welcome to the debut of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts Clothesline Art Show.
Fast-forward 64 years and the scene is similar: There are still lots of people (likely twice as many), live music and art, but instead of clothesline, the park is lined with white canopies. Along with 190 artists, from sculptors and jewelers to potters and painters, selling their wares, there are food vendors, a beer garden and Saturday kids’ activities.
In its 65 years, the KIA Fair, scheduled for June 3–4 in Bronson Park, has been known by six different names, but, no matter the moniker, participating artists say the annual art fair is as much a boon to them as to the art lovers who attend it.
Jeweler David Smallcombe is likely the KIA Fair’s longest-showing artist. He first set up at the art fair in 1977, shortly after graduating from Western Michigan University. Even then, he said, the KIA Fair was an anomaly.
“Now there are art fairs set up all over the place all the time. Back then, there were really not that many,” he says. “The Bronson show was a long and honored fair even at that point. Now we see (art fairs) as an institution in our culture. Back then, it was pretty new stuff.”
His son was just 2 months old when Smallcombe participated in his first fair, and the artist admits that when he started, he didn’t know if there would be enough art fairs for him to build a career on. “It was pretty scary because I wasn’t sure I would have a venue to sell my work,” he says.
“It’s not an easy living by any sense. I had four children. But they’ve all grown up in the fairs and done really well with it. I feel really fortunate to have lived life like that and for my kids to have enjoyed a different way of seeing the world.”
The importance of the KIA Fair for print-maker Tamara Hirzel is neither historical nor nostalgic. Hirzel is the KIA’s 2016 Emerging Artist, an honor that comes with support for an artist who has not previously presented in an art fair.
After a career in graphic design and raising a family, Hirzel is returning to her dream of being an artist, she says. She recently completed a nine-month post-baccalaureate residency at the KIA in printmaking.
“When I told my daughter I was going to be an ‘emerging artist’ (at the fair), she laughed and said, ‘Mom, you’ve been an emerging artist for 50 years,’” Hirzel says. “I’ve been incubating. It’s really been the last five years I was able to start taking classes at the KIA and renew my love of printmaking, which I have been doing on and off since high school.”
Along with the opportunity to show her work, the KIA is providing Hirzel with a canopy, a table and a bit of business advice.
“I’ve talked with other artists to try to get the business end of things, like a credit card payment on my phone and getting my website ready. It’s the little things,” Hirzel says. “As an artist, I don’t have a lot of experience as a merchant.”
Smallcombe, now a well-known Kalamazoo silver- and goldsmith, said his business practices and presentations at art fairs have evolved through the years. “My (first) booth was a card table, an Indian-print sheet on top of that and a big aloe plant. My work was in a small display case. Basically, I just did copper and brass at the time.”
Smallcombe has seen the landscape of the KIA Fair change over the years as well. “There were no canopies at all back then. If it rained, you’d grab a piece of plastic and try to cover everything, but of course the wind would whip that right back off and everything would get wet.
“Now you’d be laughed out of a show if you didn’t have a canopy. It’s just incredibly different in the professionalism that people give it today, with sharp booths, pictures, canopies and signage.”
Smallcombe says he believes the KIA Fair has enjoyed longevity because art fairs run by local arts centers have a different feel. “The whole atmosphere is different and much nicer when it’s a local arts center, rather than a promoter who is doing a whole series of shows and the art show doesn’t really matter.”