Seven-year Columbus ArtFest ends after 7-year run

Columbus ArtFest, after struggling through its weakest attendance in a seven-year history, has ended.

Founder, photographer and printmaker Bob Anderson made the announcement after meeting with his board of directors. The free event attracted 1,000 to 1,500 people June 25 and 26 at Mill Race Park, conducted on the same weekend as the downtown BBQ Blues and Brew festival.

Previously, it had been conducted at Fourth and Washington streets, where organizers said it drew 2,000 to 2,500 people most years to see 75 to nearly 100 exhibitors of paintings, sculpture, textiles, jewelry and other art. Anderson said exhibitors liked the idea of a park setting on grass rather than the blacktop setup.

In 2015, it was held during mid-September over a weekend when it competed for vendors and visitors with the more established Penrod Arts Fair in Indianapolis.

The change this summer didn’t help crowds or boost buying, however, a key to get artists to return in subsequent years, Anderson said.

“We never really could get the community to support it the way we really wanted to,” Anderson said.

This makes the third fine art festival to die in Columbus since the early 1990s.

Chautauqua of the Arts of Columbus drew an estimated 15,000 people, and strong positive feedback from locals and out-of-towners on its opening-day debut with 250 booths in September 1993 at a just-renovated Mill Race Park. It attracted an estimated total of 35,000 for its entire first weekend, according to the Columbus Area Arts Council.

It drew visitors from Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and even Florida that first year. The following year, estimated attendance dipped to 28,000 for two days, although that still was considered strong.

Chautauqua eventually was replaced locally by a different organizer and promoter in 2005 who ushered in the Lazy River Arts and Crafts Festival at the park. That was Lazy River’s only year.

Organizers ended it months after figures showed that attendance, sponsors and volunteer help dipped dramatically. Arts council leaders said the event struggled to compete with similar shows in Madison, Bloomington and Louisville, Ky.

Anderson mentioned that competition today is more challenging at such shows.

“As an artist myself, it’s harder than ever to go out and sell art at art fairs,” he said.

Kathryn Armstrong, who became executive director of the Columbus Area Arts Council in June, said she was saddened by ArtFest’s end. But Armstrong, an artist herself who has served on art fair juries in places such as Lafayette, said there might be other ways to allow area various artists to exhibit and sell their work.

She said that might include piggybacking with another event that already has built an audience.

“There could be other opportunities for an outdoor art presence,” Armstrong said.

She also said she wants to work toward a stronger emphasis on visual art opportunities all year, rather than only at select events.