Artless in St. Louis: Suppose they gave an art fair and nobody came?

Jun 25, 2008 at 4:00 am

At least on paper the Olive and Taylor Art & Craft Fair (OTLA) sounded promising: fourteen hours of acoustic music, twelve hours of performance art, beer by Schlafly and handmade pasta from Mangia Italiano. Then there was the funky array of arts and crafts purveyed by more than 60 vendors set up at Olive and Taylor streets. In short, it was to be an edgy alternative to the more mainstream Central West End Art Fair & Taste taking place a few blocks west on June 7 and 8.

OLTA organizer Don Erickson, a fixture in the local arts scene, has produced semi-regular fine-art exhibits around town through an unincorporated group called "Art Coop" since 1999. OLTA was his first attempt at a multipurpose festival, and Erickson thought he'd draw between 6,000 and 10,000 of the CWE Taste's expected 60,000 shoppers.

Instead, he ended up with a grand total of zero customers.

What's more, Erickson faced a pack of livid craftspeople, many of who demanded their entrance fees be returned on the spot, and later staged a cyber uprising on various arts blogs and forums, calling Erickson a fraud and threatening to sue him.

"I've done this now for about eight years and I've probably been in close to 50 events, if not more," gripes Beqi Brinkhorst, the St. Louis-based owner of Beqi Clothing. "This is more than simple mismanagement. This to me looks like someone pocketed all the money and did nothing. Didn't even have the decency to clear off the parking lot in which we were supposed to hold part of the event."

"Both sides agree OLTA was a disaster," says a contrite Erickson. "I put my heart into the thing and worked my rear end off for seven weeks trying to promote it, and we got nobody. But to say it was a scam is just not true."

At issue is more than $3,000 in booth fees tendered by some 60 artists prior to the show. At least a dozen people want their money back.

Erickson says he never cashed eight to ten of the artists' checks. What's more, he is considering refunding the other artists 50 percent of their $45 to $90 booth fees. "I think that would be fair, even though I don't think I have a legal duty to do it," he says. "There were no guarantees of attendance in the contract."

The artists cite a long list of disappointments with OLTA, from poor advertising and nonexistent signage to a total lack of preparation of the space. "We walked in to find it filthy: mold-smelling, with a ceiling caved in, exposed electrical, no bathroom, an overflowing Dumpster, just terrible," complains Paula Egan, a craftswoman from Chicago.

"The only entrance into the place was an alleyway littered with broken glass and trash," adds Natasha Kwan, the local owner of Kling Bags. "People actually had to set up around Dumpsters. The stench was unimaginable."

Erickson doesn't dispute the disarray, but says an exhibitor who was supposed to prepare the venue the night before failed to do so. Erickson also insists he advertised by sending press releases to listservs, as well as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Suburban Journals. "We didn't buy any paid ads, but we did everything I thought we could."

The first day of the fair, most of the artists packed it in after only three hours, as did the Schlafly beer truck. Several days later, some of the craftspeople lodged complaints against Erickson with the Better Business Bureau and the Missouri Attorney General. One woman says she even went to the FBI alleging fraud.

Dan Kopman, Schlafly's CEO, says that while he feels for the artists, the brewery did not put any money down. "There is a risk for us in doing these events, but we will continue to support them when we can."

Erickson, for his part, vows to stick to what he knows: fine arts. "There'll be no more craft shows."

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