Fair Ferment

Tom Schlafly is frothing over his beer's banishment from St. Louis' biggest art festival

Tom Schlafly is a bitter brewmeister. He says the high-profile Saint Louis Art Fair wrongfully banished his company from selling beer at the downtown Clayton open-air art market -- and this year, he's going to fight back.

In this month's company newsletter, the aptly named Schlafly Growler, Schlafly writes: "Local artists and the only brewery in St. Louis County aren't welcome at an art fair held in the county seat of St. Louis County."

The ten-year-old art fair, which last year drew an estimated 140,000 people, takes place Friday, September 10, through Sunday, September 12. Schlafly says he's been "bounced out" of the fair based on faulty economic reasoning.

At the same time, local artists are disgruntled that, of the 165 artists chosen to display and market their creations, only 6 are from the St. Louis area.

With biting prose, Schlafly directs his wrath at a person he dubs the "Art Czarina." Though Schlafly avoids naming names, the Art Czarina is clearly the art fair's executive director, Cynthia Prost.

"It's also worth noting," writes Schlafly, "that the Art Czarina doesn't consider artists from St. Louis worthy to exhibit their work at the Art Fair. So we're in pretty good company."

Schlafly then unfolds his plan: "Rather than crash a party to which we're not invited, we and some excellent artists from St. Louis invite everyone to join us at Art Outside." The rival fair, featuring the work of 30 local artists, will be on tap at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood -- and, adding a little salt to the wound, it's scheduled the same weekend as the Saint Louis Art Fair.

"Our only option," declares Dan Kopman, chief operating officer for Schlafly, "is either to crawl under a hole and cry, or do something."

The decision not to use Schlafly is a matter of simple economics, says Prost.

"Their keg price is really a lot higher than what we can purchase a Michelob product for," Prost explains. "We can make more money selling what we're selling." And besides, she adds, if people want Schlafly Pale Ale, all they have to do is visit a Clayton bar.

Counters Schlafly in his Growler column: "When I asked the Art Czarina why Schlafly was being kicked out of the Art Fair, she informed me there was a problem getting a liquor license to serve our beer. When I offered to help secure the necessary licenses, the Art Czarina replied that the problem really wasn't with liquor licenses; the real reason the Art Fair couldn't sell Schlafly was its new policy of dealing with fewer wine and beer wholesalers."

Schlafly proceeds to quote Sir Walter Scott's Marmion: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

The rift between Schlafly and the Saint Louis Art Fair began just before the opening of the 2002 festival, when the move was made to remove Schlafly from the fair's vendor list -- this, after an eight-year run selling its beer.

Kopman describes the Schlafly company's relationship with the art fair during the early years as a warm one, back when fair officials appeared to have an affinity for independent brewers.

But things changed, Kopman says, when the fair forged a cozy partnership with Anheuser-Busch. "There was no 'warm and fuzzy' anymore," laments Kopman. "We went from two booths to one booth, then from one booth in a good location to one booth by the kids' stage. We were clearly not an important part."

Saint Louis Art Fair officials say the move to eliminate Schlafly was intended to increase revenues by consolidating the number of vendors.

With sponsorship comes benefits, and clearly Anheuser-Busch is paying for prominence.

"We live and die by our corporate sponsors," explains Prost. "It works just like any other nonprofit cultural activity. We are very lucky for the last eleven years that we've maintained pretty much the same sponsor pool." Others in that pool include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, SBC, Edward Jones, Coca-Cola and Audi.

"The bottom line is, we will always support the people who support us," says Prost. "Anheuser-Busch has been a very generous sponsor." (She declines to say just how generous.)

At last year's Saint Louis Art Fair, Tom Schlafly discovered that vendors were selling not only Anheuser-Busch products but also a few smaller beers, including brews from Samuel Adams and the Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co.

Kopman recalls sensing an opening. "Tom Schlafly wrote a letter; there were phone calls made -- nothing," he recounts. "We said, 'Just let us know what sort of sponsorship fee we need to pay you.' We heard nothing.

"We got some really bizarre stories back [from art fair officials]," Kopman continues. "First it was, 'We can't get a license for you.' Then something about how we can't offer good enough pricing. Unfortunately for them, they didn't do their homework."

Meanwhile, the selection process has local artists in a funk. There are more artists from Wisconsin represented at the Saint Louis Art Fair than there are Missourians, leading some artists to wonder what they have to do to secure an exhibit booth.

To keep it pure, the fair uses a jury to select its artists through a blind-application process. Members are shown slides, but to prevent favoritism, no personal information is provided about the artist. Judges don't know whether the art was born in St. Louis or San Diego. Still, some artists say, it wouldn't hurt to toss in a selection of St. Louis-based artists.

Cynthia Prost disagrees. "If you want to be a nationally juried show, you can't have quotas. If you start to pollute the jury process a little bit, if it isn't pure, if you leave a certain amount for local artists who maybe their work isn't on a level with some of these others, then artists, who are notoriously vocal, will complain and won't apply to your show because they think it's a rigged jury system."

Artist Eric Woods plans to display his paintings at Schlafly's Maplewood fair after three years at the Saint Louis Art Fair. "Every time we go it just seems to get worse and worse, because the variety of artist they have there is just -- it's the same people every year, and the same kinds of work they did last year," he says.

Schlafly's Kopman says an alternative fair is good for the city. "There're a lot of festivals that have started all over the world that are successful and are made even more successful when the fringe events pop up all around them. So we decided to do it the same weekend."

Prost also has no objection to the dueling fairs; in fact, she's in favor of it.

"I think it's great," she says, "in that it allows for this local focus which, unfortunately, we're just not able to do. I don't think the city should have just one major art fair. I'm kind of hoping that I'll get a chance to run over there on Saturday and see what's going on."