Depending on whom you ask, anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 music, art and street-festival seekers are about to descend on our city. The streets will once again cram with temporary tenements selling everything from jewelry to kabobs. And among the myriad visitors and locals in attendance are dozens of visiting and local artists exhibiting work and wares.
Artists get separated into two groups: those who sell from street-side tents, and those in the Arts Park, a separate village of sorts, located in the parking lot across the street from the Kress building on Patton Avenue. As Bele Chere officials put it, Arts Park artists are “the best of the best.” Both the street booths and the Arts Park will feature photography, paintings, jewelry, pottery and wood, metal and fiber works.
Applicants from both groups are selected based on the quality of work and the “attractiveness” of their display. (Photos of both must be sent in with an applications.) There’s only one restriction to those seeking space in the Arts Park: the works must be handmade by the person selling them on site — no reselling works or representing multiple artists.
Of the 43 artists in the Arts Park this year, only a fraction are from Asheville and the greater WNC area. Others are coming from as far away as New York, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. It’s Georgia, though, that sends the most visiting artists — specifically, the Atlanta area.
Anna Marino will be trekking from Monroe, Ga., east of Atlanta, for her first Bele Chere appearance. “The festival’s so well-known, and I wanted the challenge of getting into such a nationally recognized show,” she says. She’s applied in years past, and this year she was accepted into the Arts Park, though she applied for both venues.
For Jeff and Jaky Felix, the six-and-half-hour drive from a town near Montgomery, Ala., has been worth it every time for the past 8 years. As Joyful Imagination Glass, this will be the couple’s fifth year in the Arts Park. “The Arts Park provides a higher concentration of quality art works, so it tends to draw the target audience from the crowd,” Jaky says. They also favored the assurance of always having electrical hookups. While power is an option for some of the street venues, it’s not a guarantee. And all things aside, “We use this as our yearly excuse to visit Asheville,” Jaky says.
The daily foot traffic is constant, so for many of the artists, the benefits of vending abound. For those with smaller works and moderate prices, it can be hard to have enough work to last the entire weekend. Visitors will likely be downtown for the whole day, so pieces and works that can fit into bags, purses and pockets are easy sales.
The weekend is also an exposure marathon, with thousands of eyes falling on every style and variety of artistry. But for many artists, this facet of Bele Chere can serve as a downside. The hoards of people weaving in and out of tents can come at a cost, namely damaged goods and theft. Be it from the clumsy or sticky fingers of oglers with or without a drink in hand, many artists have taken a loss in years past. “I had multiple thefts last year,” says one Asheville-based fiber artist, choosing to remain nameless. “The festival is great; it’s just not as beneficial for myself or my work, as it is for others.”
Other artists, such as Tristan and Rikki Hertz, have found existing outlets to show their work in town during the festival. “We love Bele Chere,” Tristan says. “You can make more money, but with 10 times less the amount of setup work.” Both of the painters/micro-horticulturalists have participated in Bele Chere in years past, but have opted this year for the Grove Arcade’s Portico Market, an open-air table bazaar on the Battery Park side of the building.
Bele Chere affords local artists the opportunity to compare work with artisans from across the country and to effectively export their own work. Repeat vendors have repeat buyers. Many form contacts that extend past the festival’s three days and on to further sales throughout the year. Some see Bele Chere as a beast and a burden, others see it as an annual milestone. But either way, art is being sold, and that says enough.