A New Addition Shakes Up Jackson's 35-Year-Old Arts Festival

Sep 27, 2019

Jackson's Snow King Sports Center usually hosts skating lessons and peewee hockey games. But for one weekend in mid-September, it was filled with about $50 million worth of art.

The space had been taken over by the brand new Jackson Hole Fine Arts Fair. Visitors were greeted at the door by a giant inflatable goldfish — the work of Jackson artist Bland Hoke — before visiting booths from more than 50 galleries based all over the country.

"We've got the best of the best," the pop-up fair's director Rick Friedman said while showing off abstract paintings, woven rugs and sculptures made of everything from LED lights to pieces of sun-bleached wood. "There's something for everyone."

Friedman said that many serious art collectors traveled to Jackson specifically for this pop-up fair. Some of those collectors may have been pleasantly surprised to learn that there was a whole art festival happening all over town at the same time.

The two-week Jackson Hole Fall Art Festival began more than 30 years ago as a way of extending the area's tourism season. Now, it's a Jackson institution. It draws thousands of visitors to the area. It features auctions, live-performances and gallery exhibitions that draw thousands of visitors to the area. It's one of the biggest annual fundraisers for the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. Some local galleries rely on the sales bump that comes with the festival to stay open for the rest of the year.

The new pop-up fair is a conspicuously separate event. But Friedman said he's not trying to step on any toes.

"We feel that we gave [visitors] more incentive to come because they say okay, do I go or not? But if there's a new exciting international show in town, let's go and see it," Friedman said. "That's where we come in. It's fun. There's a lot of galleries here but we augment and enhance what they're already doing."

A lot of Jackson locals weren't buying that.

When Friedman asked the Jackson Hole Gallery Association to partner with him on the pop-up fair, they shot him down. Some gallery owners took out an ad in the Jackson Hole News and Guide saying that the pop-up fair would harm local businesses.

Carrie Wild and her husband Jason Williams are the owners of Gallery Wild just outside of Jackson's town square. They didn't pitch in for the ad. But when they heard about the pop-up fair, they were apprehensive.

"My first gut reaction, just because it's during this busy arts week, is that this new event is really piggybacking on, taking advantage of, this 35 years of work that the community has done versus contributing to it," Williams said.

Like many artists here, Williams and Wild said they were drawn to Jackson by its dramatic physical beauty.

Wild shows me one of her own paintings — a group of horses silhouetted against a bright orange and purple sky. She said her inspiration for this painting, and for much of her work, comes from time spent in Grand Teton National Park.

"When the light is setting in the West, [the horses] are backlit against that and the mountains show purple and everything else lights up," Wild said. "It's just fantastic. That makes my heart tingle, so I want to pass that on to my viewers."

Gallery Wild is full of art like this- pieces that someone might want to take home after a trip to the Tetons to remind them of the landscapes and the wildlife they saw there.

And for the artists represented at Gallery Wild, this second weekend of the annual Fall Arts Festival may be the biggest sales weekend of the year. That's why Wild and Williams said that even if they were on board with the new pop-up fair, Gallery Wild probably wouldn't be able to buy and operate a booth.

"We don't have the staffing or the time during that week," Williams said. "And that was kind of a consensus among the galleries, too, that even if we wanted to, this is a terrible week for us to do anything except focus on our core business."

Williams and Wild said that the pop-up fair brought a handful of people into their gallery that wouldn't have come through otherwise. So, they're withholding judgment until they can get a sense of whether the rising tide of the fair's debut lifted all boats.

Joyce May, a Jackson resident for more than 40 years, was browsing a booth at the pop-up fair that featured brightly colored modern paintings from a gallery in San Diego, California. She saw the new event as an opportunity to expand her artistic palate.

"It's interesting seeing different things that we haven't seen before because of the different places where these galleries are from," May said. "There's a lot of really modern art and we're pretty much used to more Western art around here."

Like Jackson itself, May said that the Fall Arts Festival looks a lot different now than it did 30 years ago. But part of being a local here is learning to embrace change.

"You hardly know it anymore," May said through laughter. "It's progress, I guess."

In the end, some booths at the pop-up fair sold most or all of their artwork. Others left without selling a single piece. Director Rick Friedman said he hopes to bring the fair back to Jackson next year.

"We want to make this an annual show because you go through a lot of trouble with marketing and advertising so we really want it to build and grow," Friedman said.

Jackson artists and gallery owners have a suggestion for Friedman: if he wants locals to buy into the fair, he should pick another weekend to come to town.