A good art festival needs, first and foremost, talented artists, but organizing these folks into a successful festival atmosphere requires more than just a beautiful setting or venue.
It requires a lot of thought about not only the artists and their work, but also about the impact on the community as a whole.
Dick Cunningham moved to Breckenridge 40 years ago, and his daughter, Tina Cunningham, was born and raised here. They produce four annual art festivals in Summit County: Breckenridge July Art Festival, Silverthorne Fine Art Festival, Breckenridge Main Street Art Festival, and Breckenridge Gathering at the Great Divide Art Festival, which are known collectively as Mountain Art Festivals.
In 2015, a survey conducted by the town at the Breckenridge Arts Festival showed that just this one show generated about $1.1 million in economic benefit within the town that year. The estimated attendance over the course of the weekend was more than 21,000.
“We are small, local business owners — but the difference is that our business is only open to the public four weekends a year,” Tina said. “We focus on making our festivals high-quality, free, no-alcohol events that are good for the community and well run, with our local businesses in mind.”
An evolution of art shows
Dick has been producing art festivals for more than 40 years, starting locally with the Gathering at the Great Divide Art Festival on Labor Day Weekend in 1980. The Breckenridge Resort Chamber asked him in 1982 if he could start another art festival on the Fourth of July to attract more visitors to town. The first July Art Festival was born in 1983 and has evolved from its original arts-and-crafts roots.
Now, Tina is the driving local force behind Mountain Art Festivals, as she remains a full-time resident while her dad lives part-time in Florida. Tina lives and breathes these festivals throughout the year, paying close attention to the community and its needs. Part of the reason for the 2015 survey, she said, was to gain a better understanding of overall satisfaction with the festivals and economic impact.
The results were overwhelmingly positive.
The feedback from the fine art world also speaks volumes. All three Breckenridge art festivals have been ranked in the top 100 fine art festivals in the country, and the 1st Silverthorne Fine Art Festival in 2018 was a great success, with many artists returning for round two this year (see factbox for festival details). The 2nd Silverthorne Fine Art Festival will feature live acoustic music, face-painting for children, kettle corn and 60 talented artists, adding to the growing arts community in Silverthorne.
“Mountain Art Festivals strives to produce the finest quality art festivals possible, ensuring everyone — artists, patrons and locals — have a positive experience,” Dick said. “We want the areas where our shows are to be as proud of the shows as we are.”
What it takes to produce a great art show
Dick and Tina want to not only bring in wonderful talent, but they want patrons to have the opportunity to interact with artists, as well as provide children with an introduction to the arts that hopefully inspires continued interest.
All the work at each festival is original and exhibited by the artists themselves. Works include pottery, painting, sculpture, glass, jewelry, photography and many other mediums by professional artists from all over the country.
Mountain Art Festivals are highly juried, meaning the artists have to send four images of their work, and one of their display, for a panel of jurists to review prior to each show. Last year, there were more than 700 applications for Mountain Art Festivals, with only a limited number of artists selected.
Dick believes Mountain Art Festivals gets such high praise from participating artists because the events are extremely artist-friendly.
“Having exhibited in art shows throughout the country for the last 45 years, I know what artists like and don’t like,” Dick said. “Set-up and tear-down are staggered to run very smoothly, and we have artist amenities such as free water, bagels, coffee and also booth sitters.”
It doesn’t hurt that Summit County isn’t a bad place to spend a few days, either.
“This is such a beautiful area and many artists use our shows as an excuse to have an extended vacation with their families,” Dick said.
While making artists happy and comfortable contributes to such highly regarded festivals — happier artists improves the overall mood and vibes that permeate each event — the Cunninghams’ ability to attract the right people has a lot to do with each festival’s success, too. Mountain Art Festivals does extensive advertising in order to bring in attendees who are most likely to be interested in art.
Competitive selection delivers a high quality experience
Thanks to decades of experience, Dick and his wife, Mary, had this unique understanding of what it takes to deliver the best art festival experience. They knew that if they marketed their festivals effectively, the artists and patrons would leave happy and the local economy would also experience positive impacts.
“Art festivals are an excellent way to bring in the type of people that the community is seeking — art festival patrons are generally well educated,
affluent, and stay for longer times visiting the other shops, restaurants and galleries in town,” Dick said, referencing the 2015 survey.
Whether someone is looking to decorate an office, new home, or just for something to take home with them to remember their trip, Mountain Art Festivals strive to deliver a wide diversity of artwork for all budgets so that everyone can afford to take something home. The festivals also aim to provide a comfortable place for every patron and artist to enjoy.
“We strive to have a family-friendly atmosphere,” Dick said. “No alcohol is served. Some shows have musicians, and the July show has Hawkquest featuring a live bald eagle and other birds of prey. And, of course, the artists are there in person showing and demonstrating their art, and answering any questions.”