Art in the Park gains importance amid gallery closings

A ceramic eel painted by Patty Boyer was among wares for Lawrence's Art in the Park event in 2006. Art in the Park and other opportunities to show work have been increasingly important to area artists in light of gallery closings in the past year.

Julie Kingsbury, a Lawrence jewelry designer, used to travel to fine art festivals across the Midwest to display – and hopefully sell – her work.

“I was doing about 25 shows a year for the past 20 years or so, and I was getting kind of tired of the show circuit. Then, about 2 1/2 years ago, I decided to open my own store,” said Kingsbury, owner of Jewelry by Julie, 19 W. Ninth St.

Now that she has a home base to work from, she only attends seven or eight art festivals each year. And one of those is the annual Art in the Park, always the weekend before Mother’s Day, in South Park.

“I’ve been participating in it for about 18 years. It’s an excellent show – it’s very well-attended and organized. I’ve always done very well there; it’s consistently been one of my top five shows,” she said.

Hers is a common sentiment among Lawrence artists, many of whom tend to take part in Art in the Park year after year, finding it a good venue to get their work seen by the public.

This year’s fine art/fine craft festival – now in its 46th year – will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 6. Organizers estimate that about 135 artists from Lawrence and the surrounding area will have booths there.

The event, which typically attracts crowds of 6,000 to 10,000 people, has become even more important to area artists in recent months, as Lawrence has lost two art galleries where they could showcase their work.

Fields Gallery, long a mainstay on Massachusetts Street, closed in October, and the Olive Gallery & Art Supply , another downtown site, announced its last show in February.

These developments worry Linda Baranski, president of the 250-member Lawrence Art Guild, which organizes both Art in the Park and the Holiday Art Fair, put on each December at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

“If galleries and artistic venues start leaving the downtown area, it will eventually be nothing but bars and restaurants, and that will take away from the aesthetic of what Lawrence is all about,” she said.

“I think that Art in the Park increases exposure not only for the artists who participate, but also for those who attend it. If local galleries are closing, that means fewer Lawrence residents are going to be exposed to art in the downtown area.”

The loss of spaces such as Fields Gallery and the Olive Gallery hurts local artists, according to Baranski.

“They have to find a new venue (in town) to show their work, or they have to go outside Lawrence, to galleries in Kansas City or Manhattan.”

She also thinks it hurts the city itself.

“One of the problems I see is that if you’re the ‘City of the Arts,’ it’s important that there be a lot of galleries where artists can show their work and things that bring people to Lawrence to look at artwork,” Baranski said.

Events like the guild’s Art in the Park and the Holiday Art Fair support local artists by giving them a venue where their work will be seen by thousands of people. The guild strives to keep booth fees reasonable, so that a wide range of artists – including newcomers – can afford to participate.

Artists who take part in these events agree to give back 10 percent of their total sales to the guild, which in turn uses the money to support the local arts community.

Building profits

Baranski points out that guild artists earned more than $100,000 last year at the nonprofit organization’s two annual sales.

“That’s a lot of money, and these events bring many people to Lawrence. Not only are they good for local artists and the arts guild, they also generate money for downtown Lawrence,” she said.

Another appealing aspect of Art in the Park, according to Baranski, is that the artwork is reasonably priced.

“One of the misperceptions (about the festival) is that it’s not going to be in a price range that everyone can afford. But it’s a wonderful place to buy gifts for Mother’s Day. You can find pieces for as little as $10.”

Jen Unekis, a Lawrence artist who does multimedia collage painting, has been participating in Art in the Park since 1989, and she’s a big fan of the event.

“It’s been a great show for me – I’m one of those artists who need deadlines. And it’s a fun show to do. The weather can be a bit iffy, but it’s something to look forward to. It’s a good show to get you going,” she said.

Lawrence tradition

Art in the Park, according to Unekis, is firmly established as a popular event in Lawrence that people anticipate.

“It’s such a part of our community. It’s an event that’s been going on long enough that everybody remembers that it’s the first Sunday in May,” she said.

She describes the event as a refreshing, even democratic, venue for those who set up booths to display their work.

“It think that it’s a voice for the average artist in Lawrence that you can’t necessarily find in the venues that are available right now. In those venues, they typically look for artists who have a degree or a client list or they’ve been working in a specific medium for a length of time,” Unekis said.

She’s a diehard fixture at Art in the Park for a good reason.

“It doesn’t even really matter if I sell anything; it’s something to get me going,” Unekis said. “And I’m supporting an arts event and the arts guild, as well as keeping a tradition going.”