By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Moving the Main St. Fort Worth Arts Festival and the nearly half-million North Texans who flock to browse its arts- and crafts-filled booths, suck the marrow out of turkey legs, and swill margaritas made with wine instead of tequila was harder on the organizers than it was on the crowds. The usual throng of street party-hardy followed the tornado-stricken festival from downtown Fort Worth to what became known, if only for a long weekend, as "Main St. West." The street fair was held April 13-16 in a new, admittedly art-friendly venue on Lancaster Street in and around Cowtown's three big museums. It was a last-minute headache for Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the nonprofit that puts on the festival and the group of staffers and volunteers who had planned for more than a year to make things run smoothly; but, as far as the teeming masses were concerned, they pulled it off.
And, if you believe what you read in most newspapers, they also made the best of a bad situation with the festival's juried art exhibition. The show, called the Festival Exhibition, is the highlight of the Main St. event for many local and regional artists, arts professionals, commercial gallerists, and other serious followers of the metroplex art scene. And, up until this year, the juried show had gained newfound respect by the DFW Inc. event-meisters, who, in turn, were relieved to be criticized less and less for tokenism when it came to making true, local, contemporary art a significant part of the "arts" festival. For the last three years, the show featured respected, often out-of-the-area jurors; was diligently promoted; was held adjacent to the art fair at Fort Worth's now-defunct Contemporary Art Center downtown; and garnered growing critical acclaim for the quality of the art and the edginess of the exhibition.
For the Festival Exhibition this year, 800 individual pieces of art were submitted in slide form from 180 artists across the nation to be hand-picked by lone juror Joan Davidow, director of the Arlington Museum of Art. DFW Inc.'s manager of festivals and events, Stephen King, and the Modern Art Museum's public relations officer, Carrie Ann Wantuchowicz, had been interested in hanging the show in the Modern's downtown annex in Sundance Square for the 2000 event. In light of the CAC's closing in 1999, the Modern seemed a likely venue. "Stephen and I worked on the concept for almost a year," Wantuchowicz says. "[Museum director] Marla Price and I talked about the possibility of hosting the Festival Exhibition and decided we did want to do it."
On view online
This year, though, the same March 28 tornado that kept the booths off Main Street kept the high art out of the Modern's annex at Fourth and Houston streets. Most of the annex's street-side windows are gone. And the best that festival organizers could do for the show was to hastily arrange a "virtual exhibition" on the Main St. Web site (www.msfwaf.org). Log on, and you'll find the 41 chosen works pictured as tiny thumbnail images alongside a list of the 31 artists who created them. Double-click the postage-stamp-size art, and the images download to fill about a third of your monitor screen. And that is this year's Festival Exhibition.
Rumblings of dissatisfaction rose up from some of the exhibition artists and close watchers of the local art scene as soon as word leaked that there would be no "actual" exhibition. Characterized as a "damn shame" and a "crying shame," sentiment ran from "we can't get no respect" to one local artist's theory -- "Just wait till next year. There will be no storm, but Downtown Fort Worth Inc., will say how great the online show was and will advocate keeping it that way." Even as Main St. has made more of a commitment to fine art in its last three years, there remains a degree of cynicism about how important the juried show really is to the event -- in dollars and cents particularly. Another artist who requested anonymity put it this way. "They don't make a dime off the juried show," she says. "And it doesn't attract the same kind of crowd."
Festival Exhibition coordinator Andrea Loubier puts a much better spin on the online exhibition, making it sound like a true innovation rather than a last-ditch effort to save the show. First-timer Loubier frantically called Fort Worth commercial and co-op galleries in the cultural district to relocate the exhibition when the decision was made to move the main event. She says all of the gallerists and museum officials were sympathetic to the cause, but none could accommodate the Festival Exhibition on such short notice. "A show of this nature which was a museum-quality show had to have adequate space, adequate security, and a venue with an adequate reputation," she says. "The problem is, the quality spaces are booked months in advance."
On the record, most of the festival artists were resigned to the fate of this year's exhibition. They weren't terribly enthusiastic, but seemed unwilling to criticize the organizers of a competition that had recognized their talents. Denton-based artist Tudor Mitroi, who had a piece in last year's exhibition, says he was pleased to have two of his 3-D, wall-mounted works selected for this year's show, but has mixed feelings about the "virtual" exposure. "I think it's not going to hurt me," he says from the University of North Texas, where he is a teaching fellow working on his master's in fine art. "It may not be very helpful as well. It's kind of disappointing because I do believe works of art have a physical presence. You can't replace that. It's a completely different experience, but I guess the Web site is not a bad idea."
Dallas artist Wayne Wolfe echoes Mitroi's ambivalence about the "virtual exhibition," but wonders why no real gallery space could be found. "I'm somewhat sad to see that we can't actually hang our work," laments Wolfe, who works by day in commercial photography to support his photographic art endeavors. "With all the museums there, I thought there would be one museum that could do something for us. I'm sure there is an elite system here and we're considered only hobbyists."
Photographer Kitty Snead, also of Dallas, says she would have preferred to have her "Venetian Boys" hang in an "actual, real museum," but is satisfied by the Internet show. "I can tell I am in very good company, although there's no detail in the images on the Net," she says. "It would have been a very good show," she adds wistfully. Snead says being selected was a "wonderful break" for her, and she's hoping to attract the interest of a commercial gallerist through this effort. "Gallery directors go to juried shows like this," she says. Surely, all the artists speculate, local gallerists will take the time to log on to see their work.
Joan Davidow believes they will. She says she's already gotten some new ideas for future exhibitions at the Arlington Museum of Art from her experience as the Festival Exhibition juror. "The work that I chose is a strong presentation," Davidow says. "I think the Internet show is a fabulous solution. This is the day and time we live in, and creating a virtual exhibit because of a natural disaster is truly creative thinking. And that's what contemporary art is all about -- creative thinking." Davidow says the necessity to view the work over and over in slide form and on the Net, rather than in person, helped her develop some future exhibition ideas. "I saw a couple of patterns," she says. "And I saw a lot of work I didn't know. I tromp around a lot, but I recognized very few artists." She didn't play favorites, but some of the winners in the Festival Exhibition may end up on the real walls and down the real halls at the AMA in 2001. "I'm not saying which ones or what I'm thinking," Davidow says. "I see a kind of wave of ideas."