Gallery owners, retailers and art fair operators have painted two drastically different pictures of how art fairs affect the town of Breckenridge.
After weeks of debate, the Breckenridge Town Council on Tuesday decided to stick with the status quo, leaving town art fairs scheduled on their current weekends during the summer.
The town hosts five art fairs, three of which are for-profit: one is held on Fourth of July weekend, one on Labor Day weekend and another later in July.
Gallery owners and some retailers suggested reducing the number of festivals or moving them to different weekends to extend the shoulder season. They argued this would help their businesses, since art fairs on peak weekends bring in outside vendors.
The issue has been discussed at the last three town council meetings, beginning with a presentation from Ross Raitman of Art on a Whim gallery. Raitman said four galleries have closed in town in the last two years, and since 2007, 14 have closed or moved out of town.
“We are losing the uniqueness of our town,” he said. “Having galleries leave is reducing the sustainability of Breckenridge as a prime destination.”
Mark Beling and Judith Pollack, the husband-and-wife owners of J&M Jewelry in Breck, are in charge of the for-profit art fairs. The pair said moving an art fair earlier or later would be difficult due to the weather.
“There’s a huge difference in weather from that weekend to the next,” Beling said. “For me to be penalized for doing a good job is totally unfair.”
Pollack said in the past, they have donated booths to allow galleries to promote their businesses. While they can’t sell art, because the fairs require the artist be present, she said the galleries didn’t want to participate.
“Very few locals even apply,” she said. “It’s a big expense. Local artisans aren’t prepared to have a professional booth.”
Ron Stein, owner of Flourish gallery, said weather is unpredictable every month of the year, and staffing a booth and his gallery would be difficult.
“In July and August, there’s a ton of people in town regardless of what’s going on,” he said. “For our gallery, our sales plummet during those three weekends.”
Sheri Shelton, owner of Hand and Glove, said the art festivals sell more than fine art, including scarves, soaps and other goods.
“It’s a direct hit to retail shops on Main Street,” she said. “The tent people have an unfair advantage of the advertising the town of Breck already does for events over weekends like Labor Day.”
The town conducted a survey asking surrounding mountain resort communities about their art fairs and what the general perception was. In Vail, there is one art festival in addition to a farmers market where art is sold. That show is the last weekend in June, and is a for-profit event. Aspen has three art shows and a farmers market, one in June and two in July. Both towns said local merchants and galleries embrace the fairs.
For Beling, his priority is to accept artists who will make money and showcase quality work. He said everybody has an opportunity to be screened into the show.
“I know the business and who to pick and how to pick them,” he said. “I don’t have the pool [of applicants] I used to have, I don’t draw a jury.”
Councilman Mike Dudick said he understood how the art fairs had helped build up weekends, but said 38 years later, there are other reasons people come to Breckenridge other than art fairs on those weekends now.
Shelton compared the situation to when the town decided to ban food carts because those outside vendors were taking away business from restaurants in town.
At the Oct. 22 meeting, the six town council members — Mark Burke was absent — decided to leave the art fairs on their current peak weekends with the hopes the parties could reach a compromise in the future.
Councilwoman Wendy Wolfe said the last thing she wanted to do was hurt brick-and-mortar businesses in town.
“The olive branch here is to do everything we can to work with the art fairs to be welcoming for businesses and galleries to join in and participate,” she said.
Councilwoman Jennifer McAtamney was in favor of the fair dates remaining as is, and said she hoped there would be a stronger partnership, with galleries having booths and participating.
“I support the idea of more visitorship on those shoulder seasons, but we can’t change it without the town being the bigger loser,” she said.
Raitman said the art festivals were visibly hurting his business on big weekends.
“Art sales don’t always happen right away,” he said. “We’re losing the opportunity to make connections and sales because people spend their money at these fairs where the vendors just pick up and leave after.”
Councilman Mike Dudick said he wished a compromise had been met before the parties came to town council, saying he felt he was put into a black-or-white position.
“I’m disappointed the community retailers and arts fairs wouldn’t come up with something for us to approve,” he said.
While he rejected the idea that long-term, the fairs were economically bad for the community, he did say the council did not have to accept the status quo.
“We could bolster our shoulder seasons,” he said. “We could say to pick from other weekends with lower occupancy.”
Shelton said the council was unfair in characterizing the merchants and galleries as demanding all or nothing.
“We never suggested that the arts fairs disappear,” she said. “This is no longer an art festival or art fair since there really is no restriction to the type of merchandise that the temporary vendors are allowed to carry.”
For Councilman Gary Gallagher, seeing the results of the survey in other towns was evidence to him that a compromise could have been reached.
“The majority of Main Street retailers and galleries seem to embrace the fairs in other communities,” he said. “Timing, inclusivity, that has to go back to the three parties. It’s not something to be created or regulated here.”
Councilman Ben Brewer said while the town council could prevent fairs from occurring on public land, it couldn’t do much in terms of private land. He agreed the arts fairs are not going away, and wanted galleries to participate.
“I would love to see that arts community, the galleries, retailers, fairs hammer out some solution,” he said. “To target those underperforming weekends and grow them. This is not really our decision to make.”
For Shelton, knowing that the art fairs contribute to the appeal of Breckenridge as a destination was even more evidence the fairs could thrive on a shoulder season weekend. “If that is the case, then art fairs in non-peak months would still contribute to Breckenridge’s appeal as a destination,” she said. “It is narrow-minded to discount the possible effectiveness that they might have in mid to late June or late September.”
“I don’t have the stomach lining to revisit this every year,” Mayor John Warner said. “This has been a difficult process for me. It’s a no-win situation and we’re going to make someone unhappy.”