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Art Fair on the Square celebrates 60 years of memories

July 9, 2018

The annual Art Fair on the Square will be Saturday and July 15 this year. This year's event will be the fair's 60th.

For artist Amy Arnold, Madison’s annual Art Fair on the Square could elicit unpleasant childhood memories of sweaty days walking around Capitol Square looking at art.

It could also cue recollections of it helping her develop as an artist.

Or it could remind her of how she met her husband.

Over the years at the nationally known art fair — which starts Saturday — art collections have been added to in addition to forming friendships, relationships and memories.

This will be the fair’s 60th year. Attendees will be able to observe thousands of people or have the chance to buy a wide variety of art.

The fair started as a “sleepy sidewalk sale in 1958” on the West Side, said Madison Museum of Contemporary Art director Stephen Fleischman, and has evolved into one of the largest and most recognized art fairs in the nation, luring well-known artists from across the country to vie for a chance to sell their art.

“Nobody would have predicted that it would be going like it is now,” he said. “At this point, it’s become a backdrop for lots of personal stories.”

The fair is organized by MMOCA and is its biggest fundraiser, raising about $350,000 to $400,000 every year, which is about 20 percent of its yearly budget.

Money from the juried art fair that gets four or five times as many applicants as it can take helps pay for the museum’s other programming throughout the year and keep admission to its State Street location free.

It’s even helped spawn Art Fair Off the Square — which is in its 39th year and isn’t organized by MMOCA — for only Wisconsin artists.

That art fair can be found nearby on the 200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and on the Olin Terrace walkway leading up to the Monona Terrace.

Attendees of the larger fair can interact with the nearly 500 artists at tents lining both sides of the street, buy art or enjoy its food, music and entertainment options.

The fair brings nearly 200,000 visitors to Madison’s Downtown, according to the museum.

Over the years, the sense of community, atmosphere, selection of art and people-watching has kept some volunteers and attendees, like Kathie Nichols, coming back for decades.

Her first art fair was in 1982 when she was a new Madisonian. Since then, she said she’s missed one fair and has spent the years both volunteering and browsing the event as an attendee after her shifts.

“I do try to schedule my vacations around the art fair,” she said. “I love to see what people are doing and thinking and creating. ... Just to be surrounded by that makes me giddy.”

Attending the fair for the first time helped her realize she liked being around artistic minds and appreciated the jobs artists do.

“It’s a hard life … so I just admire them,” she said. “it’s people who are so devoted to their creative artistry.”

For others, like Arnold, of Viroqua, the fair has helped her develop as an artist by “sucking up the artist vibe,” meet other artists and sell her own work. She even met her husband, also an artist, in 2003 at the fair, where he was selling handmade furniture.

The two now collaborate and have sold their wood sculptures at the fair.

She said she first attended the fair as a child and didn’t particularly enjoy it.

“I remember it being really hot and unpleasant as a child and not liking it at all,” Arnold said.

Now, years after first attending in the early 90s, she views it differently.

As a young artist, seeing the art and interacting with the artists helped her see a possible future as an artist, she said.

“It helped me to form a vision in my mind about a possible way,” Arnold said. “Connecting to the people I did through Art Fair on the Square … was also invaluable as far as finding my way and community.”

While Fleischman said the fair has become larger and more complex over the years, the “basic concept is still the same”: a place for artists to sell their wares and a place for an interested public to come and engage with art.

Fleischman’s first experience with Art Fair on the Square was in the early 1980s. He organized the event in 1982 and 1983.

He said Madison’s culture and community has allowed the fair to flourish — and that natural human curiosity and an urge to create things and be creative should allow it to continue to be a top art fair for years to come.

“There’s no reason the event couldn’t be going strong in 60 years,” he said.

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