Des Moines Art Festival 2012 review

Posted by on Jul 20, 2012 in art in tents | No Comments
Des Moines Art Festival 2012 review

After a spring of experimentation with indoor craft shows, I was looking forward to my first outdoor fine arts festival of the summer. This year, that would be Des Moines, which I was attending as an exhibiting artist for the first time.

This is the part where I tell you that this a long review, because long reviews are what I do:

Des Moines has an excellent reputation as a show with very high standards.  It’s a hard one to get accepted into, with a rejection rate of 84%. Here are the application results they sent me for 2012:

  • 1,093 applications received (1,097 in 2011)
  • 1,085 applications approved for jurying
  • 1,054 applicants were professional artists (1,061 in 2011)
  • 39 applicants are Emerging Iowa Artists (36 in 2010)
  • Applications were received from artists in 48 states and two countries
  • 174 spaces will be available through the jury process. The balance of 11 are reserved for returning award winners.
  • 1,085 applications represents 6,510 images
  • Over 850 artists will be eliminated

Of the shows I’m doing this year, this was the one I felt most excited about being accepted into. The jury was as educated and impressive as you’ll see. Being given the nod by this group was a validation of my work that I appreciated beyond the usual gratification at being accepted into a show. (If you’re curious, I’ll append the jury list at the bottom of this review.)

I also appreciated being singled out for mention by art critic Michael Moraine in the Des Moines Register. He put together a list of 11 things to see while at the Festival, and I came in at number two. Wow. Several attendees mentioned seeing me in the article and stopping by because of it.


des moines festival my booth 225x188 Des Moines Art Festival 2012 review

My booth during the Des Moines Art Festival

The Logistics

This show is very well organized. I’m tempted to say extremely well organized. I was provided with plenty of info for finding my way to the check-in point, and doing so was easy. Likewise, Des Moines is an easy town to get around in a F250. The first and really only logistical glitch I encountered was when the check-in volunteer told me my booth was a block away, when in fact it was approximately 15 feet away from where she was standing. This resulted in much slow maneuvering through congested streets lined with artists and vendors and all their stuff in an effort to circle all the way around and get back to where I started. Annoying but not malicious. File under “oops.”

And now for a brief lecture from your mother. Skip ahead past the italics if you want to continue with the review:

Just because it’s an honest mistake, doesn’t mean you don’t have to apologize. I realize we’re not an apologizing culture. Admit no wrong. Pretend it never happened. That’s more our style. But, perversely, while we’re a people who doesn’t want to do any apologizing, we’re also a people who wants to be apologized toDirecting me to my spot was part of your job. I know you, the girl who sent me in circles looking for my booth spot, realized your mistake when you saw me drive back around and park right in front of you. I know you think it was an honest mistake, and maybe thought no apology was necessary. And you were probably afraid if you apologized I’d lay into you. Well, to put it as kindly as I can: tough. The fact is, most people are not going to lay into a sincere apologizer owning up to an honest mistake. If they do, lump it and move on. You did screw up, after all. But when you pretend it didn’t happen, people really get steamed. This can be a problem when you represent a business whose reputation, like it or not, rests partially in your hands. The data show (and yes, this has been researched) that people are a pretty forgiving lot, as long as they get the apology. Otherwise, people are a pretty grudge-holding lot, and with the anonymous internet so ready to hand, it’s oh-so-easy to write some really nasty things about businesses, and people, who done them wrong.

As to you, the girl who sent me in circles looking for my booth spot, every time I saw you that weekend, I didn’t think of you as that terrific volunteer who gave freely of her time to make this event run smoothly, I thought of you as that dippy chick who sent me on a wild goose chase looking for a spot fifteen feet from where she was standing. Owning up to your silly, very understandable mistake would have made the difference between respecting you and not.

End of lecture. On with logistics.

Set-up was the Thursday before the show and I was able to park right in front of my booth and unload (after having performed the circle tour). Since I got there late I didn’t end up having to move my truck out of the way and come back, which was nice because parking is way off site. I was aware of this fact (because the show organizers had pointed it out) and came prepared with a bike to get me from parking lot to booth, but the gestapo wouldn’t let me ride through the streets. God knows why, I never tried to ride the bike during show hours, only before and after, and there were plenty of other people riding around who didn’t seem to be getting yelled at, but whatever. Since my booth was right at the entrance of Grand I took to merely riding around the perimeter of the show site. Easy peasy.

This is a long show. Very long. Three days: 11 hours on Friday, 12 on Saturday, and 7 on Sunday. Because the show continues after dark, you need lights. Electricity is provided free of charge.

Indoor restrooms are available for the volunteers and artists, as are plenty of port-a-potties. All were nasty, but not the worst you’ve ever seen. The indoor facilities were dirty enough that I didn’t think them worth the walk, and I wasn’t that far away.

des moines festival port a potties 225x168 Des Moines Art Festival 2012 review

A platoon of potties at 12th and Grand, over a bit and across from my booth

Some food and drink is also available for the artists. The food is nothing to get excited about. Weirdly enough, volunteers wandered around offering water and carrying snacks. They never offered the snacks, not even when I asked what they had. They only ever claimed to have water. This happened several times. It remains a mystery.

Volunteers are more abundant at this show than any I’ve ever seen. Getting a booth sitter was, for the first time ever literally in my entire art show life, not a problem. For a solo show artist, this is very nice.

Weather reports are frequent. This show seems to have a decent system in place for alerting to weather events, although I don’t know what they’d do with an actual problem. My booth did flood during the rain, stranding me on my stool at one point, and no one ever came to check on me. But I have to say that communication generally is well above average. Emails and documents before and during the show are abundant and clear, but not overwhelming. The show comes with a huge artist’s info folder, providing maps, festival information, and contacts for everybody you might ever need to contact, including the director, Stephen King. And now might be a good time to say a word or two about him.

I used to be a member of the NAIA, and at least back then, Stephen King was hands-down the most involved and engaged member who was not himself an artist. This, sadly, is not really saying much. I’m no longer a member of NAIA because the energy level was so low and the leadership (with some important exceptions) insular. Still, King’s tenure and activities with the organization speak to a level of commitment to the artist’s perspective that all too few show directors share. It strikes me as inarguable that King, and his show, take issues like buy/sell, artistic integrity, and the needs of the artists very seriously. The quality of his show stands as testimony to that dedication. I don’t know the man, and like anyone else I don’t doubt he has his detractors, but what I’ve seen for myself is impressive.

Dog and Pony Show?

I’m on record being opposed to art fairs that try to be all things to all people, and the Des Moines Festival may lose points in some people’s minds — maybe even mine, I’m on the fence at the moment — for going down that road. Along with the visual art that is there to be sold, not merely viewed as entertainment, there are plenty of other events that fall squarely into the “entertainment” category, even if of a relatively high caliber. Those include musical performances all weekend, kids play activities, fireworks, and a film festival. At least there are no jugglers or clowns. Or actual ponies.

The festival is open well into the night primarily to accommodate the musical performances. As with most outdoor concerts that aren’t opera, there is much drinking of alcohol involved. I did not find that it loosened wallets much if at all, but it did result in sangria being spilled all over my table. Of course, inconsiderate idiocy does not require inebriation. Earlier the same day a completely sober woman dripped ice cream onto my bracelets and plopped her baggage-worthy purse down right on top of my necklace display.

Nighttime shoplifting also became a problem serious enough to warrant an increased police presence and a warning from security. Evidently some very pricey items went missing from several jewelry booths. One drunken reveler was becoming tiresome enough that I nearly called security myself, but he left my booth just as my patience threatened to snap.

garbage and smoothies in Des Moines 225x209 Des Moines Art Festival 2012 review

Note two things. Thing one: options for recycling as well as composting waste. Yay! Thing Two: this is the intersection where I was located. Note crowd size. And still they're lining up for $6 smoothies. Sigh.

Fair food is abundant. I’m astounded that people are willing to pay six bucks for an artificially flavored “smoothie” and then complain about paying forty bucks for a necklace. Okay. Six bucks goes into forty bucks almost seven times. You hereby have my guarantee that my necklace will last at least seven times longer than your smoothie, will not make you fat, and probably even tastes better.

Food and Lodging

The Des Moines Art Festival is one of a handful that provide hosting services for participating artists. The way it works is, someone who lives locally volunteers to open their house, free of charge, to artists so that they can have a low-cost place to sleep, shower, and, if necessary, vomit. I decided to give it a go, but not having done it before did not know what to expect. A survey of artists of my acquaintance turned up a mess of mixed feelings. Most artists choose not to go this route, preferring the relative predictability and privacy of hotels. I, however, had just lost a boatload of money back east doing expensive craft shows, and the hotel constitutes a very big chunk of the art show artist’s expense. I figured the worst that could happen would be I’d be denned up with a psycho killer, and even that would make a good blog entry.

Turns out that’s almost what happened, or so I like to believe. The host to whom I was assigned disappeared off the face of the earth. Email was no longer in service. Phones, including cell phone, were disconnected. (nobody I know disconnects their cell phone unless they’re running from the law or have entered witness protection.) Who vets these people? I still don’t know.

So the good people at the Des Moines Festival artist’s accommodations committee promptly set about finding me another host, hopefully one not planning to flee the jurisdiction. Her name was Kim, and she, her husband, and her ridiculously cute dogs were a pleasure to intrude upon. The kids had left the nest, leaving two perfectly good rooms open for occupation by an itinerant artist. One who would, that very first night, get herself poisoned by a local Thai restaurant.

I will now digress for a moment to discuss eating in Des Moines.

Des Moines, it should be noted, is the host of the 2012 World Pork Expo. Really, look it up.  If you lay down money that it isn’t the most vegetarian-friendly city on earth you would win that bet. Still, there are plenty of ethnic options and those usually serve me well. However, my fatal choice was the first Thai restaurant, called the Nut Pob, that I happened upon after unloading, and I was sick within an hour. By midnight I was doing things in my host’s very lovely bathroom that are better forgotten. Let’s just say I’ve got the decor in that room memorized, having spent a great deal of time in there that night.

Bad food would be a leitmotif this trip. The one place I found advertised as specializing in vegetarian fare was, conveniently enough, right on the show grounds. A place called Ritual Cafe, it is first and foremost a coffee shop (they’re clear about that) but they do advertise their vegetarian offerings. The day I stopped by those offerings consisted of two pre-made wraps, soggy from their long imprisonment in a cooler and thin to begin with. “Yuck” would be the best word. Service here was also bad enough to drive the person ahead of me out of line and out of the restaurant. I can’t speak to the coffee.

The next day I tried a restaurant called “Host,” also on the grounds and next to a Jimmy John’s. I chose Host over JJ because I like to try new things and support the non-chain locals. The fact that there was only one other diner in the restaurant should have been a clue. I thought the Great Dane wandering around inside the dining room was cute, but others might be less charmed by this health code impropriety. Host was serving a limited Art Show menu, and I picked the panini. My $12 sandwich arrived both late and burnt, despite there being no other tasks pressing on the cook. From that point on it was Jimmy John’s and Subway — stars all around for both. At least now I have some insight into why so many travelers don’t risk the local cuisine and stick with the chains. These bad apples won’t change my habits, and I was assured by many that Des Moines has many excellent restaurants and mine was just a run of bad luck. Maybe next time my luck will be better. Oh, and I learned, at the end of the last day, that the library on the edge of the grounds has an excellent juice bar. Wish I’d known that sooner.

Being Hosted, and Avoiding the Stomach Pump

des moines festival in the drizzle 225x209 Des Moines Art Festival 2012 review

The drizzle was actually one of the better weather moments.

Des Moines marked a lot of firsts for me: first time in the city, first time at that show, first time lighting an outdoor tent, first time using a volunteer host, and first time I’ve ever had food poisoning.

It is as bad as they say. You know, somewhere in what’s left of your mind, that you don’t want to die this way, but deep in your heart you believe that it might be for the best. By midnight I was dizzily clinging to my tablet trying to find hospitals and urgent care clinics. And I realized something interesting: had I been staying in a hotel, I would have called the desk, had them get me a cab, and gone to the emergency room. Which would have made Des Moines the first time I ever had my stomach pumped too. But I was too sick to do it. And this from a life-long member of the avoid-the-doctor-at-all-costs school of health care. I was too sick to get a number and call a cab, too sick to try to figure out what the address was I was staying at, too sick to get myself downstairs to wait for said cab, WAY too sick to even think about driving myself anywhere, much less anywhere in a strange city.

Well, eventually I unloaded all there was to unload of my poisonous pad Thai and, sometime in the wee hours, finally fell asleep. I was still green in the morning but not so I’d have to skip the show, which, I was convinced the night before, was going to be the case. What fun.

And this experience has enabled me to compile my List of Things to Consider That Never Occurred to Me When Considering Staying with a Host. I hope you find it useful:

  • You may have to creep past your host’s bedroom every time you make a trip to the toilet. This may happen more often than you can ever imagine.
  • Their water will be different from yours, and you may not like it. Even if you never buy bottled water, you should buy bottled water and bring it with you.
  • Their locks may be confoundedly tricky to operate, and you may have to leave their house unlocked. This will cause you great distress, no matter how cool the hosts are about it.
  • The light switches may be hard to find in the dark. Ditto the paper towels. And the Lysol.
  • Their dogs may eat your sunscreen. This will also cause you great distress, no matter how cool the hosts are about it. (the pups avoided the stomach pump too, luckily. Dog digestion is tougher than mine, I suppose.)

With hosts, lots of bad things can happen that are very unlikely to happen in a hotel: The bed might be a torture device disguised as furniture, the house might be too hot or too cold and full of unfamiliar noises, the hosts might keep weird hours or weird birds or smoke weird plants. The dogs or snakes or civet cats might have fleas or  mange or rabies or diabetes or something. There might be kids and the kids might be monsters, or screamers, or have fleas or mange or rabies or something. The hosts might force you to eat their 2012 World Expo prize-winning pork sandwiches, which they will also make you pray over in a strange religion to which you don’t subscribe. The room might be decorated with dead animals or precious nicknacks on the side table that you keep crashing into. The list goes on.

Or something else might happen: you might get to know the kinds of people who volunteer to let strangers sleep in their beds because they support the arts and are involved in their communities. You might get to share a home you would otherwise never see the inside of, in a kind of openness, intimacy, and generosity that is rare today. You might get to be part of a long history of travelers who have relinquished their fates to the mercy of strangers and found that hospitality is not a dead virtue. You might make new friends. I don’t know if I’ll ever stay with hosts again. But mine were gems. And I’m glad I did. (and I’m glad they’re heavy sleepers)

Bottom Line

view from behind the booth 225x168 Des Moines Art Festival 2012 review

The view from behind the booth. Oh Steaz! How I love thee!

The Des Moines show has a reputation for bad weather and good sales. This time around, for me at least, that was only half true. Friday was good weather-wise, but Saturday saw enough rain to flood the gutters and leave standing water six inches up my table drapes. Sunday was hot. As in record-breaking hot. People came, but the money was spotty. I was next to a blacksmith, for whom this was also his first trip to Des Moines, whose sales were grim. He said he would normally not repeat a show when sales were that bad, but the reputation of this show is strong enough that he might be willing to give it another try, especially since he was only coming from Madison.

I was across from one of my jewelry role models, an artist whose star is shining pretty brightly at the moment, and her sales were grim as well. She has done this show several times before, and has always been happy with it. She said that this year was unusual. My theory would be that we had a bad location: right at the entrance on Grand Ave. at 12th. Except that my impression is that the glass artist next to me did well, and she came all the way from Oregon to do the show again.

Here’s the chart:


Who Took The Money

How Much They Got

What It Was For

Festival Committee


booth fee

Festival Committee and Zapp


application fee

the people who tried to poison me





getting there and back






stomach drugs and clip on lights



sale value of donated art work for my host



total expenses



total sales



net gain


 as always, not accounting for my time, overhead, materials, etc.


$1000 shy of the ten-times-the-booth-fee benchmark of $3750 in sales. Once again, this benchmark would be a decent minimum. Given the very long days, sales should have been very much better. Breaking this down per hour spent in the booth makes this an even less productive show than others that are only open half as long.

But would I do it again? The long days, even with food poisoning, weren’t as bad as I feared they would be. At most out-of-town shows the evenings are just spent killing time anyway, since I’m too tired to party and it’s too late to do much else. Des Moines is an eight hour drive for me. Since we still have our house in Prior Lake I was able to break the trip in half, which meant I didn’t have to spend Sunday night with the host or in a hotel, and I didn’t have to leave early on the way out to make it in time to set up the day before. Next year that won’t be true. Which means next year expenses would be higher.

des moines street view 225x184 Des Moines Art Festival 2012 review

the crowd at the Des Moines Art Festival

There’s a lot going on at this show that I’m sure I’ve forgotten to touch on. For example, every day we had a copy of the Des Moines Register delivered to our tents. That was cool. And there was ample space around the tents for maneuvering — each tent had an aisle on either side which was very nice. At least in theory. I heard that many artists just spread out into that space, impinging on their neighbors and defeating the purpose. Can’t blame the show for bad artist behavior, though I don’t know if any attempts were made to police it. Also, this show layout does not have many natural corners, which means most “corner” booths were just aisle booths with wider-than-usual spaces between them. This looked weird to me. Every tent had a sign with a phone-scannable code linking to the artist’s website. I never saw anybody use them.

No doubt about it, the quality of this show is good, and everyone says sales potential is real. Organization is exceptional and concern for the artist apparent. I can see myself applying for this show again, although probably not for 2013 as it’s looking like 2013 may be a show-free year for me while we move and regroup. After that, it’s just a matter of getting in, a not-so-easy feat. But worth another try, I think.



Jury List:

David Bryce was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, and subsequently completed his MFA at the Queens College of the City University of New York.  He has been a featured artist in numerous galleries and exhibitions, including the Brooklyn Museum Community Gallery, Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts, the New York Museum, and the Museum of Art (Munson-Williams Proctor Institute).  He is currently living in the Berkshires in Massachusetts with his wife and their two children.


Laura Burkhalter has been on the Des Moines Art Center’s curatorial staff since 1999, serving as Curatorial Assistant till 2004, Assistant Curator from 2004-2009, and Associate Curator since then. Her exhibitions include Meet the New You, World Histories, Surface Value, and various incarnations of Iowa Artists. Burkhalter has also served as the Art Center’s Docent Educator since 2005. She graduated from the University of Iowa in 1997 with a B.A. in English and Art History, and is a native of Des Moines.


Chris Dahlquist learned to use a camera and the darkroom as she was learning to ride a bicycle and write in cursive.  She has held a camera in her hands ever since.  Chris spent the early part of her career in commercial photography, film, and teaching kids photo basics.  Since 1998 she has participated in top national juried art festivals from Miami to Seattle. Chris’ photographic mixed media has won many awards, is in hundreds of private collections, and is in many corporate & municipal collections, including Winter Park, Florida, Pacific University, H&R Block and Blue Cross Blue Shield.


Born in Pendleton, Oregon, in 1952, Jerry Allen Gilmore earned a BFA in fiber and painting, a minor in both art history and creative writing/poetry from Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington, and an MFA in painting and drawing from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Over the past thirty years, Gilmore has built a unique and impressive career as both an artist and arts administrator including a combined fourteen years in Director and Curatorial practice at MARS Art-space, Phoenix, Arizona, the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, Fort Collins, Colorado, the CU Art Galleries, University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, and most recently, Visual Arts Director / Curator at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, Arvada, Colorado. Upon relocation to Saint Paul, Minnesota, Gilmore has continued his curatorial projects, artist portfolio reviews, jurying for both regional and national art institutions and continually discovering his own personal artwork and writings.


Gilmore has exhibited in New York, San Francisco, New Zealand, Peru, and Mexico.  His work also appears in the collections of the Nordstrom Corporation, the Tucson Museum of Art, the Arizona State University Art Museum, the Denver Art Museum and among numerous private collections throughout the U.S. Gilmore’s intimate miniatures and sweeping, large scale drawings are deceptively personal as he adopts a cast of animated characters and symbols to relate his own story, this work playfully addresses the often awkward issues of stereotypes, self identity, sexuality and religion with a keen sense of humor.


Peter Goché is an installation artist based in Ames, Iowa. He is an adjunct professor in the Department of Architecture and Industrial Design at Iowa State University. Goché holds a Master’s degree in Architecture from Iowa State University. He taught in the Department of Art at Drake University before joining the faculty at the Iowa State University, where he coordinates and teaches design studios exploring architecture in relation to culture, landscapes and fabrication. For the last decade Goché has produced research assemblies specific to the ritualized landscape of Iowa. He is co-investigator/author of Guidelines for Spatial Regeneration in Iowa funded by the 2007 AIA Board of Knowledge Committee. Goché has presented his design-work and scholarship at many conferences and cultural institutions in North America.