Small, Southern farming towns are usually artistic subjects, not agents — that is, when they have anything to do with art at all. The depressed rural community, with its empty Main Street, dilapidated City Hall, and long stretches of barren road has long been a favorite with artists of all stripes, particularly photographers, who seem to find a certain authenticity and melancholy in the quiet scenes.
There's one small Southern farming town, however, that's no longer content to be just a subject. Lake City, S.C. is flipping the paradigm on its head with ArtFields, a 10-day "epic Southern art fest" that's going into its second year. Founded and initially funded by the ultra-successful businesswoman, philanthropist, and S.C. native Darla Moore, ArtFields is a kind of creative takeover of Lake City's downtown that places artworks in venues ranging from shoe stores to restaurants to antique shops. The idea is literally to transform the city into one big art venue, attracting out-of-town visitors and spurring economic growth. Of course, promoting Southern art and artists is a priority too — ArtFields awards $100,000 in prizes, both juried and people's choice.
Moore came up with the idea for ArtFields after learning about ArtPrize, a major art festival in Grand Rapids, Mich. that started in 2009 and has grown steadily each year. ArtPrize connects artists (over the age of 18) and Grand Rapids businesses that are within a three square mile district, turning the downtown area into a massive art celebration and competition. And the art prize itself is quite substantial: the grand prize winner for both the juried and public voting categories receive $200,000, with eight other category winners receiving $20,000 each.
While the merits of such a democratic approach to the question "What is great art?" are up for debate, with passionate opinions on both sides, one thing that's impossible to deny is that ArtPrize has pumped serious money into Grand Rapids' economy. According to the festival's most recent annual report, ArtPrize 2013 brought in $22.1 million in new economic activity.
It was this aspect of the festival that really got Moore thinking. Karen Fowler, the director of ArtFields, worked with Moore on the project from the beginning. "We've been in the middle of revitalizing our town for five years, and I had been involved in that on a lesser scale," Fowler says. "[Darla] came to me with this idea, and was it something we could try in Lake City? It was like, 'Why not?' What have we got to lose?"
The idea was a regional version of ArtPrize, with a few key differences. For one thing, ArtFields would focus on Southeastern artists, limiting entries to those from individuals from the 12 Southeastern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. For another, the entries would be judged and either accepted or rejected, as opposed to ArtPrize, which leaves the decision-making up to the individual venues. And then, of course, there's the fact that Lake City has a population of about 6,500 to Grand Rapids' 190,000.
While most groups would start small and work up to hosting something as ambitious as ArtFields, that was never an option for Fowler and her team, who began planning the first ArtFields early in 2012. "We wanted something that would put us on the map, a big idea," she says. "We knew being a small town we had to have something pretty phenomenal if we were going to reach out to the Southeast and try to pull something off in a year and a half."
The group decided to locate the festival in Lake City's downtown area, which meant selling the idea to the local businesses there. "You have to understand that was probably the hardest part of all. I laugh and say it was a little like the story of Noah and the Ark — you walk in and you say OK, we want you to be a venue for art and there are going to be artists and 25,000 people here in a year. And they're like — OK. But we were like bulldozers. We kept pleading and convincing. We knew that was the key to what would make this successful and make our town successful."
And by nearly anyone's standards, the inaugural ArtFields was a success. The 10-day festival attracted 22,000 people — more than three times the town's population — and pumped a whopping $5.4 million into the local economy, according to an economic impact study conducted by Miley and Associates of Columbia. Fowler says seven to 10 new businesses have opened up on Lake City's Main Street alone since the last ArtFields.
Merchants who'd been hard to convince the first time around have jumped on board without hesitation this year, and new ones have joined them. Emerson Row, a furniture and home decor store that opened after last year's ArtFields, is one of those. "I saw great results," owner Emily Richardson says. "I saw so much traffic in the area — it exceeded our expectations." Richardson signed on to display works by 12 artists, including the Columbia-based Laura Spong, Charleston's Karen Hewitt Hagan, and Savannah's Jennifer Moss. Her store is one of more than 50 venues (up from last year's 37) that will display 400 works of art, including around 50 room-sized installation pieces, throughout Lake City's downtown.
While the focus of ArtFields was, and still is, on making Lake City a vibrant destination, Fowler says that her vision for the festival has grown in the past year. "I'm very passionate about Lake City, but once ArtFields came last year ... our attention turned to the artists. Really the Southern artist has never had a platform on this scale before. So often Southern artists become successful when they move up North or go to Europe. That has given us as much pride as anything."
It's unusual that that platform should end up being in a little town that most people, even South Carolinians, have never heard of, but that's part of what makes ArtFields so unique. "This is a very rich story in the sense that I believe that all of us have a small town somewhere in our existence. You're from one, or you had a family member who was from one," Fowler says. "I really think a lot of the success was of course the fabulous art, but also this wonderful idea of a small town."
See the full ArtFields schedule, which includes events like a portrait painting contest, a "Before I Die" Wall, a Fields to Fork Dinner, and the ArtFields After Dark 'Arty, at artfieldssc.org.