The Art of the Festival
How the Allentown Art Festival makes it work
By Anna Hausmann

The Allentown Art Festival is one of the largest, most prestigious, most successful outdoor art shows in the nation. It attracts exhibitors from across the country, as well as from Canada and Europe, and draws enormous crowds each year to a small, historic neighborhood in the heart of Buffalo. This venerable uber-festival serves as anchor and inspiration for the summer festival season in Buffalo, coming as it does the first full weekend in June every year.

Allentown
Archival images of the Allentown Art Festival, at
Irving and Allen in 1958.
Archival images courtesy of the Allentown Village Society.
Over the years, the Allentown Art Festival has also attracted its share of criticism from a wide variety of detractors—from art critics who have decried it as the “Allentown Hobby Fair,” as well as from merchants and residents in the neighborhood who have criticized its rules prohibiting everything from sidewalk sales to yard sales during the festival weekend. And over and above disagreements over where to draw the line between art and crafts is the philosophical issue of whether art should ever be propped up on the sidewalk.

The fact is that the Allentown Festival has come far from its roots as a decidedly commercial endeavor—some say it has come too far, in fact, and at times takes itself too seriously as a venue for art. But through it all, the Allentown Festival manages to put on a show—and does it quite successfully. For many artists interested in selling their wares, the Allentown is their best selling show of the year. For Buffalo, the festival is a magnet, bringing tens of thousands of people from everywhere—who otherwise might never think of visiting Buffalo—into an inner city neighborhood. For the residents of Allentown, it can be a bit of a mixed blessing, on the one hand showcasing their neighborhood—but on the other creating a situation where it becomes difficult to go about their daily business.

Allentown
Allentown 1961.
Archival images courtesy of the Allentown Village Society.
And in a way, that variety of opinions and mixture of good and bad is the hallmark of the Allentown Festival. It has always been a lightning rod for criticism, even as the organization that runs it, the Allentown Village Society, provides important funding for local arts education. It’s a mixed bag—kind of like what you’re likely to find at the festival.

“Greenwich Village in Buffalo”
Not even the creation story of the festival can escape this inconsistency. The sanctioned history of the festival, offered by the Allentown Village Society on its website and in its archives, describes the Allentown Festival as the savior of a neighborhood in decline. Maybe it’s all in one’s perspective, and maybe it’s revisionist history—but maybe it depends on if you’re an artist or a business owner.

Mary Myszkiewicz, president of the Allentown Village Society, remembers the Allentown of her girlhood as a vibrant and thriving business district. “There were so many really classy shops where the fancy, wealthy people shopped,” she recalls. “There was a furrier, a flower shop, a millinery, a corset shop. The cars would be lined up along Allen Street and the chauffeurs would run into the shops to pick up things.”

But by the mid-1950s, the old businesses began to close and the neighborhood began to change. “No one was buying custom-made corsets anymore,” Myszkiewicz notes. Myzkiewicz’s mother owned the Buffalo Cloth Weaving Company and she remembers her mother sending her on errands throughout Allentown during her childhood. “But by the early fifties I wouldn’t have felt comfortable going around by myself,” she says. The neighborhood began to feel dangerous and people stopped coming there to shop.

Allentown
Allentown 1971.
Archival images courtesy of the Allentown Village Society.
But there were other shops that made up Allentown, as George Palmer recalls. Palmer, a portrait artist who had a studio just north of Allentown at Bryant and Main Street, remembers Allentown of the late fifties as an eclectic mix of artists and retail shops, much like it is today. “That area was always rather arty,” he notes. Palmer, who grew up in Buffalo and attended the Albright Art School, lived in New York for seven years before returning to Buffalo in 1958. Palmer recalls that Allentown was home to numerous artists’ studios, including that of Louis Cherenzia, one of the founders of the Festival whose studio now houses the offices of the Allentown Village Society.

Westley Olmsted, a painter and sculptor who also attended the Albright Art School, also remembers Allentown as the center of a creative spirit. “It was Greenwich Village in Buffalo,” he says, “there were restaurants, bars, lots of studios. But it wasn’t as precious as it has become today.” Olmsted recalls it as not a pretty or gentrified neighborhood but says it was “an important place for creativity because of its proximity to the Philharmonic, to Buffalo State, to the Albright Knox. There were studios all over the place, people were working hard on their art.”

So whether one sees it as gritty or charming, decaying or bohemian, the fact remains that by 1958 a small group of business owners in Allentown were searching for a marketing tool to reinvent a neighborhood and business district that they saw in decline. There were, of course, artists involved in the conception of the art festival, including Cherenzia and the festival’s first chairman, Tony Sisti, an artist who had a gallery on Franklin Street. Olmsted notes that the idea of an outdoor art festival was very current, very New York and European.

But in the beginning it was essentially business owners trying to think of a way to get people into Allentown, to increase foot traffic, and to publicize the fact that they were still plugging away. The program from the third festival in 1960 contains this plug for area businesses: “Allentown encompasses a variety of fine stores and services … The area is easily accessible and parking is available … SO … shop the Allentown area … You’ll find the best of everything.”

The first year there were fifty exhibitors. But the festival was an immediate success and grew rapidly until, by 1970, the year of the infamous Allentown Riot, there were over six hundred exhibitors.

Allentown
Allentown 1961.
Archival images courtesy of the Allentown Village Society.
“Buffalo Art Festival”
In the beginning, it was called the “Buffalo Art Festival” and the first one was actually held in the autumn. There was not yet the organization, structure, or regulations that we see today. Bob Jumper, a painter and illustrator who exhibited that first year and every year after until 2001, remembers that in the beginning things were pretty informal. “We’d just go pick out a spot and lay our paintings out on the lawn. After a few years, they started giving us spots and I ended up in front of the Holiday Inn where I stayed for many years.” Jumper recalls that a group of fellow artists would meet for breakfast at the Howard Johnson’s on Delaware.

Ron Colgrove, who began exhibiting in the second or third year of the festival and continues to exhibit, also remembers well this informality. “We’d just lay our paintings out anywhere we could, we didn’t have the tents we have now. For many years I set up at the corner of North and Delaware and George Palmer was right across the street from me. I remember one year George had a beautiful painting that he’d just sold and a stick came falling down from the trees, right through it. He had to repaint it.”

Mary Johnson, a painter of impressionistic watercolors who has exhibited every year since the very first year, remembers one year when a big wind came and took all her paintings with it. “We just picked it all up and kept going. We didn’t have the tents we have today.” And Gretchen Sweet, who began exhibiting with her mother while still in high school, remembers stringing line up on the front porch of a house on Virginia Street to display her work.

Allentown Art Festival Facts
Over time, however, this informality was of necessity replaced with the regulation, some would say rigidity, that characterizes the festival today. The free-form lack of structure of the festival caused it to grow into an art show-cum-street fair. Sean Hill, an attorney who has had his practice in Allentown for thirty years and has been active in the Allentown Association and the Allentown Village Society, says that during the sixties the festival was an “anything goes proposition.” Hill did extensive research on the festival and in 2000 wrote the festival’s submission to the Library of Congress’ “Local Legacy” project during which he uncovered a number of newspaper articles and artifacts from festivals past that illustrate this “flower child” –like evolution.

A publicity release for the 1966 show promises “curbside ballet, fashion shows, folk singers and sidewalk cafés” plus new equipment of the Buffalo Fire Department on display. The Courier Express described it in the late 1960s as “a combination of Coney Island, Williamsburg, Fourth of July, family picnic, funhouse, fireman’s carnival, art museum, hobby house, sophisticated ladies and casual dressers with a tolerable amount of art tucked in between.” And Jean Reeves, Buffalo Evening News art critic in the late sixties, described it as “the Allentown Hobby Fair—I refuse from now on to call it an art festival.”

George Palmer remembers that carnival atmosphere. Palmer’s last year as an exhibitor was 1970, the year of the riot that sparked so many of the regulations that are in place today. By then, the festival had grown to over 600 exhibitors whom Hill describes as including “long-haired men and tie-dyed, body-painted women” whose work included “‘legalized pots,’ protest collages, and a black is beautiful exhibit.” Palmer remembers that year as especially wild, “there was someone selling balloons right next to me, someone from the television show Laugh In was there. A lot of people were just at the festival to have a great time. There was dancing in the street, bra-less women, and so forth.”

The wild times Palmer remembers were soon to end.

“It’s Become a Real Business”
A major reorganization of the Festival became necessary after the 1970 “riot.”

During the 1970 festival, an argument in a neighborhood bar (unrelated to the Festival) spilled out into the street, where, predictably, given the tenor of the times, festival attendees joined in the melee, causing a situation where Buffalo police were forced to subdue the crowd. Weeks of negotiations between the AVS and the City of Buffalo resulted in a scaled-back event, with about half the number of exhibitors, no craft exhibitors, no live entertainment, and a better-defined event area.

It is now a juried show. It is also a highly competitive show attracting roughly twice as many applicants as there are spaces in the show; the number of actual exhibitors who make it into the show does not usually exceed 450.

The rules make sense when you hear stories from AVS president Myszkiewicz about exhibitors who submit slides of paintings and then on festival day unload boxes of lunchboxes and dolls, “like you’d find at Kmart,” some with store price tags or “Made in China” stickers on them. But as one local long-time exhibitor puts it, “the growth has been good and bad. It’s lost its intimacy; it’s become a real business.”

The festival is certainly about business, but only for the festival. Sean Hill notes that there have certainly been tensions in the past between area merchants and the festival—ironic, considering the festival’s beginning as a means to promote Allentown merchants. “The relationship with the business community has had its ups and downs,” he says, “but now there’s a generally good understanding between us. Every now and then something flares up, but most merchants understand that they benefit from the festival. We have big supporters in the business community.”

In the early years, there were merchants who wanted to set up sidewalk sales alongside the exhibitors, there were people renting out their front yards to artists who weren’t part of the festival, there has been a problem with people having yard sales during the festival. Hill notes that in order to have a first-rate, juried festival you do need to control who is in it. In addition, he points out that the festival is insured so it can’t just be a free-for-all.

For the neighborhood, there has been tension created by the phenomenon of tens of thousands of people converging on very close quarters each year. Carole Holcberg, a long-time Allentown resident and the first president of the Allentown Association, says that the Allentown Village Society has learned to become very sensitive to the needs and concerns of the community, though they weren’t always this way. “There have been issues,” she notes, “and it took a little time but we negotiated a forum for resolution.”

Holcberg points out that while the festival is tremendously positive for Allentown, there are issues that crop up from time to time that affect the community and businesses. “The Village Society has gotten better. They are very protective of their creation, but optimally they will realize that, okay the festival is only forty-eight hours, but it’s forty-eight hours out of the lives of the residents and the businesses. My hope is that there would be an ongoing relationship for resolution of problems as they crop up.” Holcberg notes that some residents complain about the crowds, the inconvenience, about essentially being housebound for the weekend, but she feels that dialogue can address any problems.

Allentown
A group of original Allentown artists who meet for
breakfast once a month.
Photo by Jim Bush.
A Question of Aesthetics
The Allentown Festival has certainly had its ups and downs over its forty-seven year history, but it has never been as pure in its focus as some of its supporters would like to paint it, nor as crassly free-form or autocratic as its detractors would make it out to be.

Let us consider this mission statement from the program of the third festival in 1960: “this is a non-juried show, the main object is to encourage artists and craftsmen, not to pass judgment on their abilities. This, after all, is a matter of personal opinion.” A decidedly plebeian, even provincial, goal. Art of the people.

But this is precisely the problem with the Allentown Festival, in Westley Olmsted’s view, and raises the question of the usefulness of the festival for serious artists. Olmsted lived near Allentown when the festival was started, but he wanted nothing to do with it. “It was a device used by businessmen to promote foot traffic in Allentown,” he says, “I didn’t think they should be charging for the privilege of putting your work out on the street.” Olmsted says he was never comfortable with the Allentown show because it uses art to promote business. “It’s a circus, it’s a place to go and see people, not to view serious art. To put your things out on the street, it’s no place for serious art. It’s disrespectful to art.”

George Palmer, who this year will serve as a street juror for the festival, doesn’t disagree. “That’s certainly true, there are people who feel that way. I can remember my last year of showing when there were so many people walking around, they were just trying to get by, they really weren’t looking at the art at all, and of course the crowds have only grown since then.”

But Gerald Mead, a curator at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College and a past judge and juror for the festival, takes issue with this view. “If that were true, then we’d have to say that Montparnasse is disrespectful to art. Outdoor art shows create a vibrant atmosphere where you can have a dialogue with the artist.” Mead notes the trend of bringing art out of museums, to the people, as it were, through satellite locations for museums, some even in shopping malls. “We have a satellite site in the lobby of the M & T Bank at Fountain Plaza downtown. We feel it provides broader access to art and allows more of our collection to be viewed.”

Palmer also makes the point that Buffalo has grown as an art community, in part because of the festival. “I think the show has served as a teaching mechanism. There are some people who would never go to the Albright Knox or another gallery but they will come to the Allentown Festival. It has introduced many people to art who otherwise would not be exposed to it.” Mead agrees, noting that the outdoor art experience “allows for exchange with artists and increases opportunities for interaction with art.

“The show may have started out smaller, with greater emphasis on fine arts,” Mead continues, “but it has become more of an art marketplace which provides a valuable niche for emerging artists or artists with a production line seeking commercial venue for their work. The festival is an important part of the fabric of the artistic community.”

“It’s Everything Positive About Buffalo”
All criticisms aside, the Allentown Art Festival has been an excellent citizen, donating many thousands of dollars to support local arts and education organizations through direct grants and through scholarships. In 1997, the Village Society gave $210,000 to the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, establishing a permanent endowment for scholarships for Erie County high school, college, and graduate level students in visual fine arts or art education. In addition, the Society has made sustaining grants to the Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, which provide free art instruction to inner city children and adults, as well as funding artist in the schools programs in the Buffalo public schools, and funding outreach programs for the Buffalo Philharmonic to reach young audiences.

And it is a model of volunteerism, run wholly through an unpaid staff of about twenty-five members. Holcberg points out that the Village Society now generously allows non-profits to run food concessions at the festival, which had previously been all commercial ventures. Their hot dog stand has become a major fundraiser for the Allentown Association. “There are lots of benefits from the art festival,” she notes, “it’s more far-reaching than people realize.”

Holcberg says that maybe the most important thing the festival does is to celebrate Allentown, because, as she says, “part of the art is the architecture and gardens and people of Allentown. Year after year after year, people will walk down my street during the festival and say ‘I didn’t know this even existed.’ The festival is an institution and, ultimately, it’s everything positive about Buffalo.” And in that sense, the Allentown Art Festival is an unquestioned success.

Anna Geronimo Hausmann is a teacher and writer living in Buffalo.


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