Art of the Deal
By Kathleen Mellen
It’s tough to make a living as an artist, and no one knows that better than Linda and Geoffrey Post, who made a go of it for 20 years, much of it on the art-show circuit, before deciding, in 1994, to switch gears. That’s when they founded the Paradise City Arts Festival.
Geoffrey Post, a fiber artist, and Linda Post, a painter, say they took an enormous leap of faith when they started the festival at the Three County Fairgrounds in Northampton. They gathered work from fellow artists, put notices in local newspapers, and set up in the Fair’s largest building, the Arena, whose lopsided dirt floor was better designed to show horses, pigs, and sheep than sculpture, ceramics, and fine jewelry.
And they wondered if anyone would come.
Well, people did. Now, 22 years later, the festival is one of the premier such events in the nation, with 250 artists and craftspeople and some 10,000 customers flocking to the site twice a year, in May and October, to immerse themselves in works by some of the nation’s finest craft makers and independent artists, along with a sculpture garden, fund-raisers for local charities, and a wide array of victuals from local restaurants — all to the accompaniment of lively jazz melodies.
Visitors to the award-winning festival have come from all 50 states, and five continents, to partake of what Boston Magazine calls “a unique visual arts institution.”
How it all came to be this institution, and how it continues to grow and prosper, is an intriguing story, one in which the Posts and a number of other players have remained focused on the big picture — figuratively, and quite literally.
Brush with Fame
The very first thing the Posts had to do, back in 1995, was to establish a working relationship with the fair, which was established in 1817 for the purpose of promoting agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science in the Commonwealth — a far cry from what the Posts were proposing.
Even with the fair’s blessing, which they received, there was much to be done before a single artist could set up — including making significant investments in the site so it could support such a venture. First up was the installation of an electrical system big enough to power the festival. Plus, they added, when it rained, the whole place, which sits in a floodplain, turned to mud, so they had to fix that.
“It was really an experience trying to transform that space,” Linda Post said. “It took a lot of time, effort, money, planning, faith, and hope.”
But, once they got started, things began to cook.
“In ’95, we were successful enough so that we could have a ’96, and ’96 was a little better than ’95,” Geoffrey said. Then, in 1997, things really took off, when they attracted the attention of the New York Times and the Boston Globe, which wrote features about the event.
“Things just exploded. It was one of those Woodstock-type scenarios, where they’re backed up on Route 91, all the way to Hartford,” Post said. “After that, it kind of had a life of its own.”
That success signaled to the city and the fairgrounds that there might be uses for the site other than traditional agricultural events. In 2010, a committee was formed, which included representatives of the fair, the city, and the festival, to consider improvements to the site, with an eye toward expanding its use as a year-round venue for events like the Paradise City Arts Festival. A consulting firm was hired to analyze potential economic gains of an upgrade to the fairgrounds, and the results were impressive: it was projected that such a shift would add 500 jobs and result in an economic output of nearly $63 million, up from $25.9 million.
That got the ball rolling. A $42 million expansion was planned for the 55-acre site, which would include two phases: first, the demolition of old stables and the construction of three new horse barns, and, second, the construction of an 80,000-square-foot exhibition hall, as well improvements to the stormwater drainage, roads, and sidewalks.
Phase one was completed in 2011, when the fair was awarded $4 million by the state to build the new barns and to improve drainage on the site. But then, things stalled, and plans for the exhibition hall were put on hold, says the fair’s general manager, Bruce Shallcross, especially in light of a changed local market, including the addition of a new casino in Springfield and a still-recovering economy.
“We’re not sure, now, that we can support an 80,000-square-foot hall, but the Redevelopment Committee is still looking at alternatives,” he said.
All the while, the festival has stepped up, Shallcross told BusinessWest, sharing expenses for infrastructure improvement, including paving part of the grounds to deal with the mud problem.
“They’ve been very good partners over the years,” he said. “They are our anchor event in the spring and the fall, and we have an excellent working relationship with them.”
The Posts also say they have a good relationship with the city of Northampton, and while there’s no official, fiscal partnership, they do enjoy a symbiotic relationship. For example, it is common for the city’s mayor to write a welcome letter for the festival’s catalogue, and the Posts hire police and fire details for security and traffic control. They also bring tens of thousands of patrons from around the region, and across the country, to Northampton.
Indeed, a marketing survey the festival requisitioned about 10 years ago showed that some 70% of the people who attend the show come from outside the Pioneer Valley.
“The restaurants are full, the hotels are full. We think it’s good for the fairgrounds, good for the festival, and good for Northampton,” Shallcross said.
In a gesture of thanks for the city’s support, the Posts offer the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce space at the festival each year, where they can promote the city, its restaurants, events, and tourist attractions. That’s a boon for Northampton and the chamber, says its executive director, Suzanne Beck.
“The festival draws thousands of people to Northampton, and once they’re here, people are naturally curious about the area,” Beck said. “By having a pop-up visitor center at the festival, we can share everything about cultural events, dining offerings —what to see and do in the area — and fulfill that curiosity.
In a Different Mold
Fast-forward to 2017.
Not content to rest on their laurels, in May, the Posts decided to “redo everything.” They moved out the 23-year-old Arena building into the three relatively new barns, which are better equipped to house artists’ display booths — although they are still mainly intended for agricultural use.
“At least they have concrete floors,” Linda Post said.
The festival also utilizes more of the surrounding, outdoor areas, for its sculpture promenade, a dining tent, and entertainment.
It’s a move that has paid off.
“Whenever you make a big change like that, it makes you nervous, but we got great feedback from the exhibitors and the customers,” Linda Post said. “People stayed longer, and they really enjoyed the new layout.”
After more than two decades, the Posts say, they have to work diligently to keep the festival fresh. Each year, they combine new artists with the old, always with an eye toward curating an event that includes different price points and aesthetics, and new trends.
“If we don’t get fresh new artists to every show, it gets stale,” Geoffrey Post said.
Turns out, that’s not a problem: Far more artists and craftspeople apply to the festival than the Posts can accept.
“Every year, we’re getting new generations of artists and new generations of patrons,” he noted. “It has a life of its own.”
Looking to the future, the Posts say, they are finding ways to use the Internet to their advantage. They recently developed the Paradise City Membership Program, a partnership which allows artists to market their work year-round, through the festival’s website.
They produce a glossy magazine that gets mailed out to 60,000 households, and they are developing email newsletters and other promotions that go out to patrons on their email list, which is more than 40,000 strong.
Finally, while they don’t have a Paradise City Arts Festival app, they’ve made sure their website is optimized for cellphone use.
“We’re trying to figure out the right model for using all the new technologies.” Linda Post said.
The next Paradise City Arts Festival in Northampton will be Oct. 7-9, when artists and craftspeople will have on the display, and for sale, a wide variety of mixed-media art, ceramics, furniture, jewelry, photography, works on paper, wearable fiber art, and much more.
As is their tradition, there will be a “show within a show,” which invites participating artists to create work related to a special theme: This year, it’s “Life of the Party.”
And, in keeping with another annual tradition, the Posts will invite participating artists to donate a piece for an auction to raise money for a local non-profit organization. Since 1996, more than $400,000 has been raised in support of such causes as the Cancer Connection, the International Language Institute, and the Breast Form Fund. This year, the money will go to WGBY Public Television for Western New England.
Nice Work, If You Can Get It
As the Posts prepare for the next show in Northampton (they also produce a smaller, sister festival in Marlborough), things are heating up at their offices in Northampton’s Industrial Park.
“People don’t realize how much work goes into the shows; we start preparing months in advance,” Linda Post said. But she doesn’t mind. “Every day, we’re surrounded by all these beautiful objects and creative people. That’s a really good way to have to work.”
If one were to call it work. The Posts prefer to call it their passion.