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My first impression of the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe was of a kind of magic that seemed to me to transcend the remit of a craft fair, to be a phenomenon greater than the sum of its parts. I left wanting to examine the ingredients that go into the mix that results in this event one at a time so here I interview Keith Recker, creative director of IFAM.
Did Santa Fe make the Folk Art Market or did the Folk Art Market make Santa Fe? Selvedge readers understand about Georgia O’Keeffe’s relationship with Santa Fe, and in turn how that lead to the town’s connection to modernism. Can you tell me a little about the atmosphere, the people and zeitgeist in this region before 2003 when IFAM started?
Santa Fe’s renowned Indian Market was founded in 1922 and the Spanish Colonial Market was founded in 1951. Both remain touchstones of the Santa Fe summer calendar. IFAM’s co-founders, all of them devoted Santa Feans, were of course aware of the deep history of these markets, and admirers of the ways in which individual artists and their cultures were not just celebrated but supported with opportunity, so in very important ways, The International Folk Art Market grew out of Santa Fe’s soil.
It’s not just the landscape that brings people here. Culture, that big, broad, hard-to-pin-down notion, remains at the heart of this part of the world. Cultural exchange – bigger, broader, and even harder to pin down – is even more essential, because it is in the meeting of cultures that the distinctive identity of the region is forged. Since all of Santa Fe’s layers are alive, and because they not only coexist but engage with each other, there is a gorgeous and constant curiosity here. There’s a strong emphasis on tradition, but creativity can’t help but embellish and differentiate against that background.
2003, the year both Selvedge and Folk Art Market were born, was a significant point in history. The internet had reached a point where it was sufficiently established to support worldwideconnectivity for a kitchen table operation, such as Selvedge was at the time. But maybe there was more to it – maybe a counter movement towards one-to-one connections between people from different cultures. What part do you think timing has played in the success of the IFAM?
In many ways, the global connectivity brought to us through 21st century technology has given us a hunger for context, experience, and relationship. Virtual connectivity brings us tons of information every day, making our world, in some sense, a village. The internet makes us ‘neighbours’ with people in Bamako, Boston, and Bernalillo – and we want to get to know these new neighbours. Our human longing for relationship, for intimacy, isn’t satisfied with mere information: we need face to face contact. We need at least the shake of a hand, and sometimes even a full-on American hug! We need to see and touch and understand Uzbek silk velvet, handspun Argentinian vicuña, and cruelty-free Indian silk so that we get a personal sense of our new neighbours’ cultures. In turn, we want to be good neighbours, too, by voicing our admiration and by supporting their businesses. Abdullah Khatri, an IFAM artist from India, said last year, ‘This Market is everything that’s right with the world.’ He was speaking not just about the warm welcome IFAM artists get from IFAM visitors and staff, but also about the deep sense of connection this experience brings to everyone who participates.
It is inevitable that an event of this scale owes a huge debt to the energy and tenacity of its founders. But equally important is its ability to let go and allow whatever one has created to take on its own life. Can you tell me a little about how it all began and what are your plans for the future?
At 15, IFAM is, as you suggest, different from what it was at age three, five, or even ten. It remains completely devoted to finding and showing the finest folk artists possible – a priority maintained by the two-jury system that reviews all artist applicants. IFAM also remains an artist-centered organisation, and we can’t see anything we do as successful unless it brings success to our artist family. We also continue a tradition of beautiful, fulsome hospitality to both artists and customers, expressed in decor, music, food, and fun.
What’s changed? A new openness to artists working from roots in traditional folk art, but pushing the boundaries a bit through the inclusion of design, addressing issues of sustainability, and recording lives as they are being lived today. This openness comes out of a healthy respect for the artists themselves: it is they who choose how to deploy ia
Dahyalal Ku decha, Ind their cultural assets. This openness has brought younger voices into the artist family as well as expanded exploration of apparel, or replenishable and recycled materials, and of work that documents the modern lives of traditional communities.
From my perspective, as someone who has more recently become involved with the IFAM (my first market was 2011), what is particularly exciting is the energy surrounding the future of the market. When we are reviewing applications we have robust discussions about the category of folk art and how we see that category being expanded and challenged and reinvigorated through the kinds of work that artists are producing. We have seen an increase in artists working collaboratively with each other as well as with outside designers, and a desire to experiment with new materials and techniques and yet still connect with what they view to be the core of their traditional practice. I also enjoy seeing examples where two different artists who met at the IFAM begin to collaborate together on a new product line.
In recent years the market for Craft Fairs has become flooded, with mediocre events most weekends. These come and go, contributing little to the larger economy. How have you made the economics of getting artists to Santa Fe from around the world, and keeping the organisation afloat? Your figures are truly impressive, as is the impact the event has on the lives of the makers.
As a non-profit organisation, IFAM’s loyal and passionate base of donors and supporters make it possible to create this truly unique event. With their help, we bring in at least a couple of dozen new artists annually, and these new artists are always one of the exciting reasons our audience comes back every year. With their help, as our mission says, we continue to create opportunities for and with folk artists worldwide. Those opportunities do translate into profound impact. Cultural practices are kept alive. Women gain economic autonomy – and improvements in their lives and the lives of their children quickly follow. Water systems are installed. Emergency radio equipment is replaced and repaired, village schools are supported. The list of effects are deeply moving and that list grows every year.
It is obvious that volunteers play an important part in the logistics of the event. This is a great way to get the community involved and for the volunteers to make a real impact on the lives of the makers. How did the culture of volunteering grow with the IFAM?
Over 1700 volunteers come from mostly Santa Fe, but also from all over the world, to help set up the site of the Market, to greet artists at the airport and transport them to Santa Fe, to help set up artist booths, to process sales, to keep the books, to assist in virtually every aspect of the Market. The volunteer aspect of the Market has been present since the first year, when individuals and local businesses banded together to stage the Market. Volunteers have been a constant in our lives, and in the lives of IFAM artists. It’s an integral part of what makes us ‘us’.
The atmosphere and ambiance of the market is very special with decorations, music and good food, like a mirage on a hillside in the desert. Can you tell me something about setting the stage for such a theatrical event? This spills out from the site on Museum Hill throughout the entire town.
IFAM begins to take over Museum Hill in late June, when the first tents are assembled on the upper part of the site. The decor team is on hand from the get-go, decorating the ceilings of the tents and hanging ‘chandeliers’ made of silk and paper flowers, handmade pompoms, kites, and other elements. As opening night of Market draws closer, almost every surface of Museum hill is touched in some way: stairways are decked with strings of fabric marigolds, gateways are festooned with custom-made tassels and charms, arbors are created and strung with little bells and streamers that flutter in every breeze. Crowd barriers are strung with tiny pennants as well as tall Balinese flags. Golf carts to shuttle patrons to remote parking are decorated too. We try to create a very special place, because very special things are going to happen in that place!
We do all of this to delight our ticket holders, but more importantly to welcome and celebrate the IFAM artist family. We want each of them to go home feeling the love and admiration we feel for them – feeling energized to continue their amazing work.
The work displayed at the event is of a consistently high standard. Given the logistical challenges of working with so many artists from diverse cultures, some of whom do not speak English, how is this maintained and managed?
IFAM’s two-jury system keeps quality very high indeed. The first of the two juries, the Selection Committee, is comprised of experienced museum curators and gallerists who look at each application through the lenses of excellence and strong roots in folk tradition. The second jury, the Placement Committee, consists of retailers and merchants, whose job it is to assemble a compelling and attractive market of just over 160 artists with diversity of geography, medium, price, and aesthetic. The two committees join together at Market-time to review and refine the content and pricing of each booth, make display suggestions, and answer questions. As a group, the juries represent broad and deep expertise in folk art, and their participation is highly valued by the organisation. Our selection process brings together experts from the art, design, and retail worlds to closely review and rate the over 600 applications each year. We are looking for the highest quality examples of a particular folk art genre.
There are several different categories of artists who apply to the market (individual artists, cooperatives, NGOs, businesses, etc.) as well as applications for both ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’ folk art. For all categories, we spend a significant amount of time scrutinizing the artists’ relationships with traditional techniques and/or materials, reading their personal narratives, and comparing images of their work alongside our knowledge of the artistic history of a region or a particular craft. The success of our selection process is due to the extraordinary team of experts who serve on these committees and devote hours of their time and extensive knowledge to the review of applications. Our committees come together again during the market to meet with artists and monitor their booths and products. This helps to ensure that artists bring only the highest quality work and that their products exhibited for sale accurately reflect those presented in their applications.
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