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Another Year in the Hopper



Published September 20, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

By all appearances, the 14th Annual South End Art Hop, September 8 & 9, was a smashing success. A record number of people - estimated at more than 25,000 - showed up to visit dozens of open studios and businesses along Pine Street. Presented by the South End Arts and Business Association, the Art Hop is run on a shoestring by a minuscule staff and a lot of volunteers. That makes their achievement all the more impressive.

But some elements of the Hop have raised concerns and complaints from participating artists, many viewers, city officials and SEABA itself. While individual participants in the Hop may have their own gripes or suggestions, two major areas merit particular attention.

The juried show. A cornerstone of the Art Hop since its beginning, the juried portion of the exhibition has often stirred up controversy. It is a given that someone will disagree with any juror's choices - no more so than the participating artists. This year the juror, Maine artist Elizabeth Olbert, managed to offend some artists and viewers alike with a juror's statement that was perceived as haughty and dismissive. Art Hop Chairman Mark Waskow even penned a disclaimer and hung it on the wall next to Olbert's three-page manifesto.

A first-time visitor to Art Hop might have missed this, though - not to mention the distinction between what was and was not "accepted" by the juror. All the entered works were displayed in a succession of offices in the former Specialty Filaments Building. Curiously, Olbert's selections seemed inconsistent with her own urban-oriented aesthetic - there was a range of quality and style in every room, including the one marked "juror's selections." Further- more, the top three juror's picks were not marked as such.

Yet, putting aside the specifics of this year, some larger questions about the juried show must be asked:

Why is there just one juror? Why not, say, a three-person panel? Does the juror have to be from out-of-state? Is it appropriate that the juror hold Vermont artists to a national aesthetic? Should the juror even be an artist - as opposed to a professional curator? And speaking of curation, doesn't displaying the juror's rejections diminish the honor of being selected? Finally, since the Art Hop is a community affair, why not just let the people democratically decide - Vermonters voting for Vermonters?

Some of these questions have logical, if still debatable, answers. SEABA Board President Mark Stephenson can't remember when the Art Hop began using a single juror. "Someone remarked to me that a single person isn't a jury, it's a judge. I think it's an excellent point. What's exciting to me is that people notice and care, and want to improve it."

Janie Cohen, director of the Fleming Museum, was herself a sole Art Hop juror years ago. While she has nothing against a panel, she sums up the thinking behind inviting non-Vermonters. "One advantage of bringing in someone from outside is that they don't know anybody; it's good to have a fresh set of eyes," Cohen suggests. "Having been in this community for 15 years, you get very familiar with the work." And the people making it.

Wherever he or she is from, a juror faces the daunting task of winnowing through an enormous volume of work from artists who differ wildly in medium and, more to the point, skill level. Cohen recalls being invited to judge a similarly large, community-minded event years ago in Troy, New York. "It was very difficult," she says. "They ranged from Sunday painters to really experienced artists."

Cohen also believes that the boundaries between artists and curators have become "very blurred." But, she suggests, "You could ask the question: Are there differences between the way that artists, who are actively involved in creating art, serve in that role [of juror] and people who do not?"

More food for thought: Should the Art Hop staff, or perhaps a panel of some kind, hold a pre-judging, before the guest juror steps in? I can hear the groans now: That would involve more work, and the staff may not want to bear personal responsibility for bruised egos. After all, the event is a celebration of the creative spirit - as well as the South End businesses generated by that creativity, Stephenson points out. Why discourage artists whose work may not yet be up to snuff, however that is defined?

Stephenson believes the juried show is important to artists, but he concedes it made more sense when the Art Hop was smaller. In the early years, the juror's selections were sequestered in an old train car in front of the Maltex Building. It wasn't an ideal place to view art, but at least it was clear what the exhibit was. "The people who were coming [then] were more traditional art connoisseurs," Stephenson notes. "Now the world is coming . . . it's exposing thousands of people to art who don't usually come out. To better educate people, maybe we need to have a process to select art in different ways."

And speaking of size . . .

Planning for growth. Some revelers were chagrined that the party in the Fresh Market parking lot ran out of alcohol before 10, even though the Art Hop's entertainment license lasted until midnight. This was ironically due to improved logistics, Stephenson explains: "We did a better job of laying out the framework of the event and the space. We didn't run out of food, for the first time, because there was a better layout for the vendors." Bottom line: More people showed up, had more efficient access to the booze, and drank up the supply sooner than anticipated. "We just ran out," says Stephenson. "And at that time of night you can't go out and get more."

Buying more kegs next year wouldn't be a big deal - even if vigilant city officials worry about too many people with too many drinks. But there is a far larger public-safety concern. From at least 5:30 p.m. on, Pine Street was crawling with people, including children. Why wasn't the street blocked off?

The combination of traffic and oblivious pedestrians seemed an accident waiting to happen - though fortunately one didn't, this time. But is it unreasonable for crowds to feel entitled to the street, when their collective mass surpasses that of the cars? And when, after all, the entire stretch of Pine Street is clearly designated for one big community happening?

In fact SEABA did try to get the street closed off but failed, according to Stephenson. "The application process isn't really set up for us to successfully do this," he says. "We've been told it's pretty much impossible. But I believe the city should formulate the process to make it easier . . . My goal for next year is to close some of those streets."

Burlington Police Lt. Kathleen Stubbing explains that the rush-hour traffic, which coincides with the beginning of Art Hop, simply cannot be funneled entirely to St. Paul Street. "That would have been a disaster," she suggests. Stubbing recalls that closing the street after rush hour was discussed, but in the end the idea was inexplicably dropped.

No one would argue that an injury or a fatality would be an even greater disaster than a temporary traffic jam. And some observers have noted that the city routinely shuts down streets for some other events, such as the marathon. So what's the problem here? Can't commuters be inconvenienced for two hours once a year? The Hop has helped put Burlington on the "great art towns" map and boosted the creative economy. Can't it get any respect?

One thing SEABA, police and other city officials do agree on: Size matters. Art Hop "may have outgrown that venue," suggests Stubbing. Stephenson worries that the event could fall victim to its own success. "I'm from Madison, Wisconsin, where some of the great events got out of hand and just disappeared," he says.

That's an outcome nobody wants. "The fact that it gets better each year is due to the fact that there's a lot of creativity out there," Stephenson says. Now is the time to put that creativity - and public input - to work. "By the end of September," he notes, "we'll be planning Art Hop '07."