After two years as a virtual event, the Salem Art Fair and Festival recently returned to Bush’s Pasture Park with a whole new footprint, pricing structure and leadership.
So how did it go?
Attendance was down slightly from previous years, said Matthew Boulay, executive director of the Salem Art Association, which puts on the festival. And the event suffered from the same staffing and supply shortages hitting the whole economy.
But overall, the association thought it was a success, Boulay said.
“People seemed to remember, this is what we do in July,” he said. “We are really happy that so many people came out after not being here for two years.”
Boulay said he expects to have exact attendance figures early next month.
Historic oaks protected
The festival is the Salem Art Association’s biggest fundraiser, drawing 200 vendors and about 35,000 people over three days.
For seven decades it was held under the shade of the park’s native white oaks. But recently, concern has grown about the festival’s impact on the centuries-old trees.
In 2019, a study found that vehicles and pedestrians were contributing to root damage caused by soil compaction. During 2020, the city of Salem worked on an extensive Cultural Landscape Management plan for the park, which recommended phasing the Art Fair out of the oak grove. And in 2021, a massive ice storm hit the area, felling 20 of the park’s oaks.
Festival organizers made the decision to shift nearly the entire festival from the shaded path out into the open pasture, in order to protect the oak trees.
“Most people who know and care about the trees thanked us and were grateful,” Boulay said. “But some people scratched their heads and said why are you doing this?”
The move was explained in the festival program, as well as in a free exhibit in the Bush Barn Art Center. But that wasn’t enough, Boulay said.
“I’d like to find other ways next year to communicate why the trees matter,” he said.
Seven sprinkler heads were damaged during the Art Fair, and a few small horse chestnut tree limbs were damaged during the festival, city of Salem spokesman John Winn said. The Art Fair will be billed for those repairs.
“Overall the event went very well with only minor damage,” Winn said. “There were minor issues with visitors parking in areas they should not be parking, but those were resolved in a timely manner.”
Lorrie Walker, president of South Salem Association of Neighbors, said the neighborhood association was pleased with the change to protect the white oaks.
“Bush Park is the gem of Salem and protection is needed for generations to come to enjoy it as well,” Walker said. “Protection from big trucks, trailers, etc. that have hit trees and parked on tree roots in the past is important.”
After its two-year pandemic hiatus, the live event returned to an plagued with labor and supply shortages.
Festival attendees may have noticed that tables, chairs, umbrellas, misters and tents were in short supply.
“We ordered all of that, they just weren’t delivered because of vendors having so many other events, and labor shortages,” Boulay said.
Luckily, he said, the weather wasn’t too hot.
Dining options were sparser than in the past, as two food vendors and two wine vendors canceled the week before the event, citing labor issues, he said.
And the festival was short of staff and volunteers.
“We wanted a site crew of 16 and were only able to hire 10,” Boulay said.
Boulay said he hopes to have those issues sorted out next year.
The layout of the artists’ booths got mixed reviews, Boulay said, and may get redesigned next year.
Elisa Saucy has sold her jewelry at the festival for years. She had a great space, at the entrance to the artists booths, and had good sales, she said.
But, she said, she heard from some other vendors and customers that the booth layout, in multiple scallop shapes, was confusing and created “dead zones.”
Other festival changes are here to stay.
The new layout allowed for a larger stage and, in turn, bigger acts, Boulay said.
“We got great feedback on the music,” he said.
Raising the entrance fee allowed free entry for low-income and foster families.
And a lower white-picket fence along High Street felt more welcoming, Boulay said.
“It was important to be back and have this new footprint and show people. It can still be a great fair, even if it’s a little different,” he said.