From Canyon To Cove: Art-A-Fair going strong at 45

Since 1967, artists and art lovers have been gathering at the Art-A-Fair.

This is the festival's 45th consecutive show. The festival marked the occasion with a special event last weekend, but in the Art-A-Fair tradition, it was low key. Visitors got free admission all day Aug. 7 and those who located the 45th anniversary mascot, Arty, won a prize.

Back in the '60s, adult admission was 50 cents.

Laguna Beach was a center of artistic activity, so much so that a bevy of artists who were not juried in to the Festival of Arts — at 79, it's the granddaddy of the arts festivals — banded together in 1966 to form their own breakaway show.

This show, staged on a sandy bluff, was dubbed the "Sawdust" in the press because organizers put sawdust on the ground to tamp down the blowing sand.

But artists of a feather must flock together, and a year or so later, a band of "traditionalist" artists broke away from the Sawdust's more provocative wing and formed their own show, Art-A-Fair.

Among the radical ideas promulgated by Sawdust artists was doing away with the "jurying" system, whereby artwork is judged and artists given a thumbs up or thumbs down based on the judge's determination of the quality of the work. However, Sawdust artists must live in Laguna Beach, and, because the show has limited booth space, are subject to a lottery system. They also must abide by strict rules regarding the hand-crafting of the items they sell.

The Sawdust Festival also marks its 45th anniversary this year but has no plans to celebrate the occasion, according to spokeswoman Cynthia Fung.

Sawdust manager Tom Klingenmeier did not return a request for comment about the evolution of the show; perhaps because he is busy handling the fallout of an apparent artist-led revolt over a yarn art installation that resulted in the work of a number of local knitters being trashed — and a lot of backlash. Apparently the spirit of revolt — in this case against fellow artists — still thrives at Sawdust.

For their part, Art-A-Fair artists decided back in 1967 to continue with the jury system, but to open their show to any artist anywhere, in contrast with the Festival of Arts, which limits participants to those who live in a select number of Orange County cities.

That formula has served Art-A-Fair well, resulting in a show with an international feel, according to President Mike Cahill.

"Since I started with the show 15 years ago, the quality of the artwork just gets better and better," said Cahill, a photographer. "If I was trying to jury in today, I wouldn't make it."

Artists have come from China and Switzerland to appear at Art-A-Fair, but getting artists from around the globe to participate can be difficult because of the demands of minding their booths during the eight-week festival.

Art-A-Fair has kept to its original premise of offering fine art in a serene, galleryesque setting. While Sawdust emphasizes an active, sometimes raucous lineup of entertainment to bring in crowds — who often seem more interested in beer and rock 'n' roll than artwork — Art-A-Fair is "more a basic art show," Cahill said. "But we're not as high-priced as the Festival of Arts. We're in the middle for Laguna's art festivals."

The show has gone through a number of stages and metamorphoses. The festival was originally set up on vacant lots in town, including one notable site in 1972 next to the Hotel Laguna, which doubled its size to 110 artists. After that, the show made its mark on the Orange County art scene, became more established, and in 1988 got a permanent home when Art-A-Fair artist Iris Adam, a watercolorist, purchased the site where it now sits on Laguna Canyon Road and leased it to the festival.

Adam died in 2010 at 91, revered as one of the city's most stalwart advocates of the arts. Adam's daughter said at the time that there are no plans to change the lease arrangement, so the show and its central location should be safe for the foreseeable future.

In 1998, the show made another huge leap when it partnered with June Neptune of Tivoli Terrace, the restaurant that serves the Festival of Arts across the road, Cahill said. In conjunction with Neptune, the entire grounds were revamped and a permanent restaurant installed. Tivoli Too is in constant demand during the winter for weddings and community gatherings, while in the summer it serves up food to the art show attendees.

There have been other changes as the art world evolved. Now, the show is no longer limited to "traditional" or representational art.

"We have abstract and modern art, too," Cahill said.

This summer season is on track to beat out last summer's proceeds in terms of admission and art sales, Cahill said. And last summer was better than the previous year's profits. While the economy flounders, Laguna's "big three" arts festivals are all cashing in.

Probably the one thing that hasn't changed is the excitement every June when artists bring their work to jury day.

"It's like a family," Cahill said. "Everybody's so excited to see each other again."

Like Laguna's other art festivals, it's the artists themselves who are the real show.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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