Online Gainesville dowtown art festival a tough sell

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Anna Ferko
 |  Special to The Sun

In a normal year, Gainesville’s Downtown Festival and Art Show brings thousands of people out for a fall weekend of appreciating art, music and culture.

It is a difficult — if not impossible — task to try and shift that event into a virtual one, organizers found this year, thanks to COVID-19. 

But while artists found the online format cumbersome and the crowds turned into a few hundred virtual visitors, organizers say some parts that worked will likely be incorporated into future festivals.

“I’ve only had three people come to my booth,” said artist Michelle Nagri. “One of them was my friend and another had their mic muted and their camera turned off.”

The 39th iteration of the festival was held on an online platform called BoothCentral, which allowed artists to set up virtual “booths” for attendees to visit. Once participants signed in, they could join video chatrooms with artists, flip through photos of an artist’s featured pieces and watch the livestream of performances by local dance and musical groups.

Nagri is one of the 40-plus artists who had a booth at the festival. Many of them said they went through long stretches of time without any visitors.

Event coordinator Sunshine Andrei said many factors could explain why an artist did not have many visitors.

“For in-person festivals, you can have noncommittal conversations with artists when you wander around,” she said. “With this format, participants have to commit to having the artist’s full attention.”

The festival, a Gainesville community staple since 1981, usually draws over 30,000 attendees over the course of the weekend. This year, the virtual platform had just over 600.

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Andrei knew attendance would be lower this year than in the past, so she tried to choose a platform that would be easy for visitors to use and mimic the feeling of wandering through a festival looking at different types of art.

“This was something that was brand new for all of us,” Andrei said. “For me, to get 600 visitors over the course of the weekend is a good number.”

Some artists commented that they had not seen a lot of information about the festival on social media, so the low attendance could have been because people just didn’t know about it.

Silk artist and jewelry maker Vickie Damon believes that the virtual format made the festival “forgettable.”

“An art show is about getting out and looking at beautiful things,” she said. “This online format is convenient and it’s a good opportunity, but it just doesn’t have the same feel that a live art show does.”

Jewelry maker and painter Peter Senesac appreciated that the festival had a video chatroom so that he could talk to someone face-to-face, but said the feature did cause a few hiccups.  

According to Andrei, BoothCentral did not automatically update, so attendees had to refresh their browsers to see if an artist opened his or her chatroom.

“The issue was brought to my attention [Sunday] morning,” Andrei said. She worked with BoothCentral on Sunday to fix the problem, but she wasn’t sure how many people were affected. ​

When chatrooms were functioning correctly, some artists were greeted by visitors without their microphones or cameras turned on and some participants were met with an empty room or a blank screen when they joined an artist’s chatroom.

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Senesac believes that the technology was part of why people chose not to attend the festival or interact with artists.

“People are so used to online shopping these days, but they aren’t used to having to jump through hoops to talk to artists and buy their work,” he said.

Despite the new format, some artists found ways to make it work.

Senesac hung his paintings around the room where his camera was set up so that attendees could easily see his work. Damon knew she wouldn’t be able to properly show off her painted silks online, so she dedicated her booth to her hammered jewelry instead.

“With my silks, people really have to see and touch them before making a purchase,” she said. “With the jewelry it’s easier and I can do it while I’m sitting here and show some of my process.”

Even with its drawbacks, Andrei said she believes the festival can incorporate some online features into future festivals.

“The chatroom could allow artists to talk to people from all over the country,” she said. “I’m going to get some feedback from the artists and see if they found the chatroom valuable and think it could work when we are back to in-person.”

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