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Illinois State Fair cancels professional art exhibit after 74 years

Springfield Art Association

This year, for the first time since 1948, there will be no professional art exhibit and contest at the Illinois State Fair. Instead, a trimmer version with far fewer artists and works debuts Friday at the Springfield Art Association gallery. It is called No Place to Show, and it predates the fair by weeks.

In March, fair officials told the Illinois State Fair Superintendent of Professional Art there would not be a show in the Artisan Building for professional artists. The rationale: in 2021, works contributed to the amateur and junior shows dwindled. According to a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, the professionals’ show was cut to draw greater interest in the amateur and student work, which will be displayed in the Exposition Building

“Seventy-four years is a long time to have something, and then for it just to disappear... I know that the people coming to the fair are going to be upset, those that don't know,” said Rosemary Buffington, who has been a superintendent of arts at the fair since 1974. “And there'll be people going to the Artisan Building going, ‘where is it?’ I've had several people tell me, “Well, then I'm not going to the fair because that's what I go to see.’’

Winemakers will replace the arts in the Artisan Building. And while the professional artists will be able to show work and demonstrate their processes in a different fair building, they will have to pay a fee as vendors.

“I was trying to get different avenues of making it work for this year, and to no avail,” said Buffington, a retired New Berlin art teacher, who headed the professional show from 2004 until this year. “They decided that it would be eliminated, and therefore, I didn't have any say in whether it would go for 2022.

“I proposed a couple of things that possibly could work, that maybe I could put both the amateur and the professional in that gallery in the expo building," she said. “But they didn't want to go that direction. So. I was told no. ‘’

During his term, former Gov. James R. Thompson called for the renovation of what was then the poultry building to create the art space at the fairgrounds. ”And so therefore, it became known as the Artisan Building,” Buffington said. “So you know, that's the perfect place for it. It's a huge hall. They build walls for me every year, and it was fabulous. And the artists couldn't believe we had such a nice space to display the art.”

Betsy Dollar, the executive director of the Springfield Art Association, said, “When I found out that they were doing this, and…so many artists were really outraged, upset, frustrated, furious, et cetera, et cetera, Rosemary Buffington and I were talking, and I said, ‘Well, I can't plug it right into the exact same dates as the state fair, because the gallery is scheduled. But I can maneuver a little three week window,’’’

But the gallery space at the SAA is much smaller than the Artisan Building, which limited the number of professional participants. Buffington estimates 125 artists would exhibit in the Artisan Building, but only 66 artists will be able to show work even though nearly 300 works were submitted for the show.

Buffington said, “The Artisan Building, of course, is much bigger than their art gallery. But I'm so pleased that at least the artists had...had a place to submit work.”

Buffington said generally many artists come from the Chicagoland area and other regions to show work. But this year about half of the 66 artists displayed at SAA come from the Springfield areas.

At the reception starting at 5:30 p.m. Friday July 15, awards will be presented, but the prize cash is lower and the number of awards is smaller. Best in show will get a $500 prize rather than the $1,500 awarded last year. Buffington says she offered fair officials to raise funds for awards, but was refused.

“In March, it didn't seem like there was any wiggle room to change anything,” she said. “So I thought, you know, I think we'll try again next year. I plan to go in after the state fair, give them a few weeks to recoup, and I'll go in and state our case…that we find value in the arts and that it's important for the fair to continue that tradition.”

Fair officials have not decided whether to run a professional show in 2023, the agriculture department spokeswoman said.

Visiting the gallery is free and open to the public.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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