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Director of Lake City’s ArtFields competition talks losing 2020, making 2021 work

Small Town Treasure

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The ArtFields competition in Lake City returns this week after canceling due to COVID-19 in 2020. Provided

COVID-19, and the year of events and attractions we lost to it, puts a new emphasis on appreciating the things we’ve always been lucky to have.

For Columbians, one of those things is ArtFields, the world-class art competition that spends nine days celebrating adventurous Southern art in Lake City, a pretty little town about an hour and a half away from us.

The year of 2020 was a tough one for ArtFields, as it initially tried to postpone its April festivities by a month before canceling all in-person activities, along with the awards and cash prizes that would normally be handed out at the conclusion of the competition. The art was still available to browse online, but it was hardly the same.

Now, ArtFields is one of many essential South Carolina spring events trying to give 2021 a go. It’s moved events such as the Makers Market and artist talks outside, and each of the more than 40 galleries and businesses that show art during the event have agreed that all staff will be masked at all times, with social distancing enforced and sanitizing measures provided to the public.

Free Times caught up with ArtFields director Jamison Kerr ahead of the event’s April 23 kickoff to talk about how the organization grappled with losing the 2020 event, and how it’s bringing it back for 2021. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Free Times: How big a blow was the 2020 cancellation?

Jamison Kerr: Obviously a very, very difficult decision that we hoped we never would have to make. And even three months before we did, never anything that I thought we would have to face. So it was a huge blow, not just to us, but to the artists who were set to participate, and to the town, because ArtFields is such a huge economic driver for Lake City.

When we made the decision to officially cancel the event, we kind of sat down and put our heads together and thought, ‘OK, we clearly can't have a physical exhibition. We can't have people in town, but how can we honor these artists?’ And so we really pushed our online gallery of artwork, and did our best to feature those artists and honor them. 

We did a lot of virtual art activities to keep people engaged and to keep people excited about figuring out ways to celebrate art on their own. ArtFields serves two different audiences. And one of those is the artists and art lovers, but the other is our town and our businesses. And so it just made it even more obvious that ArtFields can’t exist without the physical event.

How have you tried to help artists and fulfill your mission in the interim?

So much of what I think is special about ArtFields is the accessibility of the art to people that may or may not be art lovers, and kind of breaking down some of those walls of intimidation, because the artwork isn't just in fancy galleries or museums, it's in shops. So trying to continue to educate, offering ways that you can support artists during the pandemic, or how you can support our organizations, or even other galleries and museums, and trying to use a platform that we do have on social media to educate as best we can to be able to push people towards buying artwork from an artist or going to a gallery. Especially now, because it's so important, because so much of (artists’) livelihoods have been canceled for a year.

We opened the galleries back up at the end of the summer. And we were able to put together a show that featured artists who have lived in this area for a long time and artists who have recently moved here, and kind of bridging that gap between them, because Lake City has inevitably become a space that artists have started to be interested in moving to.

Bridging those gaps and trying to create a little bit of that community that ArtFields creates outside of the typical nine days of ArtFields has been very important.

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ArtFields spans nine days of exhibitions and other events. Provided

How did you adjust programming in response to COVID-19 this year?

We typically do a large mural project during ArtFields. And we'll still have a smaller one this year. But instead of focusing all of our energy and resources on one or two larger projects, we're doing five around town that are kind of spread out strategically to pull people through, so that no matter what direction you're wandering in, you'll be able to stumble upon something beautiful and be able to enjoy it outside or inside.

We do artist talks in a way that I think combines speed dating and artist talks. So the artists each get three minutes to discuss their work. And we've done that as a lunchtime event in the past. And this year, we're going to do it out on our green as a more like happy hour timeframe. So that more people can enjoy it and be a part of it.

We also, for multiple reasons, are encouraging our businesses to plan the week as though they have nine days of events, too, so that it can help to continue to spread people out. If all of our restaurants and bars have entertainment and things happening, that means that there are a lot of places for people to go and keep spread out.

Given the out-of-the-way location of Lake City, and the importance of word of mouth when it comes to drawing folks outside the art world, how much does losing 2020 hurt as far as promoting this year? How do you combat that?

We're going into our ninth year, not our second. So I think that that helps. It may not open on the exact same date every year, but it's that last Friday in April. Just creating the consistency that we've been able to prior to COVID, I think will help people come back. And that's certainly something that we have had in mind is, ‘Have people forgotten about us?’ But we've gotten a lot of people that have reached out and said how much — whether they are participating as a competition artist or as a visitor — they've missed that community so much.

And that's not just ArtFields. That's COVID. That's what 2020 and the beginning of 2021 has been is that lack of community. That craving for that, and knowing that this is a place that you can find it, I hope will keep (the event) at the front of people's minds.

How have submissions been this year?

It's been pretty on par, just about, a little above our average. And we were really pleased given the fact that there are so many people that just were unsure about what the world would be like. We do submissions Sept. 1 through Nov. 1 every year. And so they're really taking a gamble that we'll be able to do it.

I would say this is probably one of my favorite groups of artwork, I think there's some really beautiful work. There's a lot that captures some of the things that we've gone through in the last year. But then there's a lot of just kind of joyful things, too. And I think that that's really lovely that we can look at this show the way we can look at the last year — that there is a lot of a lot of hard things for everybody to grapple with, whether that be COVID, or Black Lives Matter, or the election or anything else that has happened. But there's also a lot of beauty that can be found in what we've gone through.

Those are some hot-button topics to respond to, and ArtFields has hosted work that has dealt with controversial subjects in the past. Are there instances when including such work causes friction with Lake City’s small-town sensibilities? How has that changed over time?

I think in the very beginning, a lot of people were like, 'Y'all are gonna do what? Y'all are gonna bring what to Lake City? Art? Are you sure?'

We will always have work to do. There will always be people who maybe are more hesitant to attend or be a part of it, or don't like what they don't understand. But we have, through the volunteer program, and through, you know, this community just being right smack dab in the middle of this event, seen more and more acceptance over the years, and more and more ownership, which I think is so important. It's hard for people who haven't really gotten to experience the art world outside of this to be able to qualify it and say, like, 'Yeah, this is just as good as shows in other parts of the world.'

I think that we had pieces, certainly, that have been controversial in the lead up to ArtFields. Part of that is we're installing hundreds of pieces of artwork, and they pop up in different orders throughout town. And sometimes people get a hold of one piece without really having any context and become concerned about what that means and what it is we're trying to say with it. We do our best to be respectful of the artists, and know that censorship is not something we're interested in, but figuring out every year how to best meet this town at its point of growth, and then push it a little bit.


April 23-May 1. Lake City. Various locations.

Post and Courier Columbia/Free Times arts coverage is supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation Fund at Central Carolina Community Foundation.

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