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Monday, April 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Art Fair on the Square brings thousands of wallets to downtown Madison

Each year during Art Fair on the Square, jurors walk around and award ten artists 'Best of Show.'
Each year during Art Fair on the Square, jurors walk around and award ten artists 'Best of Show.'
Credit:Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
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This weekend, an estimated 150,000-200,000 people will crowd Capitol Square to attend the 54th annual Art Fair on the Square.

The overall economic impact of the fair on the local community is estimated at $25 million, according to a 2011 Chamberlain Research survey. It showed that on average, art fair attendees spent $127 per day on purchases unrelated to the actual art -- namely food, accommodations, and other travel expenses.

Last year, artists totaled around $2.7 million in sales, averaging $6,069 per artist. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art director Stephen Fleischman says popular artists often make tens of thousands throughout the weekend.

Art Fair on the Square is one of MMoCA's largest fundraisers. The museum has free admission, and receives no money from the city of Madison. It operates on more than $2 million per year, around $375,000 of which comes from the fair.

Fleischman calls the fair "highly competitive," with around 1,500 applicants vying for just 475 booths.

A panel of four jurors chooses the artists based on images of their work. The jurors change from year to year and are usually artists with expertise in their field, Fleishman says. Jurors are looking for artists with originality, craftsmanship and innovative use of materials.

"I wanted to make sure things were of a really high quality that would reinforce that this is one of the top shows in the country," says Susan Gardels, one of last year's jurors.

As "a protection of the integrity of the fair," Fleischman says jurors view each application "blindly," without the artist's name attached to their work.

"It's not supposed to be about who knows who or who likes who, or who doesn't like who," Fleischman says. "It's supposed to be about the quality of the images."

Each year during Art Fair on the Square, jurors walk around and award ten artists "Best of Show," a distinction that comes with the opportunity to participate in the following year's fair free-of-charge. The jurors also invite 90 artists to participate in next year's fair without having to re-apply. Gardels says jurors do not judge artists based on the perceived "popularity" of their booths, because crowd levels can vary throughout the day.

Gardels admits the judging process can be "grueling." It took her five hours to walk through and review all the booths. She says she walked with a "decoy juror," who held her clipboard. She didn't want artists to identify her as a juror.

"You try to be as innocuous as possible," she says.

This year's fair will feature 75 artists from around Wisconsin and artists from nearly 40 different U.S. states. One artist, Sinan Atilla, is coming from Istanbul, Turkey, to sell his carved Meerschaum products. Meerschaum is a soft, white mineral mined from the plains of Anatolia.

"[Art Fair on the Square] is one of the most supportive audiences that the artists encounter," Fleishman says.

When asked what will be different about this year's fair, Fleishman replies, "nothing and everything," and compares it to a graduating class.

"It's a great tradition, but all the pieces are different from year to year," he says.

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