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Peter Sills

Kid Sister

Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market sows its wild oats in new cities as it seeks to grow opportunity for artists

July 12, 2017, 12:00 am

There’s usually plenty of sun at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, held on a July weekend every year for the last 14 years. This was something different, though. This was Texas heat.

It was four weeks ago, June 17, and the temperature in Arlington topped out in the mid-90s. Humidity climbed to 85 percent. By 10 pm, three dozen exhausted artisans and scores of sticky, tired volunteers found their way to an air-conditioned room to gather.

Andrea Usai, a jeweler from Sardinia who was part of the first International Folk Art Market in Texas, says, “We are all looking for more opportunities … to make our product as known as possible.
It was a mixed bag for the International Folk Art Alliance’s first-ever sister market; those who made scarves, drums and baskets did well. For some reason, fine jewelry hadn’t sold as expected. That’s Andrea Usai’s trade, but the Sardinian artist still stood up to praise his fellow craftsmen and women, as well as the effort by the alliance to push the boundaries of its innovative program.

They were all pioneers, Usai told the crowd. He was proud to be counted among them.

“I knew that it was a new baby, so I managed my expectations. It had to be done. Nothing is like Santa Fe,” he tells SFR on the phone from his Washington, DC, hotel room. He’s at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He’ll be in Santa Fe in a few days. Hands-down, the market here is the premiere event of his selling season. He never considered saying no to the Arlington sister market.

“For me, the moment they said there is this opportunity and would you be interested, I said 100 percent. In fact, if there is more than 100 percent, I would be interested even more,” he says with an easy Italian laugh.

The alliance, which puts on the annual Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, brought in Jeff Snell two years ago to lead the organization into expansion. Snell hopes to start half a dozen sister markets by 2025.

“These are not exercises of ego or just getting bigger and growing for growth’s sake. It’s about mission and opportunities for artists who are waiting,” he tells SFR from his office. He’s already shepherding the alliance into new office space as it prepares to mentor staff from the sister markets. Each potential new city has to commit to working at the Santa Fe market for a year to learn how the event comes together.

Snell, who has a background in academia as well as innovative nonprofit groups, looks to partner with a local university—as the alliance did with the University of Texas at Arlington—for each sister market. The first ones are likely to be in strong travel markets for Santa Fe, such as Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Jeff Snell, CEO of the International Folk Art Alliance, is drawing on his background in social innovation to expand the market to new cities.
Snell sees expansion as a natural next step in a lot of ways, not the least of which is that sister markets can act as a pressure release valve.

The original market’s 250,000 square feet will be packed once again this weekend, as Museum Hill’s Milner Plaza is festooned with bright colors and alive with energy. Every square foot is mapped out and assigned a use. But there can only be so many artists. 160 this year. The venue can hold 163. 165? Too many.

That’s a problem. For every artist who gets in to the festival and can access its intensive training designed to turn a traditional craft into a sustainable living, there are six more who want a chance.

“I don’t like the idea of six qualified master artisans with their gifts waiting to be brought to the world through our market venue. And their faces are pressed against the glass asking, ‘When can I come back? When’s my opportunity?’” Snell says.

New markets mean each artist at the sister venue has a chance to grow their business outside the safe nest of Santa Fe. All of them will have come through the flagship program first. And while some such as Usai are coming to Santa Fe as well, 60 percent of the artists in Arlington only sold their wares in Texas. The vast majority of the Arlington artists were a natural fit with a special wholesaling program the International Folk Art Alliance sponsors at a nearby trade center in Dallas, so they have a financial safety net and are ready to grow. That means more spots in Santa Fe (54 this year) for new artists. The market is fast closing in on an alumni network of 1,000 artists from 100 countries.

Now is the time to try, Snell believes. The market for folk art and handmade work is booming. Artists on the sidelines mean, in a business sense, product on the sidelines. And that’s no good. If, as filigree jeweler Usai says, the artists are pioneers, the frontier has come to them. The IAFF named Lidewij Edelkoort, a renowned trend forecaster and dean of Hybrid Design Studies at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, as its honorary chair this year.

“In an ever-more complex and information-riddled society, it will be important to touch base and to feel real matter, as if literally getting in touch with civilization,” Edelkoort tells SFR in an email on her way to Santa Fe. “This is why the human-to-human revival of craft will always flourish.”

Folk art is authentic. Authenticity sells. And if it’s done right, it has an impact far beyond the confines of the weekend festival.

Santa Fe International Folk Art Market
7:30 am-5:30 pm Saturday July 15; 9 am-5 pm Sunday July 16.
Saturday early bird tickets $75; otherwise $15-$20.
Milner Plaza, Museum of International Folk Art,
706 Camino Lejo,


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