Climate Change Affecting Outdoor Art Shows?

Every Monday morning, the phones are ringing at the Flourish Company in St. Paul, Arizona, and they will be ringing all day and into the next day or two as well. Artists are calling. "They tell us they were doing some outdoor show somewhere that was hit by high winds, and now their tents are completely trashed," Jim Frey, a company salesman, said. "They've got another show lined up, and they need a new tent and canopy, hopefully one that can withstand a storm."

A high percentage of the artists and craftspeople who participate in arts fairs and festivals have stories to tell of strong winds that bent the frames of their tents or rain water that collected on their canopies and causing a bulge (sometimes producing a leak and often adding more weight to the frame). "I've had seams give and water would pour through, or the whole thing completely collapsed," said Donna Cusano, a painter in Media, Pennsylvania who added that she no longer takes part in outdoor shows because of the "weather challenges and wear and tear on my frames." Carl Buehler, a jewelry maker in Plantation, Florida, claimed that he had "bought at least a dozen tents over the years," the result of broken welds and metal fatigue. At the Art in the Park fair in Plymouth, Michigan some years back, "a storm came through very suddenly with high winds. It blew my glass cases away, and some of my jewelry got washed down the drain. The canopy lifted up in the air. My wife grabbed onto it, and she was three or four feet off the ground; it looked like she was windsurfing. Some people around us grabbed her legs and pulled her down."

In the end, the city of Plymouth closed down the fair and brought in a dumpster. "Everyone threw their canopies into the dumpster," Buehler said, who added that he also lost "a couple of thousand dollars in jewelry."

The winds were so strong this past June at the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in Philadelphia that a half dozen artists broke their tents down early, including Doylestown, Pennsylvania painter Chris McCall, who with his partner had been holding onto separate corners of the tent to keep it from bouncing up and down. The 30-pound weights at each corner pole and all the weight of the artwork suspending from panels attached to the frames were no match for the gusts swirling between the tall buildings. "The wind might have been 40 miles per hour," he said. "It was nerve-wracking." The early breakdown saved his 30 paintings inside the tent, "but I'm sure I lost a number of sales."

Many of the artists on the line to Flourish Company had been using a folding pop-up tent that is easy to set up and take down, with plastic framing that is not heavy to carry, and they are quite affordable -- maybe, a few hundred dollars or even under $100. "These tents are intended to go in your back yard; they're sun tents, or maybe for art fairs that last just a single day," said Amy Amdur, president of Amdur Productions, a company in Illinois that stages a dozen annual arts and crafts festivals in the Chicago area. The major art fairs around the country, however, take place over two or three days, she claimed, and the quick pop-up tents are not sufficiently durable to stand up to the wind and rain that sometimes can seem ferocious. She recommended galvanized steel poles rather than the lighter-weight aluminum, "because aluminum poles can't handle the weight of the water," and no less than 50 pounds of weight anchoring each pole, rather than water jugs filled with sand. "Artists need to take Mother Nature seriously," she said. "I see tents blowing into other tents and people getting hurt. We have to clean up after the damage."

However, it isn't just the pop-up tents that fall prey to the wind and rain. Harold Pickern, a painter in Hannibal, Missouri, noted that he started doing outdoor shows with an EZ-Up tent ("the wind just shreds them, they're practically useless") but switched to a Light-Dome tent (manufactured by Creative Energies, Inc. in Ocala, Florida), "which is structurally very solid, and it sheds water like a duck." Still, "all bets are off in anything that exceeds a breeze." He attaches 40 pounds of weight to each corner pole and occasionally finds rocks and bricks to add to the weight where he sets up ("I don't like to load up my truck with extra weights, because that cuts down the fuel mileage"), and panels holding his artwork are attached to the tent's framework to make the structure even heavier, but it's still "false comfort. A wind comes through and the whole thing just lifts up." At two or three shows every year, he and his wife find themselves tugging on corners to keep them level and on the ground.

Every evening during a festival, Pickern removes all his paintings from the tent, rather than trusts that they (and the tent) will still be there in the morning. "It adds an hour to my day, but I can relax at night," he said. Once, he arrived at the festival grounds "to find my tent somewhere else. It had flown away in the night," and he needed to spend an hour or so righting the tent and straightening the aluminum frames before rehanging his paintings.

The problems that artists and craftspeople face doing outdoor shows are only likely to get worse, if climate change experts are correct. Dr. Fabien Laurier, acting director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program of the federal government, stated that the "intensity of hurricanes and windstorms" is increasing and expected to continue, because of "the warming atmosphere and oceans, which are creating more unstable weather situations." This assessment was echoed by Jay Gulledge, senior scientist at the Pew Center for Climate Change, who noted the trend of "more rain in heavier events, and that rain is associated with high winds."

The pounds of force exerted on a structure increases geometrically with the wind speed. A light breeze of one to three miles per hour exerts 2.3 pounds of force, while 8-12 mile per hour winds produce 30.8 pounds; winds of 25-31 miles per hour increases the pressure to 198.8 pounds, and a 32-38 mile per hour gale generates 305.8 pounds of force against the side of a tent.

The companies that manufacture exhibition tents and canopies have taken note and designed their products with a greater concern for durability. "Climate change is having a big effect on what's happening on the show circuit," Jim Frey said. "The storm seasons are getting longer and getting worse." As a result, the frame for Flourish Company's TrimLine Canopy ($845) is galvanized steel, rather than the lighter weight aluminum; the frame, top and four walls, which are purchased as components and need to be assembled, weigh 120 pounds ("Think of that as a minimum weight for moderate winds, below 25 miles per hour"). Accessories include a StaBar kit ($115) of poles that connect the tent legs near the ground, a set of four vinyl bags ($80) that are attached to the StaBar poles and hold up to 40 pounds of sand or gravel and an extra pair of spiral ground screws ($8) to anchor the tent to the ground.

The frame for New Venture Products's basic ShowOff Canopy ($825) is welded aluminum, because hollowed "steel, even galvanized steel, has a problem of rusting from the inside where it isn't galvanized," said Dan Perri, the company's manager. The total weight of the frame and canopy is 80 pounds. Weather-related accessories include a set of four vinyl sand bags ($48, sand not included) and straight ground stakes ($7 for a set of four), as well as a stabilizer kit ($282) of poles and crossbar fittings at the bottom of the tent.

Weights become even more important at urban festivals where stakes are not usable but the neighboring tall buildings may create wind tunnels that wreak havoc on tents. That was the problem at the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show where both the director of the show and the president of the board of the Rittenhouse Square Fine Arts Association recommended that some vendors break down early. Harold Pickern, who has had similar problems with swirling winds at the Bethesda Fine Arts Festival and the Ft. Worth Arts Festival, claimed that he has great difficulty just setting up his tent. "Before it's properly weighted, the canopy behaves like an umbrella, and it can be a little dangerous." When setting up has been particularly hazardous, he has told show organizers "that maybe I won't set up today. They've sometimes said that maybe I won't be invited back next year, but that's OK with me, because I value my artwork."

It is customary for artists who look to sell their work at outdoor fairs and festivals to consider a number of practical issues, such as the competence of the show sponsors to run a successful event, as well as their budget for marketing and advertising, the experience of exhibitors who have participated in years past, the number of annual visitors and how much they spend, the amenities available to visitors. They also may want to factor into their decisions the expected weather for the time of year and the amount of wind that customarily comes through. Artists may want to scope out the wind conditions of possible sites in advance in order that they not spend their entire time trying to keep their tents from flying away. It is possible to request show organizers for a change of site, although there may not be many options, because some exhibitors demand the identical location year after year, since their regular buyers look to find them in the same place every year.