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Artsfest a chance for artists to build their businesses

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David Ruggeri loved having a booth at Artsfest 2021 so much that he’s coming back for another year.

The St. Louis-based painter, who works in acrylics and spray paint, often on unusual backgrounds, like maps or comic book pages, will be displaying at the 41st installment of Artsfest, May 7-8 on Historic Walnut Street.

Ruggeri is a full-time artist with a backstory. A businessperson can appreciate the MBA that informs his work, but he also has a master’s degree in public health, a master’s in economics and a doctorate in public policy. He has worked in a variety of jobs, from an Alaskan fishing boat and cannery operation to time spent as a banker and even a police officer.

“Through all of that, art was kind of a constant,” Ruggeri said.

Seven years ago, he decided to go all in and become a working artist.

“I was at a point in my life where I realized you have to take your turn at the bat if you’re going to do it, right?” he said. “So, I decided to go ahead and see what happened.”

He started showing and selling drawings at nonjuried shows, where he asked about $25 a pop.

“Through a lot of hard work, I focused my attention and made a strategic plan on where I wanted to go and how I wanted to get there,” he said. “I kept working and refining my style and my skills.”

These days, Ruggeri said, things have started to come to fruition. He displays in better and better shows and galleries, and the disruption of COVID-19 offered the unexpected gift of time to build up an inventory while honing a unique style and perspective.

“Being an artist is like anything else – one step forward, two steps back,” he said. “There have been a lot of learning experiences and chances to build perseverance and other traits that you need to have to be successful.”

Last year’s Artsfest was Ruggeri’s first after coming out of the COVID-19 lockbox.

“The setting is just beautiful, and it’s one of the oldest art fairs in the Midwest,” he said. “It’s a place I want to keep coming back to, regardless of my career trajectory.”

That career trajectory has moved well past the days of $25 drawings. Now, his typical canvases bring in $1,000-$3,000, on average – but when he sets up at an art fair, he brings plenty of more modestly priced works, too.

Building audiences
Laura Ingalsbe said Formed: An Artist Collective, the gallery she owns with Grace Huckfeldt at 210 E. Walnut St., will have a booth at Artsfest, featuring work by the owners and 10 other artists.

The business partners met at a pop-up show held in lieu of Artsfest in 2020, when the festival got canceled for the virus.

“We were painting the windows for Christmas and talking about how we really wanted to keep this going,” Ingalsbe recalled. “I said, ‘Well, do you want to do this?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ We had only known each other for a few hours.”

Ingalsbe said it’s important to get out to where customers can see work, as many shoppers shy away from downtown because of difficulties with parking or other factors.

What’s more, the gallery booth serves artists who would have a hard time doing a festival on their own, with setup Friday, full days of participation Saturday and Sunday, and then complete breakdown and packing up at the festival’s end.

Ingalsbe said Formed and its studio space, Forming, located at Walnut Street and South Avenue, aim to bring artists back downtown. The website for Formed lists 37 artists, including the owners, and there are six resident artists in the Forming studio space.

Ingalsbe said it’s paying off.

“I think the arts are becoming more stable,” she said. “Really, for the past several years, it’s been an unstable place, but it’s starting to grow more.”

She cites the Springfield Regional Arts Council, which sponsors Artsfest, as well as the First Friday Art Walk and Sculpture Walk Springfield, for being a stable backbone for the arts locally. But COVID-19 may have hacked away at some community support for the arts.

“Promotion and support for the arts has been dwindling, and we’d like to see a resurgence of that,” she said.

To hear Ingalsbe tell it, things are going great guns for Formed, which opened in mid-January 2021. She and Huckfeldt devote most of their time to the gallery, while also working part-time jobs because, as she noted, they’re not able to pay themselves yet.

But they sold $98,000 worth of art in 2021, and in the first quarter of this year, they have already sold $25,000. The gallery’s take is 20% of that, and the owners put it right back into the business, which will soon acquire a small in-house printer for giclee prints.

The gallery has high hopes for Artsfest.

“There are a lot of artists, but all it takes is one viral moment to get noticed,” Ingalsbe said. “We try to enhance that a little bit for them.”

 All hands on deck
Muralist Meg Wagler has exhibited at Artsfest as a live artist twice, but this year she plans to attend solely as a volunteer.

She has served as a juror for the festival, evaluating artist submissions to achieve high quality exhibits from a good variety of styles. Wagler is a true believer in the festival, which provides ready access to art for the general population.

“There’s a collective understanding that it’s a really great event to vend at as an artist,” she said. “From an artist’s perspective, it’s a great place to showcase your art, to get buyers and to build that sense of community amongst other venders and artists in the region.”

Wagler said it’s important for artists to reach a wide audience. She built a certain amount of business savvy working as a graphic designer at BKD LLP and other corporations – “That’s where I got my sea legs,” she said.

A couple of years ago, she left the corporate world to become a full-time muralist and artist. It was a scary move.

“It’s been helpful to have some business acumen as an artist to translate what I do into revenue,” she said. “It is certainly not second nature for most artists. It is a challenge at some times to keep those revenue streams running.”

Wagler has split her business into three verticals. There’s mural work, for which the fee is by square foot, usually $12-$25, depending on size, experience, materials and other factors.

She also does illustration work – which she likes, because it offers her a break from the physicality of mural painting and lets her sit at her desk for a bit – and canvas commissions.

For artists like Wagler who want to go full time, the exposure of Artsfest and similar venues is essential.

“It certainly benefits the overall economic ecosystem,” she said. “Of course, if you bring 20,000 people over the weekend to a concentrated area, you not only benefit the vendors that are there; it tends to translate to more seats filled at restaurants, more tickets sold at baseball games. It certainly reaches outside the arts community.”

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