Brett Davis has participated in art book fairs in locations ranging from New York to Tokyo. And while each event has its own uniqueness, he said the setup generally favors larger publishers, who can afford the display costs and associated application fees.
“So you’ll have a photobook section, and a lot of the design houses and design houses will have publications. And universities will be there, like Yale Architectural Press. And then you also have the big publishing houses,” Davis said. “And then what I hear from most other artists at these book fairs is that they do it to get exposure and they don’t make money. Instead, they’re spending money to show off the work in a space that’s supposed to be more DIY.
With the first Columbus Alt Art Book Fair, taking place at Weinland Park from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, May 7 and 8, Davis and his co-founder Christian Casas wanted to expand that scope, removing so many barriers at the entrance as possible in the hope of creating a grassroots event that reflects the diversity of the city’s arts community.
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“Even the way we designed the art fair, we removed all barriers to accessibility,” said Casas, who joined Davis at Weinland Park for an interview in early May. “We have no application fees. We provide tables and chairs. And we have done our best to provide as much literal space possible (Casas gestures like the surrounding park).
“I think a lot of the artists that we have, it’s even their first time showing their work to an audience, so it’s about having an eye on their work but also making sure that the next generation of artists feel like their voice has a space, and also a community that surrounds and supports them.
This community includes residents of the surrounding neighborhood of Weinland Park, with Davis and Casas emphasizing the importance of nearby residents feeling like a part of the fair rather than isolated observers. To help facilitate that shared spirit, the two said they reached out to Weinland Park Coalitions early on, keen to make neighbors a crucial part of the event.
“Weinland Park…is an area of Columbus that is gentrifying very quickly and people are being evicted, so we wanted to make that effort and figure out how to bring the community into space, but also give something back to the community,” said Casas said. “We wanted to provide a kind of transformative action that will not only get people into the space, but also make them think of the space, not just as another hotspot to buy a house. But to show that there’s a culture and there’s a community, and all of those things are already happening here. … It was important that we got that stamp of approval from the community.
For the first time, the Alt Art Book Fair attracted about 50 vendors ranging from zine makers and comic book artists to photographers and printmakers. Some will sell their wares, while others will only exhibit. This diversity reflects the open application process, with the two aspects of deletion which could have deterred some first-time exhibitors. Rather than requiring a statement from an artist, for example, Casas said the two asked more basic questions of the contestants. “It was quite simple: tell us why you want to participate in the fair and tell us a bit about yourself,” he said.
After the event, Casas and Davis plan to collect works from all of the artists on display for a fall exhibition at the Department of Culture and Tourism, a new arts space on the fringes of Franklinton — another aspect of community building rooted in the event, which is funded in part by grants from the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the Ohio State College of Arts and Sciences.
“It was really great to have this little model of What if we just helped each other? Wouldn’t everything just be a little easier?” says Casas. “It’s also a collaborative project, and we are artists who approach this in the same way that we could collaborate in the studio. … So, with the two of us, we help each other, we have created this space where 50 people may have an opportunity, and now maybe those 50 people [will] help someone else. We’re trying to create this model not just of possibility, but of imagining what a community can be.