Two decades ago, Jan Bell had the idea to hold a small pottery fair at the Arizona State Museum in honor of the museum's centennial anniversary. Little did she know it would turn into a staple springtime event in Tucson – the Southwest Indian Art Fair.
This weekend, about 200 artists will convene on the front lawn of the Arizona State Museum for the 20th annual Southwest Indian Art Fair. The two-day event, which kicks off on Feb. 23, features Native American artists from across the Southwest, who will display and sell their work.
The art fair has grown far beyond pottery over the last two decades, with artists now offering everything from handmade baskets to carvings to jewelry to textiles and more. The event also features food vendors, music and dance performances, artist demonstrations, live and silent auctions and a juried art competition with cash prizes.
"It's gratifying to see what it's become from such humble beginnings," said Bell, who retired as the museum's curator of collections in 1998, but continues to visit the fair.
Last year, about 6,500 people visited the Southwest Indian Art Fair over two days. While the event has grown over time, it remains smaller and more intimate than many similar art shows around the country, and that is by design, organizers say.
"We want people to walk away enriched by the barriers that are broken down by conversation, art, music and food," said Beth Grindell, director of Arizona State Museum. "I'm always struck by the number of comments the museum receives each year citing how the fair's intimacy – its ability to create and maintain cherished relationships – surpasses that of other comparable events in the region."
Visitors to the fair not only get to browse a variety of unique pieces, they also can speak one-on-one with the artists, who represent a variety of tribes and cultures, said fair organizer Daniel Vander Ploeg, the museum's outreach programs coordinator.
"We focus on making this a culturally based education event. People get the opportunity to speak with artists directly about their pieces, and when they buy a piece they can take it home and share the cultural stories with their friends," he said. "You can come and see things you don't see in everyday life. It's a way to see a lot of cultures without traveling too far."
This year, fair organizers hope to reach a younger demographic in addition to regular fair-goers. They worked with Zocalo, which bills itself as "Tucson's urban scene magazine," to have the festival's full program inserted into the glossy publication's February issue in an attempt to reach a braoder audience.
"We're looking for the next generation of Native American art lovers," Vander Ploeg said.
The featured artist at this year's fair, whose work is displayed on the event poster and program, is Gerry Quotskuyva, a Hopi/Yaqui artist based in Rimrock, Ariz.
Quotskuyva, who has participated in the fair for about a decade, will show and sell his paintings.
He says he always looks forward to the event and how relaxed and accommodating it is. Of the eight shows he does around the country each year, he says the Southwest Indian Art Fair is consistently one of his most successful, noting, "There's a strong support system for Native American art in Tucson."