Thanks to good friends, I was recently lucky enough to visit the city of Laguna Beach, CA . It’s a wonderful arts city, crowded with tourists and locals alike, just as Jackson is during our high summer season. We went to an art fair I’ll never forget: the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival on Laguna Canyon Road. Set against a cliff in a eucalyptus grove, Sawdust is a world unto itself, wildly creative, funky and welcoming. A waterfall splashes off the cliff into a rocky pool.
Sawdust is open two full months during the summer, late June through early September. Participating artists must be from Laguna. Close to 200 artists build their own booths each year. Booths must be constructed of wood frame and roofs, built strictly to code, and they can be as imaginative as artists wish, resulting in a fair that feels like a pop-up fantasy art village. Booth spaces differ in size, so Sawdust artists must scale to fit. Artists are responsible for taking booths down and restoring the three acre grove to its original natural state. Booths come down after Sawdust’s Winter Fantasy Show; a holiday-themed show taking place the last two weekends in November and the first two in December. Offices, meeting rooms, a glass-blowing center and arts education “classrooms” remain up year-round.
A very broad array of price points means there’s affordable art for everyone.
Sawdust blew me away! From the moment I walked in (entry fees for adults are in the $7-$8 range) I wondered how Laguna pulls this fair off; it’s 47 years old. I made a note to contact Sawdust, ask pesky questions about its structure and history, and report to you! Tom Klingenmeier, Sawdust’s general manager sent a generous response. I’ve edited my questions and Tom’s replies for length.
Tammy Christel: How did Laguna Beach galleries initially respond to Sawdust? Was there trepidation? How do galleries feel about Sawdust today?
Tom Klingenmeier: When we began only about a third of the galleries Laguna currently has existed, and there was some resentment. Soon, though, gallery owners, hotels and restaurants realized that Sawdust generated over a half-million visitors in a short time. They quickly adapted and embraced the shows. They now rely heavily on the traffic we generate. Some of our galleries collaborate, featuring local artists in Laguna’s three summer festivals. Some artists conduct co-ops, taking turns being in their space to cut down on sales personnel. It also affords the artists more time to share art experiences with visitors, leading to more affordable art and knowledge for the buyer.
TC: How is Sawdust paid for?
TK: We sell tickets, and if you saw all three shows you had the chance to buy our “Passport to the Arts” ticket for all those shows, all summer long; it includes one-time parking in a large lot served by free tram service that goes all over town. We charge very nominal booth fees, have a retail shop that sells only Sawdust T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, and we charge rent for the five food concessions we lease. We have a saloon, selling wine and beer.