Arts Fest more than its name implies

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Connie George

The Southwest Arts Festival (SWAF) celebrates its 26th anniversary this month with more than 250 acclaimed artists in an abundance of creative disciplines and a solid reputation as a promising venue for art collectors — in spite of a name that organizers say often presents a marketing challenge.

“The Southwest Arts Festival is so much more than Southwest style,” said festival Assistant Manager Shawnna Trombetta during preparations for this year’s event, which will take place Friday through Sunday, Jan. 27-29, at Indio’s Empire Polo Club.

Ellen Kiner, in charge of public relations, echoed the sentiment, explaining that the festival began in the mid-1980s when Southwestern art and architecture were in vogue, and that the event was named after that specific genre of design. But over the years, as art buyers’ interests evolved and artists representing myriad styles began applying to the juried event, it has taken on new dimensions.

Now, SWAF “is a totally international art festival,” Trombetta said, that frequently features “artists from all over the world in addition to all over the United States.”

Because of the event’s sensitive adaptation to the specific interests of both artists and collectors, Kiner added, “it’s not just another art festival; it has its own feel.” That feel includes traditional, contemporary and abstract works in clay, drawing, glass, jewelry, metal, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture and textile.

Artists are featured individually in 10-foot-square spaces that form a sea of color and texture throughout the polo field. Coachella Valley artists selected for this year’s show include potter Elliott Newton of La Quinta and oil painters Mark Ford of Palm Desert and Elaine Mathews of Rancho Mirage.

As the primary fundraiser for the Indio Chamber of Commerce, SWAF’s success has proven to be a win-win for both the chamber and the event’s artists, Trombetta and Kiner explained. It is also heavily reliant on the 150 volunteers who help mount the event each year as well as the art-collecting festival goers.

An artist’s perspective

Modern American impressionist Robert Ferguson — whose plein air style painting of a tree-lined path through Indio’s Anderson Date Farm was selected as the image for SWAF’s 2012 commemorative poster — said that for the wide range of participating artists, the festival provides ideal exposure for selling their work to browsers who have all manner of interests. He described the event as having a “diversity of everything, so really there’s something for everybody.”

The opportunity for the artists to sell their work to a crowd keenly interested in fine art is supported, he added, by “the fact that people have to pay to get in to the festival — that tells me they are very serious about looking at art.”

For Ferguson and other artists who present their work at SWAF, all of whom are in the business and not hobbyists, “I think it’s the demographic there” that supports a profitable participation in the show. “We don’t just go to festivals to hang out and show our work. We’re all very serious about our work.”


The San Diegan explained that he has researched art shoppers and their buying interests in the various regions in which he promotes his work so that “I know what to put toward a group. It’s helped me to market my stuff.” As a result, he adapts the collections he presents at SWAF to specific details he has learned about local art buyers through experience.

Most art collectors in the Coachella Valley are interested in landscapes, Ferguson has learned, so he brings to the event a high percentage of outdoor images. For successfully marketing these paintings, SWAF festival goers are “definitely my target audience,” he said. Since he has observed that “they’re also older and tend to be Republican and more conservative,” he brings along other pieces that he believes could have local appeal.

By contrast, he shared that his clients in Beverly Hills are “wild and crazy,” largely Democrats and like his paintings of nudes — in particular, his unique and rather candid studies of male nudes. Ferguson will have a few of his nudes available at SWAF, he said, although discretely displayed toward the back of his tent.

Atmosphere and ambience

The elegance and prestige of holding the festival on the scenic grounds of the Empire Polo Club is among the reasons the event is so popular with festival goers, according to Trombetta and Kiner.

Ferguson said the setting is also ideal for the artists. “I love the atmosphere of the polo grounds,” he said, “and also the layout of the show.” The artists are all treated as equal, he added, “and we all get the space we need. There aren’t good spots and bad spots.”

SWAF also provides the polo club the opportunity to connect the Coachella Valley’s art lovers with the enormous world of artistic creation. “We’re exposing all the people in the Coachella Valley to artists from all over the country,” said the club’s Senior Sales and Events Manager Summer Parkinson, “and in turn we’re exposing artists from all over the country to the Coachella Valley, so it’s a win-win.”

The Southwest Arts Festival will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day at the polo club, 81-800 Avenue 51 in Indio. Tickets are $8, or $12 for a two-day pass. Parking is $5 for the general lot, or $8 for valet.

Live jazz music, a “Kids Korner,” café-style seating near assorted food and beverage vendors, including a full bar, will also be part of the festival offerings. Commemorative posters will be available for $35 at SWAF information booths.

For more information about the festival, call (760) 347-0676 or visit online. For more on featured artist Ferguson, visit online.