South Carolina's Finest

The South Carolina State Fair celebrates local artist's

By Katie McElveen

Photography Courtesy of South Carolina State Fair

For thousands of South Carolinians, State Fair time means a chance to defy gravity on amusement park rides, gorge on fair food, visit with cows, pigs, sheep and other animals, play carnival games and check out the giant pumpkins in the produce shed. But that’s not all the fair has to offer. Step into the Cantey Building, and you will find it transformed into a massive art gallery boasting hundreds of works from some of the state’s finest amateur and professional artists. “The South Carolina State Fair’s Fine Art Exhibition is known as one of the best art exhibitions in the southeast,” says Nancy Smith, the fair’s assistant general manager. “You’ll see everything from paintings to sculpture to ceramics, even jewelry. All the artwork is for sale, too. Who knows? You may finally find that painting you’ve been looking for to hang over the sofa.”

Wondering how fine arts ended up at the State Fair alongside livestock, produce and the Tilt-A-Whirl? When the fair was founded in the mid-1800s, it was to showcase South Carolina’s agricultural roots. Rides, food, carnival games, entertainment and special exhibits broadened the appeal, drawing not just farmers and equipment reps to the fairgrounds each fall, but non-farming individuals and families as well. It wasn’t long before fair organizers figured out that the fair would be a terrific venue for showcasing everything the state had to offer. Soon, competitive exhibits in home arts, flowers, crafts and fine arts were added to the lineup and the fair’s mission was expanded to include material, educational and industrial interests as well as agriculture. “Our fair is fantastic because we promote a little bit of everything South Carolina is known for,” explains Nancy. “Art is definitely a big part of that.”

This year, as in most years, more than 1,000 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, collages, ceramic works and pieces of jewelry will be entered in either the amateur or professional division of the competition. In honor of Columbia’s 225th birthday, professional artists also are invited to submit paintings about Columbia to be judged in a new, one-time-only category.

Although planning the fine art competition and exhibition is a year-round job for show chair Wanda Phillips and her committee, the workload doubles in July when the entry process begins, and they’re flooded first with on-line forms and, later, the works themselves. Wanda and her team are responsible for every aspect of the program, from planning the award reception and making sure every piece of work is documented and matched with the correct paperwork to ensuring that paintings aren’t hung upside down and sculptures stay in one piece. Wanda also works with the show’s single judge, who is recruited from out of state.

The judge’s job is equally intense. Since the fair’s competition is juried, meaning that works must be accepted into the show before they’re judged against other pieces in their category, the judge is asked to perform both duties. It’s a huge job. After studying each of the thousand or so entries and weeding out those that aren’t acceptable, the judge then awards first, second and third prizes in eight categories as well as dozens of awards of merit. The process is then repeated for the amateur division. The judge is also asked to name a best of show. “If you had more than one judge deciding, you’d never finish,” laughs Wanda. “Adding more opinions would further complicate what is already a challenging process.”

This painting won the Best in Show award at a S.C. State Fair’s Fine Arts Exhibit.

Sinisa Saratlic, an artist and architect from Jacksonville, Fla., judged the 2008 show and was impressed by what he saw. “What an outstanding showcase of artwork!” he noted in his juror’s statement. “That achievement is a credit to the cultural beauty that exists in South Carolina. A salute to all who submitted their artwork, and thank you for your creative self-expression. This sure was not an easy exhibition to judge.” Toni Elkins, a Columbia artist who chaired the show for a decade and has been a part of hundreds of shows across the country, is particularly impressed with the State Fair’s show. “Some of the state’s most talented artists enter their work, and the winners are truly museum-quality,” she says. Albin Beyer, whose painting, “Phyllis,” won best in show in 2010, agrees. “The South Carolina State Fair attracts a lot of talent, so you don’t always get in, but it’s a great show, and I was delighted to win.”

One aspect of the fair’s fine art program that sets it apart from others is how well it champions the artists who enter. There’s no barrier to entry: professionals and amateurs are welcome, and it’s free to enter. In addition, more than 100 awards are given, offering artists a real chance to win money. The prizes are generous, too, ranging from $6,500 for Best in Show to $100 for Awards of Merit. But the real support comes in facilitating a way for the artists sell their work. Through the Purchase Patrons program, art lovers set up private appointments to get the first look at – and the first chance to purchase – the winning works. Most of the program members are established collectors, so the pieces are usually sold for a good value. And since the fair takes no commission, the artists keep 100 percent of the purchase price.

The 2010 Best of Show Professional Winner Albin Beyer (R) with (from L to R) his grandchildren, his daughter and Nancy Smith, assistant general manager of the S.C. State Fair. Beyer is a professor at USC Aiken and his painting, “Phyllis,” is a likeness of one of his art students. 

Although it costs $300 to become a purchase patron, the entire fee is applied to the cost of art. “It’s a wonderful way to purchase original art at a reasonable price,” says Purchase Patron Chair Lib Carswell. “The whole purpose of the program is to help artists sell art.” Toni Elkins, who founded the program more than 12 years ago, says, “It’s a win-win for the artists. They’re offered a place to show art and sell art at no charge.” Patrons are also invited to the exhibition premiere and awards reception, where they can meet the artists and learn more about their craft. Both sold and unsold paintings are displayed in the Cantey Building for the duration of the fair. As with the Purchase Patron program, the fair takes no commission on any works sold.

Art aficionados who would prefer to see the creative process rather than just the end result will also have reason to visit the Cantey Building: every day, a different artist will set up in a large gazebo and work in his or her medium, creating pieces and offering insight into the work. The artist is also invited to set up a mini-gallery to sell completed pieces.

“The State Fair’s art program is all about inclusion,” says Toni. “So many people aren’t comfortable in a gallery setting. This reaches them. It’s a wonderful entity.”

«  back to issue