Art on the Square will celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend as a true heavyweight in metro-east tourism.
The three-day festival in downtown Belleville is essentially tied with a double-race weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison for biggest annual event attendance, according to IllinoiSouth Tourism, a Swansea-based agency that covers 21 counties.
An estimated 60,000 people were attending the festival before COVID-19 hit, about the same as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Race and IndyCar Series Race combined.
That’s followed by an estimated 30,000 spectators at the Centralia Balloon Fest and 25,000 at the raceway’s AAA Insurance National Hod Rod Association Midwest Nationals.
“It’s huge,” IllinoiSouth Communications Director Andy Waterman said of Art on the Square, which is May 13-15. “You’re drawing people not only from the metro-east and southern Illinois, but also the other side of the river and a couple of states around us.”
Waterman noted that out-of-region visitors stay in O’Fallon, Fairview Heights and Collinsville hotels and eat in local restaurants, gas up at local stations and shop in local stores.
The metro-east tourism landscape will change a bit this year because World Wide Technology Raceway is hosting a NASCAR Cup Series Race for the first time. It’s expected to draw more than 80,000 people in June.
In addition, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Race and IndyCar Series Race will no longer be held on the same weekend, Waterman said.
Art Fair SourceBook and Sunshine Artist magazine have put Art on the Square on their Top 5 lists of U.S. art shows 12 out of 19 times in the past 20 years based on merchandise sales, according to Carol Bartle, who is co-directing it this year with Stephanie Dorris.
The festival was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Artists sold about $325,000 in merchandise the first year, and that figure has been climbing ever since.
“We’re really close to $1 million now, and some years it’s been more like $1.2 million,” Bartle said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what we do this year because we just had a show eight months ago.”
The festival was moved from May to October last year due to COVID-19. Artists still sold about $900,000 in merchandise, Bartle said.
Art on the Square’s national recognition dramatically changed the job of Cathleen Lindauer, director of Belleville Illinois Tourism, a partnership between the city and Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce.
Lindauer was able to start promoting Belleville as a tourist destination instead of a place with tourist attractions such as the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, Eckert’s Orchard, historic districts, St. Peter’s Cathedral and the Lincoln Theatre.
“It really put Belleville on the tourism route,” she said. “… People were calling me for a change.”
Lindauer also noticed a new respect for the metro-east from St. Louis tourism officials.
Art on the Square kicked off for the first time May 17, 2002, a rainy Friday that dampened turnout but not spirits. It rebounded Saturday and Sunday with beautiful weather.
White tents, food booths and music venues circled the fountain and lined side streets. About 100 artists from all over the United States displayed and sold paintings, sculptures, jewelry, crafts, photographs and other work in the juried show. About 275 had applied — it’s double that today.
Then-Belleville Mayor Mark Kern welcomed visitors with a letter in a special BND advertising section.
“Throughout the past year, when the first suggestion of an art fair was but a twinkle in the eyes of Co-Directors Patty Gregory and Jim Lang, hosts of men, women, and children have volunteered their ideas, talents, experience, finances, suggestions, and countless hours to bring this special project to fruition,” he wrote.
An estimated 32,000 people attended the first Art on the Square.
Artists competed for $27,000 in cash prizes, compared to $31,500 today. Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra performed a pops concert at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday night.
The Belleville City Council voted to donate $24,000 to help launch the festival, with the expectation that it would become self-sustaining in a few years. The annual city support has continued.
“In turn, we pay for police and a lot of other costs,” Bartle said.
Belleville Treasurer Sarah Biermann declined to comment this week on how the festival affects the city financially, including how much the city receives in sales taxes on merchandise sold. She referred questions to PR director Kathy Kaiser, who didn’t provide the information.
Bartle noted that Gary Karasek, a Swansea-based architect and artist, designed this year’s Art on the Square poster. That’s the sixth time for the Karasek family, beginning with Gary’s father, the late Ed Karasek.
Bartle gives credit for the festival’s success to Gregory’s longtime leadership, the 50-member planning committee and 500 to 600 volunteers.
“The person who started it had great ideas and great committees to back up those ideas,” she said. “I think we have the greatest volunteer base of any show around. They really take pride in it.”
The festival will be held from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Hours for the Children’s Art Garden, where kids can make art to take home, are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Admission is free. For more information, visit www.artonthesquare.com.
This story was originally published May 13, 2022 6:00 AM.