Barnyard School

More than a thousand artists each year compete to find the art of the blue ribbon at the State Fair

It's Monday a.m. at the State Fair, and there's nary a Pronto Pup to be found. There are no sunburnt 4-H kids yet, either, and the Honda-sized swine are still lolling happily in their own excrement halfway across the state. The fairgrounds is a hive of activity, however, with semi trucks crawling antlike through the narrow streets to deliver fair-going accouterments like deep fryers and Port-a-Potties. On the Mighty Midway, crews of men in armpit-sweat-stained T-shirts advertising defunct metal bands--genus: carnelevarus americanus--are slapping together a carousel, stopping every so often to recommend anatomically implausible maneuvers to one another. There's a distinct and not altogether unpleasant smell in the air: fresh-cut grass, animal funk, and a fragrance vaguely like that of industrial-quality chemical bathroom cleanser.

Less pungent by half is the art barn, though this retreat from the Midway is caught up in its own preparatory bustle. By the fair's conclusion, between 125,000 and a quarter of a million visitors will pass through the gallery and absorb a touch of culture in the midst of the lumpenprole bacchanal. For parents, bloated and exhausted, it will be an edifying respite. For their kids, bloated and exhausting, it will be another boring segue between rides that involve frightening amounts of rotation, torque, altitude changes, and disco music. For the hundreds of participating artists, both ambitious amateurs and professionals toiling in anonymity, it will be a chance to display their work before the potentially-art-buying masses, in a venue quite unlike anything else on the local arts landscape.

The art barn is not really a barn, by the way, but a squat, ivy-clad building sandwiched between Machinery Hill--a few acres of toothy farm equipment--and the palatial 4-H headquarters, which doesn't look at all exciting (unless you're really into macramé or something). Pat Crump and her husband Bob, the curators of this year's Fine Arts Exhibition, are inside making the final adjustments in the lighting and installing flora around the capacious gallery. "The show takes about six weeks to put up," Pat explains. "The judging is done in one day at the end of July. Then it takes 10 days to get everything placed and labeled." In the couple's 14 years of involvement in the show, Crump continues, they've refined the setup process somewhat.

Profiles in diligence: State Fair art-barn curators Pat and Bob Crump
Craig Lassig
Profiles in diligence: State Fair art-barn curators Pat and Bob Crump

Bob Crump, meanwhile, is skeptically eying a large wood and metal sculpture waiting to be wrestled into its proper berth. "I just got my hernia fixed," he puffs. "I think I'll wait till some more muscles get here."

The Crumps are sprightly, slightly gnomish-looking retirees from the metro area who have a deep appreciation for art and a long view of history. Both are former advertising executives who now spend much of their time making woodblock prints and painting. For as long as either can remember, they have been drawn to carnivals; they often spend weekends sketching scenes at county fairs around Minnesota. Bob, in particular, is an aficionado of the carnival atmosphere. "He loves the signs," Pat explains. "Especially the one with the lady turning into a gorilla."

Bob smiles sheepishly. "I do like the barnyard freaks. They don't have them much anymore, but some of the older joints still do. And, of course, the people-watching is great."

The Crumps consider that, as superintendents of the State Fair art show, they've found a perfect spot in which to indulge their various passions. "You really have to be a fair fan to do this," Pat says. "It used to be that we'd have quiet times, quiet evenings. Now it seems like attendance goes up every year."

Though the Crumps must occasionally double as gallery guards in order to protect the art from an errant Pronto Pup or Sno-Cone, they also take time to enjoy the fair's various culinary diversions. This year, Bob explains, he is particularly heartened by the prospect of a church food tent setting up opposite his position. "Twelve days of Swedish meatballs!" he exclaims while patting his belly. "Heck, that's why I'm here."

Bob Crump is a historian of the fair's art show, and, in conjunction with the Minnesota Historical Society, he's put together an archival catalog of work from shows dating back to 1907, when the fine-art category first diverged from the sphere of domestic activities. "It was originally part of the women's department," he explains, pointing at a small, faded photo of Henrietta Barclay Paist, who took the blue ribbon for painting in 1907. "At first, the drawings were mixed in with needlework and various sorts of crafts. But eventually the show began to take on its own life."

He gestures toward a wall documenting the gamut of 20th-century taste: a Monet-inflected oil painting from the 1920s; a gray social-realist tableau painting by a WPA artist in 1934; a prize-winning cubist composition from the Fifties; a few brightly colored neo-realist portraits; and a sampling of recent photographic work. "A hundred years of art in 50 feet," he says proudly.


The variety of this year's show is equally dizzying. The absence of an entry fee and the limited requirements--the artist must be a Minnesota resident, and the work must be smaller than six feet square--means that almost anyone who wishes to can submit work. And, though competition grows tougher every year--of the 1641 pieces submitted this year, 324 were selected for competition display--there are plenty of reasons for local artists to vie for a ribbon. Along with $10,000 in fair-sponsored prizes--$500 for a first-place finish--the flood of fairgoers who pass through the show in two weeks dwarfs the number of potential art-buyers who would be exposed to an artist's work during a typical gallery exhibition.

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