Anyone who appreciates fine craftsmanship already knows that they must make an annual pilgrimage to the Berkshire Arts Festival, held in Ski Butternut every 4th of Julyth Weekend since 1981 (this year’s dates are July 1, 2 and 3) to showcase the work of around 150 handpicked exhibitors – jewellers, fashion designers, ceramists, art glassmakers, visual artists, sculptors, furniture makers and more found.
But not everyone knows American Art Marketing’s Richard and Joanna Rothbard, the couple who created this show and have run it for 22 years now. As impresarios of hugely successful craft fairs across the country, the Rothbards have a special bond with the Berkshires. They own An American Craftsman, which has had a retail store in the Berkshires since 1981. Their Stockbridge shop operated from 1981 to 2020; The Lenox store opened in 2017 and they briefly operated a third location on Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington. And now they’re adding three new Berkshire shows to their summer schedule, all in City Park in downtown Lee, Mass. These shows in Lee are held on Memorial Day weekend, the last weekend in August, and Labor Day weekend. Each of these Lee shows will feature a rotating lineup of 25-35 artisans. And another show is scheduled for October 1stSt and 2nd on the grounds of Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox.
Richard Rothbard is the more public face of the couple, although Joanna has been his partner and support since 1976 when they met on January 29th street and 3approx Avenue in Manhattan, and they married in 1977. And she seems to have enjoyed riding the roller coaster of Richard’s entrepreneurial adventures while maintaining a remarkable equanimity.
Richard grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, where he says the competition was fierce and results were pretty much all that mattered. So how did it come about that a Long Island boy who, while studying finance at Hofstra University, caught the theater bug and spent many years as an actor (mainly playing the role of the boy in The fantastic ones on Off-Broadway) eventually producing fine craft shows in the Berkshires? As you can imagine, it wasn’t a straight line, but the journey makes a good story. And it also demonstrates the kind of risks and rewards that come with a career as an entrepreneur in the highly competitive world of art marketing.
As Richard recounts, he left the theater because he fell in love with a dining table. “It was one my aunt bought from George Nakashima. Nakashima did wonders with wood and by the age of 27 I became a woodworker.” From the 1960s he built furniture. By 1967 he had the first of several stores in Manhattan where he and other artisans sold their work. Richard is known today for the intricate puzzle boxes he creates under the Boxology heading. And how he started making the boxes is also a story. He had brought his woodworking equipment to the store’s basement on the 29thth and 3rd (where he also met Joanna). One day a man from California walked in carrying cedar logs. He had heard that Richard had a band saw. Could he make some boxes out of this? Richard observed and studied and learned, and within a few years he was making highly polished wooden boxes and gaining a reputation as an early bandsaw box artist.
He began selling his work at shows across the country and in 1979 was accepted as an exhibitor at the country’s first show, hosted by the American Craft Council (ACC) at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY. Acceptance he knew many talented artists who had been rejected by the ACC and he heard their grumbling.
So the next year, 1980, he rented the parking lot across from the fairgrounds and put on a show he called “Rejects.” “The show was hugely successful,” says Rothbard, “and it launched my career.” He had 50 exhibitors who were not afraid to break away from the ACC. About 1,000 buyers crossed the street to his show. The next year, Rejects had 150 artists, and by 1982 it had 300. In 1984, the ACC moved its exhibit to the Big E in West Springfield, and Richard moved in under tents next door with about 80 exhibitors. Three years later, its tents housed 300 exhibitors. A few years later, the ACC moved their show to Columbus, Ohio and Richard stopped following them.
By this point, the Rothbards were already in the Berkshires. The connection to the Berkshires began in Richard’s childhood; He was here at summer camp and always wanted to come back. They also believed that there was a market for fine crafts in the Berkshires. So the success of the first “Rejects” show in 1980 encouraged them to expand into Ski Butternut in 1981. At the same time they also opened a store in Stockbridge. As luck would have it, when they drove to Stockbridge to do some work before the show, an antique shop vacated a store. The Rothbards were intrigued. The landlord happened to be there and they rented it on the spot. And they occupied that store until early 2020. In 2017, they bought a building in Lenox where they could set up a much larger store and expand the variety of their wares.
Over the years, the Rothbards have seen major changes in the craft market. In 1980 about 25,000 came to the ACC show in Rhinebeck with cash, and the artists made a very good living from the shows. At the same time there were other prestigious venues. Both the Philadelphia Museum and the Smithsonian held annual craft shows. The American Craft Museum occupied a sizable building on the same block as the Museum of Modern Art. Those shows no longer exist. People have moved away from using the word craft. For example, when the museum moved to the former Huntington Hartford Museum at Columbus Circle, it was renamed the Museum of Art & Design.
There are still many established shows, but other factors have contributed to making business difficult. The universe of artists who will do shows is shrinking. “You used to be able to put shows together with a certain amount of predictability. Artists who would normally get in their vans and drive six hours or even a day or two to attend a show are now hesitating. The cost of gas puts them off.” And many artists don’t want to take the risk of renting a booth. For example, observe the Rothbards, there are many artists in the Berkshires who don’t do shows because they’re afraid of making that initial investment.
“The challenge with a show,” says Rothbard, “is that it has to be an instant hit. It’s like opening a new business in a minute. It’s a pop up. People either come or they don’t, and you don’t get a chance to grow it for weeks or months.” A show’s success depends on preparation. You need to put together the right mix of artists and generate traffic through the right mix of promotion and advertising. “As far as I know,” Rothbard continues, “we’re one of the very few promoters that are starting new shows.”
The Rothbards have built a solid reputation by catering to their exhibitors and attracting buyers. “Our model is unique because we have an ongoing organization with shows and retail stores and now a growing online business. We are even planning to open a new store in Manhattan on Lexington Avenue at 63approx Street. We’ve also made sure to keep our costs reasonable and affordable for artists. We are an organization where a good artist can look for opportunities to actually participate. And we’re working hard to attract the crowds. When we first came to Butternut, we networked like crazy with other businesses and also with the hotels and inns. On our very first day we had 2000 people. It was a great success and we have done well every year since.”
You enjoyed working in the Berkshires. The business community here was collegial and supportive. And the interest in art is very high among residents and visitors. “But,” concludes Rothbard, “it remains a challenge. For a show to be a success, people have to come and the artists have to sell. Artists come when they have faith in the people promoting the show, but even then, nobody comes if it’s too far or too expensive.”