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East Lansing Art Festival brings spectators, thefts to city

May 25, 2016
Festivalgoers roam around Albert Ave. during the 53rd annual East Lansing Art Festival on May 22, 2016 in East Lansing. The East Lansing Art Festival is ranked 50th in the nation in the Top 100 Fine Art Festival List by Sunshine Artist Magazine.
Festivalgoers roam around Albert Ave. during the 53rd annual East Lansing Art Festival on May 22, 2016 in East Lansing. The East Lansing Art Festival is ranked 50th in the nation in the Top 100 Fine Art Festival List by Sunshine Artist Magazine. —
Photo by Nic Antaya | and Nic Antaya The State News

The festival didn’t go off without a hitch. Although bringing an immense economic impact on the East Lansing community, evidenced by packed streets that shut down many of downtown East Lansing’s roads, reportedly several thefts occurred at the event. 

Economic impact

For local festival attendees, there were only trivial costs associated. For East Lansing businesses, the agglomeration of people meant a big weekend for commerce.

“For us, the (East Lansing) Art Festival does a good 35 to 40 percent more than a typical weekend,” Vicki Ueberroth, owner of Grand Grillin food truck and catering, said. “And this weekend was especially big for us, what with the nice weather and all.”

For Ueberroth, the East Lansing Art Festival is one of her highest grossing events of the year, only competing with football and the Great Lakes Folk Festival. Within the community, Ueberroth’s uptick is in no way an anomaly. Festival director Michelle Carlson said that there are plentiful economic benefits for the city that people don’t consider.

“I know that the hotels have all been full, and I know, from the city, all the parking ramps have been full all weekend,” Carlson said. “And the restaurants, you know, are full. So it has a trickle-off effect.”

Carlson said no more than three artists lived in the region this year; therefore, the city’s hotels were chiefly benefitted. Many of the festival-goers, she said, were also from out of town. Additionally, the art demo area and the children’s area were expanded, attracting new populations.

“One time, we estimated at least on the low side of $2 million,” Carlson said about the local economic impact, including that this year hosted even more artists than before.

Bringing artists to town

Of course, however, the biggest source of gain was still for the artists.

Melvin McGee, from Green Bay, Wisc., is a favorite amongst the East Lansing community, with a sophisticated yet cartoonish style. Although work as an artist can be unpredictable, McGee was foreseeably busy over the weekend.

“For me, it’s one of my favorite shows,” McGee, a veteran returnee, said. “The college kids just really get my art.”

But after the dust settled on the opening Saturday show, the deserved economic kickback did not reach three artists, as this year’s festival was marred by burglaries on Saturday night. Nearly a dozen paintings were stolen, as thieves pillaged artists’ tents. Artists dispersed across the festival map were affected.

A theft in the night

Bala Thiagarajan was set for a great weekend, winning the Redhead Design Studio award for her ethnic Indian paintings. However, her elation was shattered when she stepped foot into her ransacked tent Sunday morning.

“They took six of my paintings,” Thiagarajan said. “This is my living and I don’t even make a living with this yet, so this is very difficult.”

For Thiagarajan, her weekend was ruined. She wondered how her tent, erected just half of a block north of the city hall building on Abbott Road, was the prey of such a heist.

“Basically, I left everything inside and we put the sides down, and we zip-tied the bottom so nobody can use the zipper,” Thiagarajan said, explaining her fastidious deployment of tent-protection. “So what someone had to do was crawl in the front (where there was a small opening)... But that’s the thing; they took six of my paintings. Someone crawled under and they cannot take all six of my paintings at one go underneath, right?”

Police told Thiagarajan that there was no known security camera on the block, so their investigation resources were limited. Thiagarajan lost an estimated $3,400 worth of her works.

Carlson and the East Lansing Art Festival hired Proguard Security Systems Inc., a security company that they had relied on in years before. The festival staff contracted five security guards, also the same amount as in years past. 

Proguard Security Systems Inc. has yet to respond following a request for comment.

Police were also on the watch, maneuvering on foot, bike, and cruiser to discourage and catch possible attempts at vandalism and theft. Last year, three people were detained for trying to force their way into tents.

“They are supposed to be walking around,” Thiagarajan said, nonplussed by the security setup. “If it’s one piece stolen, you can say, ‘OK, the security was somewhere else.’ But for six pieces, with someone being inside my booth and taking the time to do it, where was the security that whole time?”

Security needs

Although there had been thefts and vandalisms before, this year’s were the subject of extra inquiry. Carlson said that in the future, they would have to formulate a better security system with the police and increase the number of security guards on site.

For artist Karri Jamison, who lost three paintings worth a combined $630 dollars, that addition should have been made beforehand.

“Not enough security,” Jamison, whose tent was cleaved open from the back, said, troubled by her first theft in eight years of showcasing her work at festivals. “How did security not realize that someone was knifing through the back of my tent and then carrying a 30-by-40 canvas? I mean that is a big piece not to notice.

“You know, I just guess I thought I was in a secure place where they had hired enough security.”

For the last artist, Justin Bernhardt from Kalamazoo, the festival was not ruined, but he thought that his painting that was stolen was one of his better pieces, valued at $350. He too was an award-winner, recipient of the Raymond King Award for Painting.

All of the artists were sympathetic to the security limitations of the vast area but were nonetheless mystified by the size and amount of works stolen. The artists affected seemed at best ambivalent about the festival itself and at worst downtrodden. While they all expressed differing desires about coming back, Jamison was torn in both directions.

“It’s been very hard because the patrons have been fantastic,” Jamison said. “Everyone that I’ve met has been very art-smart, very intelligent... But if they don’t get more security, I don’t know (if I can return).”

For an otherwise prosperous weekend, the thefts obviously dimmed the occasion. In Carlson’s opinion, though, the adverse effects did not diminish or supplant the good done by the festival.

“There’s far more good going on here than that,” Carlson said, referring to the thefts. “It’s very unfortunate for that artist, or those artists, and we’re working with them to resolve that. But there’s hundreds of artists who are doing really well and thousands of people enjoying the day and coming together as a community. And that’s what makes our community stronger.”


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