For the first time since 2019, Art in the High Desert (AHD) will once again host artists from across the country in Central Oregon later this month. As suddenly as Covid shuttered the 12-year-old institution of Bend summers, the festival has been revived, thanks to a brief, spur of the moment, leap of faith conversation in late 2022 between the show’s founding directors, Dave and Carla Fox, and Corvallis artist David Bjurstrom. AHD’s mission of providing a high-quality experience for both artists and visitors alike remains, but, with this restart, the show feels less like a new show and more like an old friend the community is welcoming back.
Creating a nationally known show
Before 2008, Central Oregon was not known as a hotspot in the greater art world. Local working artist Carla Fox, a metalsmith and jewelry maker, and her husband Dave Fox, who lends his artistic expertise to many of her jewelry pieces, particularly the wooden ones, and who is her righthand in the sales booth, helped to change that. They established AHD as a non-profit, artist-centric annual show. It was, from the beginning, intended to be more than the musical acts, ice cream, or kids’ painting tents common to “mall parking lot shows.” Instead, the Foxes sought to draw nationally recognized visual artists at the peak of their careers to sell their work in Bend for one weekend each summer.
It took a few years to convince artists and community members alike of the opportunity, but the show’s reputation built on itself, as friends of the Foxes, both artists and art lovers, took a chance early on, enjoyed themselves, and told their friends for the next year. For three years in a row, starting in 2016, Art Fair SourceBook (AFSB) rated AHD as one of the top 10 artist shows in the country. Measuring data like artist-reported sales figures, AFSB considered AHD up there with artist favorites like Denver’s Cherry Creek Arts Festival and La Quinta Art Celebration in Palm Springs. Carla said they had patrons and artists alike who planned their vacations around AHD; it became part of the routine of summer.
At the peak of AHD’s popularity, the Covid pandemic shut it down for 2020 and 2021, and nearly for good. By 2022, when the small organization once again felt that hosting a large-scale public event was possible, the Foxes were ready to retire from directing. “We had kayaks we had bought the first year of Art in the High Desert that hadn’t been in the water since,” Carla said, noting that “the pandemic showed us that there were other things in life we had postponed or ignored too long,” including travel and family, not to mention a greater focus on her own artwork.
Nobody stepped forward to take their place as organizers in a way that, crucially, continued to center the artists. “We had some offers from promoters of art shows,” Carla said, “but from seeing the shows they produced, we turned them down. They would have taken the show from an art-centric, community-centric event to a for-max-profit event.
“All those shows are the same, very generic, and good artists don’t apply,” she added. “This is not a good environment to sell quality visual arts.”
It didn’t surprise the Foxes that they couldn’t attract another organizer with a vision similar to theirs who would work for the salary they had accepted: zero. “Frankly,” Carla explained, “it had been a labor of love and our gift to Central Oregon.” They disbanded the nonprofit, closed its financial accounts, and shut everything down. But artists and community members kept asking people who had been involved in the show, including Bjurstrom, when it would return. “Probably never” was always the answer.
Then, as Bjurstrom traveled to exhibit his graphite pencil drawings at Portland’s Art in the Pearl last September, he decided to talk to the Foxes, who would also be exhibiting there. During a quick conversation while they were on a break, it was decided: yes, AHD should return, and yes, Bjurstrom would become the new show director. It all happened so quickly that, as Bjurstom drove home at the end of the weekend, he wondered just what he had agreed to.
Bjurstrom had agreed to take on what is essentially a second job, in addition to being a full-time working artist. Though he has shown as an artist for 40 years at similar events around the country, including at the first iteration of AHD, and is friends with directors of several nationally recognized shows who have mentored him in this new role, he had never himself directed such an event.
Importantly, he has the support of a newly formed eight-person board of directors, which includes Carla Fox, as well as a member of AHD’s previous board. Carla said she can’t say enough about how thrilled she is with Bjurstrom’s leadership. “I knew David had the sensibility and vision to take it over,” she noted, “strengths and skills we did not. His reputation as an artist, as well as the new board of top artists, has encouraged other artists to come to Central Oregon. It’s wonderful to watch them dive in.”
Still, restarting an event as large and as purposeful as this one is intense. Under Bjurstrom’s leadership, a five-person jury from around the country selected approximately 150 artists out of about 500 applications they received to exhibit at the 2023 AHD. Bjurstrom is pleased by how many applications were received, especially since the show is reestablishing itself. This year’s artists specialize in painting and drawing, wood and glass sculpture, mixed media, jewelry, and other media. Nearly half the states will be represented, including, of course, Oregon, with about 20 artists from the state invited to participate. Bjurstrom says he would “put this level of art up against any show in the country right now.”
In addition, Bjurstrom and the board have moved the location of the show. For its first 12 years, it was held in Bend’s Old Mill District. As much as organizers and attendees alike appreciate that area, it was becoming too busy with other tourism and activities to also host this large special event. This year, AHD will be at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center, less than a 20-mile drive from the Old Mill. The artists’ booths will still be outside, now along a tree-shaded creek with a view of the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson, but the space is larger, the parking will be more plentiful and free, and there will be bathrooms available inside the building, an improvement over the past portable units.
There will be art for sale at nearly every price point — from $50 to tens of thousands of dollars. Visitors to the show, which is free to attend, are also welcome to just look. Part of the festival’s mission is to share the joy of art, much as a person might feel walking through a museum. Artists staff their own booths, so attendees get to connect with the makers themselves.
The organizers also strive to educate the public that art is a business. They are transparent about the costs involved in presenting this quality of show. An AHD exhibiting artist has not only earned the respect of a jury of their peers, but has financially invested as well. Each artist rents their booth for $600; with travel costs, Bjurstrom estimates the weekend show might cost an artist $2,000 or $3,000 upfront. In turn, most of AHD’s budget to host this one show comes from those booth fees.
There has been lots of excitement in the art community over the return of Art in the High Desert. In addition to the high number of applications, indicating interest, a low number of accepted artists have rejected the invitation. Bjurstrom said there are always some artists who apply and then decide not to attend.
Artists have also stepped up to fill key leadership roles, all of which are unpaid: not only is Bjurstrom a working artist,but so are all the jury members who selected this year’s exhibitors, as well as all the board members, who are instrumental in organizing the event.
The Central Oregon community has also demonstrated its investment; for example, many of the people who volunteered to staff the event are returning this year. Bjurstrom hopes that once the show has reestablished itself this year, organizers can start incorporating additional ideas, like bringing festival artists to Central Oregon schools for presentations to students.
Bjurstrom believes AHD is creating a new model for how to run an art show, which may mean more people from around the country will turn to Central Oregon for inspiration. It is unique for a show to be run entirely by working artists who are collaborating, not only locally in Bend, but from their home bases around the state and the country. AHD might have been shut down by Covid, but it also adopted some useful ideas from pandemic working norms, including being open to online meetings, which increases variety in their leadership team and, then, the variety of artists they might attract. The show has jurors from around the country and a board member as far away as Kansas City, Missouri. Bjurstrom doesn’t live too far from Bend, but teleconferencing means he is able to be present in meetings from his home in Corvallis. And without him stepping forward, AHD might still have been on indefinite hiatus.
Even though Carla Fox is on the current board, her self-defined role is primarily to share institutional knowledge. She tries “to not be possessive of AHD. It needs to evolve. Organizations die when past leadership doesn’t step aside and let them grow.” Bjurstrom shares this forward-looking perspective and is already looking beyond 2023. He considers himself the interim show director, in part because, as a volunteer position, the work is not sustainable. He and the board are discussing longer-term fundraising options to eventually at least hire a paid director, a goal his predecessors agree is necessary for AHD to survive beyond this immediate renewal period.
Regardless of how long he remains in the director role and how future leadership is structured, Bjurstrom envisions AHD is here to stay, once again. “If I survive this year, I can do anything,” Bjurstrom says. But he also described these last few months as incredibly satisfying.
Art in the High Desert
August 25-26, 10am-6pm
August 27, 10am-4pm
Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center
Admission: Free for all ages
Food and beverage, including alcohol, available for purchase