Growing pains at the Feria de Maestros

One of Creative Hand’s first blog posts when we started 2 years ago covered the Feria de Maestros. This is a special handcraft fair in no small part because it sponsors participating artisans, paying their way to  the expat enclave of Lake Chapala, Jalisco and even housing them in local homes. While there are government and other programs that sponsor artisan participation in national and international handcraft events, the Feria de Maestros is unique in that it is completely private. More details about its history can be seen here.

We went back to visit the 2017 version to see how the Fair is holding up. While the basic premise is the same, there have been some changes and challenges.

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Wood carving by Jorge Alberto Gonzalez Moreno of Chiapas
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Guadalupe Hermosillo Escobar and Maria Estela Torres Najera of San Cristobal, Chiapas

The first and perhaps most obvious superficial change is that there are more vendors than there were in 2015, for better or worse. Of course it is always better to give more of Mexico’s fine craftspeople the opportunity to sell to customers who truly appreciate fine work (and not to mention have the money to spend on it). The growth has been despite founder Marianne Carlson’s original idea of keeping it small and local. However, there seems to be strong pressure to expand the Feria, both because of the larger crowds of shoppers (1400 on the first day alone in 2017) and types.

Because the organization behind the Feria has done great work in discovering new and varied talent, the Feria is now attracting major collectors, wholesalers and cultural experts from the US who buy out the best of the best of the merchandise on the first day.  A number of artisans sell 90% and even sell out in the first 8 hours. One reason, according to Feria president Antje Zaldivar, is that new vendors severely underestimate how much they will sell, despite all efforts to convince them to bring as much as possible.

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Arte Casbal of Izucar de Matamoros, Puebla
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Pottery by Guadalupe Garcia Rios of Michoacan

There is no doubt that the Feria could double and perhaps triple the number of vendors and still allow all participants to sell more than they might at any event of its kind. But to do so would mean redefining the Feria. Carlson’s original idea was to give artisans a chance to sell to the Chapala expat community and allow the two groups of people to interact with each other. Central to this idea is having artisans housed in local homes. This does keep expenses down, but its main purpose was to give people from very different life situations a chance to get to know each other. However, this arrangement and the traditional space of the Chapala Yacht Club limits the number of vendors the Feria can accomodate.

While the Feria has always supported a number of other civic initiatives in the Chapala area, the cultural and educational aspects of the event have also increased. There is still the fashion show to demonstrate rebozos and other traditional garments, but this year there was also a booth selling local children’s art, an art contest for children using recycled materials and various video and live presentations about selected artisans and their work.

 

L to R: Salsa tasting, winners of upcycling art contest and booth selling local children’s artwork

The growth of the Feria not only because of the increase in shoppers, but of sponsors as well. Los Amigos de Arte Popular has been until recently the Feria’s major donor by far, footing most of the bill for the busses that bring artisans from major areas in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacan. But other organizations, including those in Jalisco state, and the National Ceramics School have also begun to support the Feria. The Feria has also become successful enough to attract support from businesses such as national cable company Megacable as well as several major firms in Guadalajara.

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Participant in the rebozo fashion show

It is also important to note that there has been a shift in how the Feria is managed. Back in 2015, organizational activity still centered around Marianne Carlson, who told us than that she and others were working to bring in new blood, in particular the support of Mexican fans of Mexican handcrafts. These efforts have borne fruit. While most of the volunteers and board members are still foreign expats, there are now three Mexicans on the board of directors, including president Antje Zaldivar. This Mexican inclusion is important because it allows the Feria to have connections they probably could never have had otherwise.

The growth of the Feria, both in size and popularity, is satisfying to the board of directors , but it does bring the event to a crossroads. It is obvious that events of this type are extremely important in connecting buyers and others to true Mexican craftspeople. The pressure to grow is enormous, and although Zaldivar indicated a desire to scale back to accomodate the event as it has been traditionally held, this may not be possible in the long run. The next few years will be important ones for this unique and important showcase of Mexican culture.

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