Mary Louise Womer, a silver smith artist from Kansas City, was the visionary behind the 57th Street Art Fair. Her studio, The Little Gallery, was a local hangout where artists in the community gathered to talk and drink tea. Wanting to create an event where local artists could showcase their work to the community, Womer established the first 57th Street Art Fair in 1948. Her studio lacked the space needed for the event, so she decided to take advantage of the local streets, stringing wires from trees and along fences of 57th Street where the artists could hang their works. Fifty one artists, many of whom were students at the Art Institute and the Institute of Design, each paid 50 cents to participate for the weekend. Everything from paintings to ceramics to jewelry to glasswork was displayed! By the end of the weekend, earnings totaled $500, and on Sunday night Womer and her husband John cleaned up the display areas themselves.
The first 57th Street Art Fair Committee, comprised of 15 dedicated individuals and chaired by Womer was organized in 1950. Together, the committee generated a list of aims and policies, documenting the intentions, priorities and goals for the fair. Still in use today, those policies validate the artistic pursuit itself, making sure artists reap complete monetary benefit of their sales. In keeping with Womer's rules, all works must be original art; no limited edition prints or any other reproductions can be sold.
By 1963, demand from artists to participate exceeded the available exhibition space. Despite misgivings, Womer and the 57th Street Art Fair Committee implemented a jury system to assign the limited available space. The jury process consisted of a blinded review of prospective artists' works by an invited panel of artists, arts professionals, and curators. This procedure is still followed today, and much discussion always takes place as the final list of those invited to participate is decided upon!
Today, around 200 artists from all over North America set up shop on 57th Street on the first full weekend of June. Continuing to build on its humble beginnings, this unique showcase of quality art, community spirit and historic appeal now attracts over 20,000 visitors annually.
Each year, as a means of commemorating this beloved event, the committee commissions an exhibiting artist to create a new poster to publicize the fair.