For artists selling on the street, which is worse for sales: a tornado warning or temperatures in the nineties?

That’s a choice the weather delivered during the 2010 and 2011 Ann Arbor art fairs. And Greg Lawler, publisher of the Art Fair Sourcebook, has the answer: for sales, the storm was worse than the heat.

Each year, 10 to 20 percent of the fair’s 1,100 artists respond to Lawler’s questions about their experiences. Last year, artists in the South University and State Street Area fairs reported gains over 2010.

“Amazingly, sales did not suffer from the record-breaking heat in 2011, although artists and patrons certainly did,” Lawler wrote of the South U show. He theorized that “only the most serious buyers were willing to brave the heat, and felt an added urgency to act.” But with the state’s economy still struggling, sales on South U and State St. remained below their pre-recession levels–and exhibitors in the Original fair on Ingalls Mall and the Guild of Artists and Artisans shows on Main and State streets reported continued declines.

“Ann Arbor used to be the Super Bowl of art fairs,” says painter Stephen Baldauf, who’s been selling here since 1981. But 2011 was his “worst Ann Arbor show ever,” Baldauf says. “I barely made expenses.”

Baldauf blames the economy and the heat for last year’s miserable results. But like many of the eighteen artists whom the Observer interviewed during and after the fair, he also says the event isn’t what it once was.

“Ann Arbor used to be one of the best, if not the best” fairs in the country for sales, says potter Steve Howell, a twenty-five-year veteran. “Not any more.”

Howell recalls that on good years during the 1980s and 1990s he would sell work worth $15,000 to $20,000 during the four days–50 percent more than at any other show. He describes one recent sale where a couple found a piece they liked; the husband wrote him a check for $1,000, and the wife gave him a kiss on the cheek. “There used to be ten like this,” he says, not referring to the kiss. Recently, he says, his sales over the four days have been “more like $5,000.”

Pastel artist Jody dePew McLeane has been doing Ann Arbor for twenty-seven years, and remembers when she could expect $25,000 in sales. “Clients would fly in from New York to buy.” They don’t do that any more. In 2010, she sold only one piece in four days, and 2011 “ended up only fair for me.”

Among the artists who chose to disclose their top earnings ever in Ann Arbor, McLeane’s $25,000 was the highest, but most reported well over $10,000. None of them, though, has seen such sales lately. The ones answering Lawler’s survey last year reported average sales of $5,471 on South U, $4,756 in the State Street area, and $3,921 at the Guild fairs.

Local painter Karen Wagner Coron says she used to sell about $8,000 worth of her work at the fair, enough to carry her through the year. Recently, though, her sales have been only about $4,000. Since she still has to cover her $825 booth fee, plus an estimated $1,000 for framing and glass–despite getting materials wholesale through her frame shop–Coron now supplements her income by doing three to five other shows each year.

For Mississippi toy sculptor Harry Griffith, “Ann Arbor used to be the biggest” sales event of the year. “Now it’s just another show.”

“Ann Arbor used to be very important,” concurs photographer Patrick Whalen. “But every year it slides down the scale. From talking with other artists, the Ann Arbor mystique is gone.”

That mystique was well deserved. The Original fair, launched on South U in 1960, was one of the first street art fairs in the country, and astute juries of working artists soon made it one of the best. The Original has retained that stature ever since, even as the event grew to include the State Street, Guild, and South U fairs (after the Original was exiled across the Diag).

But “there are more artists here as the show expands,” says toy sculptor Griffith, “and they are in competition with one another to split up the pie.”

Competition also has intensified across the country: the latest edition of Lawler’s Source Book counts 1,234 art fairs nationwide, including 347 in the Midwest. And Lawler’s artists report their net earnings at comparable Midwestern art fairs are about 15 percent higher than in Ann Arbor–despite the fact that the Ann Arbor fair runs for four days while all the others are two or three.

The most likely explanation is that fewer people are coming to the fair. For decades, organizers have estimated that the event attracts half a million people over four days. When I tried to validate that number last year they acknowledged that no one’s counting–but said they believed attendance was holding steady or even increasing.

One of the few objective indicators of fair traffic is the city’s Art Fair parking revenue, which reported to have dropped in 2010 and again in 2011 after nine years of increases. Two years does not mark a trend, especially with the loss of the library lot (which reopens this year–see map, p. 30). But on Saturday afternoon during the 2011 fair, a visitor was amazed to see that the Maynard St. structure had more than 200 spaces available. And fewer homes and businesses are renting out parking during the fair.

People aren’t taking the TheRide’s Art Fair shuttle, either. With just 42,127 boardings, says community relations manager Mary Stasiak, 2011’s “ridership was the lowest on record.” Even counting the 2,500 riders who took the new Trinity Transportation shuttle from Maple Village, ridership was down more than two-thirds from the peak year of 1996.

Greg Lawler has been attending the Art Fair for twenty years to research his Art Fair Sourcebook, which helps artists select the events most likely to optimize their profits. “Anybody who’s been on the street for twenty years knows [attendance has] changed drastically,” Lawler says in a phone interview. “Last year was probably the worst ever.”

Lawler’s Sourcebook estimates Art Fair attendance at just 100,000. “I think that’s a more realistic number,” he says, “based on [my] having been to shows with 500,000 attendance and the fact that years ago they claimed Ann Arbor’s attendance was 500,000 and it’s definitely not even half as crowded as it was pre-2008.”

Fewer shoppers means fewer sales. “Without inflation, I’d say average sales, compared to the late nineties, are down 30 to 40 percent,” says Lawler. “It’s probably down by half in real terms.” And that’s before expenses: the artists the Observer interviewed say it costs them about $2,000 to sell here, mostly in booth fees, lodging, food, and transportation.

Local artists have a significant advantage. Because bead artist Pedra Chaffers lived at home, she only had to cover her $700 booth fee in the South U fair to start making a profit last year. But potter Howell, from Gainesville, Florida, drove for four days and stays in a local hotel. And it’s not as if booths, displays, and artwork will fit in a Prius. Photographer Whelan estimates that his truck consumes $700 in gas round-trip from Florida.

Even once artists sell enough to cover those expenses, they really are not breaking even. A successful Art Fair also has to compensate them for four days of sitting in the heat (2011) or dodging thunderstorms (most years), plus the time spent traveling, plus the many months they spent creating their work.

Ever wonder why original artwork is often expensive? That’s why.

In the exhausted aftermath of last year’s fair, Jody McLeane declared that sitting for four days in the heat “is not worth the money.” But once she recovered, she decided to return–and so did Stephen Baldauf, Patrick Whelan, and Steve Howell. “I’m not giving up because of one bad year,” Baldauf says.

“My minimum [sales] goal was met,” Howell says. “I can live with that.” But he adds, “We wouldn’t be in a stable position today if not for the economics of yesterday.” His house and car are paid for, thanks to the good money he made back in the 1990s. “It’s tough for young people today,” Howell says. “Many of them won’t be able to make it.”

Toy sculptor Harry Griffith concurs: “Some younger artists are going to end up working in Home Depot.”

For painter Julie Keaten-Reed, 2011 was her first year in Ann Arbor–and also her last. Though Keaten-Reed says she did well, the four days and long hours were too much, and she is not returning in 2012.

Her willingness to skip what was once the Super Bowl of art fairs is a sign of Ann Arbor’s fading clout–but also of the changing role art fairs play in younger artists’ business models. “I come to Ann Arbor and other venues as much for [the] ‘fun factor’ as for money to be made,” says Keaten-Reed, who also sells her Japanese-influenced brush paintings online.

Yet most artists continue to come back. At the four street fairs the percentage of artists reapplying ranges from 75 to 95, and all report waiting lists. Several fairs are also making a special effort to encourage younger artists. The Original’s New Art, New Artists program waives booth fees for a select group of college students, who are paired with established artists to learn how to present and sell their work, while South U’s Emerging Artist section offers steeply discounted rates.

Younger artists tend to combine pragmatism with an enthusiasm absent in many veterans. Photographer Sooney Kadouh, thirty-one, says being involved in “the ‘big daddy’ of all fairs” is a way to meet his audience and “build a better brand.”

Twenty-four-year-old jeweler Amber Harrison, who has lived most of her life in the Ann Arbor area, has a similar enthusiasm, noting the “adventure” of the extreme weather and an irresistible energy about the event. But Harrison, a 2012 U-M art grad who’s in the Original fair, doesn’t expect to earn her living on the street. She speaks of building a clientele through a “diversified portfolio” and a variety of “selling arenas.”

Ann Arbor painter Carolyn Garay, twenty-seven, is in her second Guild Art Fair, having moved off the wait list into the 2011 fair. She sees Ann Arbor as a step toward very ambitious dreams: “to sell my personal art for a living, traveling, and showing at galleries, participating in fairs around the country, or even the world.” But she also sees herself teaching painting or life drawing to undergraduates, modeling herself after her EMU professor, Richard Washington.

And much as they miss the Super Bowl era, even many veterans ultimately remain optimistic. Customers know that “there is a handful of shows that, if you want to see the cream of the crop, go there and be ready to buy,” Howell says. “Ann Arbor is one of them.”

“People always complain at shows, but someone always does well,” Griffith says. “Real art and craft buyers are going to buy. They are like football fans–the economy does not bother them. They keep buying tickets.”