When the Santa Barbara Arts & Crafts Show was in its heyday — 15 or so years ago — the waiting list for artisans who wanted to sell their work on the waterfront was three years long.
These days, the waiting list is a thing of the past, and the once-thriving show along Cabrillo Boulevard is little more than two-thirds full.
“We are running at a historical low,” said Marilyn Loperfido, owner of The Woven Thread and the show’s spokeswoman, who has been selling hand-made and hand-dyed jackets at the 43-year-old event for decades.
Now, the sellers fear things will get even worse.
In mid-April, contractors hired by the city will begin a major landscaping and sidewalk-repair project along the mile-long strip — between State and Milpas streets — on which they operate.
It isn’t the usual hazards of construction that has the handicrafters troubled. For now, Loperfido said, she and the other artisans (they cringe at the word “vendor”) trust the city’s claim that the Monday-through-Friday construction work will leave their year-round Sunday show relatively unscathed.
For them, the rub has more to do with the finished product.
Part of the city’s design for the area involves planting lush landscaping on the now-barren berm. Because this area abuts the artisans’ parked vans on the Cabrillo curbside, Loperfido — who was elected by her fellow craft-workers to represent them — fears the foliage will significantly hamper their efforts to load and unload their tables, tents and goods.
She laments that the plan could thus scare away even more artisans, who each pay about $500 annually for their permits.
“We’re getting a new carpet and a fresh coat of paint, but at a high cost to us and the public,” she said.
In any case, the public hearings on the matter are long over. In December, the City Council ruled against the show, which had appealed a Historic Landmarks Commission decision to go forward.
Meanwhile, the cause of the show’s slow decline is a matter of speculation. City officials and artisans alike theorize that the factors are many, ranging from changes in the local topography to shifting trends in real estate, economics, consumer preferences and even traffic patterns.
To be fair, many of the artists continue to thrive.
Laurie Lehman, who creates jewelry art for her business Floral Jewels, is the primary breadwinner in her family. Her handiwork — whose price range for, say, necklaces, stretches from $20 to $10,000 — put both of her daughters through college.
“I feel I’ve been pretty steady,” she said.
Plus, the show remains one of the top moneymakers for the city Parks and Recreation Department, Loperfido said.
Still, even Lehman has noticed the energy wane over the years.
“Having something handmade and unique is not as popular as it was,” she said.
The Sunday tradition started on De la Guerra Plaza in the mid-1960s, as an informal gallery for local artists. In the 1970s, it moved to Cabrillo Boulevard and artists were allowed to sell their wares.
The show hit its zenith in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when foot traffic abounded, and when all 280 of the show’s spaces were always occupied, said Judith Cook, a recreation programs manager with the Park and Recreation Department. (The current number has sunk to 190.)
“It is really a Santa Barbara treasure,” she said. “We want to make sure it continues.”
Despite the show’s boom of the early 1990s, Cook said she believes it took a one-two punch during two construction projects in the 1980s. First, came the freeway underpass and elimination of the stop lights on Highway 101, thus deterring Sunday drivers and potential craft show customers from taking a detour down Cabrillo. Then, came the advent of Paseo Nuevo downtown, which may have further diverted weekend lollygaggers.
Another culprit could be the group’s own rules, which at some point were tightened up, officials said. For instance, all items must be handmade by the seller. Also, the artist must always be the seller, meaning he or she cannot take a vacation and station a substitute at the booth.
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara’s cost of living witnessed a meteoric rise during the 1990s, making it difficult for many artists to continue living in town. (In order to participate, artists must live in Santa Barbara County.)
Gary Montalbo, who has been selling wooden salad-tossing tongs for decades, said changing consumer trends also seem to be a factor.
“There used to be more kind of a craft kind of thing,” he said. “Now, it’s more electronics and gizmos.”
Pegeen Soutar, a pottery and sculpture specialist, hypothesized that a changing educational landscape contributed to the decline. Soutar said there seems to be fewer and fewer options these days for college students interested in arts and crafts.
“You used to be able to take glass-blowing classes in Santa Barbara, but there’s nowhere to take that anymore,” said Soutar, who graduated from UCSB 18 years ago with an art degree.
Mayor Marty Blum said the show’s slowdown has long been a mystery to her. She doesn’t quite buy the Paseo Nuevo explanation.
“I don’t go to Paseo Nuevo Mall to look for original art,” she said. “I really love the art show — I bought all my patio furniture there. … If someone tried to tell us what to do (to revitalize the show), we’d do it.”
As for whether the powers that be gave the show short shrift, city leaders counter that the project has witnessed quite a bit of compromise.
City Councilwoman Helene Schneider noted that the original plan called for planting continuous vegetation on the stretch. The idea was to stay true to the historic design drawn up in the 1920s by the firm Olmsted & Cheney, whose cofounder composed New York City’s Central Park. But in the end, the city decided to interrupt the plantings with patches of open space for the vans.
That said, she added, “I think it’s time to boost up our promotion of the arts and crafts show, and we can use this enhancement as an opportunity to start that.”