‘The world’s greatest outdoor art show’ is still doing great

The Villager’s front-page illustration from Sept. 8, 1960, showing a scene from the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit.

The Villager’s front-page illustration from Sept. 8, 1960, showing a scene from the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit.

BY YANNIC RACK  |  This Labor Day weekend, the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit will once again take over the sidewalks around University Place, from E. 13th St. south to W. Third St.

Now in its 85th year, the twice-yearly street fair has been around slightly longer than this newspaper. It was originally put on two years before The Villager published its first edition in 1933.

The exhibition got its start when Jackson Pollock, in desperate need of funds to pay the rent on his Greenwich Village studio, where he lived and worked, propped up some of his paintings on a sidewalk near Washington Square Park.

According to the exhibition’s Web site, fellow Village artist Willem de Kooning, in similar financial straits, soon joined him.

A few decades later the show was well established, and in the fall of 1960 it featured on the front page of The Villager for attracting a record number of artists scheduled to show off their fine art, photography, sculptures and other crafts.

“The 58th Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit will get underway tomorrow afternoon with a record number of artists displaying an unquestionably record number of oils and watercolors,” the Sept. 1, 1960, article read.

“More than 750 artists have registered their work, surpassing the nearly 750 who entered the world’s greatest outdoor art show for its spring session this year.”

The show ran for three weeks and was expected to draw upward of 150,000 visitors from the metro area, “plus many nearby and far-away states.”

This summer, the exhibition will be on two successive weekends. But the number of artists has dropped significantly compared to half a century ago.

Over Labor Day weekend, around 110 exhibitors are scheduled to show their art, while 85 will fill the sidewalks on Sept. 12 and 13, according to John DiBiase, a longtime exhibitor and the fair’s new executive director.

“There’ll probably be a few more,” he told The Villager this Monday, adding they were still processing some applications.

Back in 1960, another week had to be added onto the schedule. The reason was not the high demand, however.

Although the Washington Square area was choked by a throng of visitors on its opening weekend, the edge of Hurricane Donna soon brought a steady stream of rain to the city.

“It is doubtful that this world-renowned art show has ever had such horrible weather, seven days of rain, during its illustrious history,” The Villager reported on Sept. 22, 1960.

This weekend’s forecast is for sunny skies and temperatures just below 90 degrees, so nothing should get in the way of a successful exhibition, albeit on a smaller scale than in times gone by.

“If the weather is good,” DiBiase said,” there are thousands of people that come by in the three days.”

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