Susan Morrow Potje was in her mid-20s when her dad and stepmom, Tom and Ann Morrow, came up with the idea to create their own version of California’s Laguna Beach Festival of Art in Scottsdale.
They called it, "Celebration of Fine Art" – part gallery, part working studio and part art show – and they launched it in 1991.
“People thought they were crazy to think about putting up a tent and filling it with artists and letting collectors and artists actually interact together,” Potje said.
Decades later, the annual event has not only grown into a much-visited, well-respected community of artists and collectors, but it’s also grown into an event that means so much to the entire Morrow family.
“In the beginning, it was such a grassroots, bootstrap effort. We’ve evolved into a much more lovely atmosphere ... that people look forward to every year. And every year, we just drive to do a little bit better,” Potje said.
This year, Celebration of Fine Art’s 30th anniversary kicked off Jan. 18 and continues through March 29.
This 10-week juried, invitational show and art sale features 40,000 square feet of working studios and works of art in all mediums and styles by 100 renowned and emerging artists from across the country.
In addition to viewing and purchasing artwork, show attendees can attend the hour-long Art Discovery Series each Friday at 4 p.m.
“This experience has really enriched people’s lives in a way that far surpasses art sales. It’s relationships and the stories that people share and works of art that people collect, and sometimes commission artists to do, to commemorate an important moment in time or person in their life,” Potje said.
Year one was quite different than the well-oiled machine it is today.
“I would run around and do marketing and go to hotels; and the first year we set up, we didn’t have any floors. The tents were set up on native dirt with maybe a little bit of sawdust because we were half emulating the Sawdust Festival,” Potje recalled.
And then the rain came.
“We had more rain than we’d had in the last 20 years,” Potje said. “But, all of the artists made the best of it and really recognized it as something really exciting that was happening. They powered through.”
Potje estimates Celebration of Fine Art’s inaugural event attracted 25,000 visitors and made $250,000 to $300,000 in ticket sales.
Thirty years later, as Arizona’s longest-running art show, Celebration of Fine Art has attracted 1.5 million visitors over the three decades. And, on average, the event takes in $5.5 million. “In the 2019, we hit $6.5 million art sales revenue,” she added.
In its 30 years, Celebration of Fine Art has made an impact on the local economy, from hotels to restaurants and more.
Celebration of Fine Art has also given back to its community over the past few years, thanks to its artists and patrons.
In addition to cash donations, collectors and artists have donated art supplies to "Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona."
“The other thing that is not measurable financially is the impact that we’ve had on the brand of Scottsdale as an art destination, the reputation of what we do within this community for the art world,” Potje said.
Potje attributes Celebration of Fine Art’s success to its artists.
“The growth has been consistent year over year, largely due to continuing to jury better and better quality of work ,” she said. “Artists who’ve been with us year over year, their work just seems to elevate every year.”
Roughly one-third of Celebration of Fine Art’s attendees are out-of-state visitors, one-third comprises residents who have second homes in the Scottsdale area and the last third are full-time local residents.
“[The] local residents that come, come multiple times a week. They live here. I have a guy that, last year, I was teasing him that I was going to put him to work, but he [said], ‘I’d rather come here and drink coffee and walk around and talk to people than go sit at Starbucks,’” Potje recalled. “There’s a lot of camaraderie and relationship building.”
Among the out-of-state attendees was Don Valentine, an American venture capitalist referred to as the “grandfather of Silicon Valley venture capital.”
Valentine died on Oct. 25, and his memorial service was held at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University. Potje described Valentine as a “longtime, fantastic collector.”
“[He] made such an impact on all of us here. We all want the same thing, which is to feel appreciated and to enjoy beauty. And he certainly did that and this Celebration of Fine Art became a very important part of his life and his family,” Potje added.
Potje and her husband, Jake Potje, have helmed the show since 2004, taking over duties from Ann and Tom, who passed away in 2016.
“[Tom] was grateful and proud of the legacy of the Celebration of Fine Art. He knew it was in good hands and that it would have a great future and it would continue to bring a positive impact to the community of Scottsdale,” Susan said.
As second-generation owners of the show, Susan and Jake aren’t the only two in the show’s multi-generational family.
Working in the cafe is Kathy Thorpe and her daughter, Amy Connelly. Thorpe has been volunteering her time for 19 years, and Amy started working with the Celebration of Fine Art family seven years ago.
There’s also Greg Sievers, an artist who has been participating in the show for more than 25 years, and his son, Matt Sievers, who grew up painting with his dad and will take part in the show this year.
“We have several generational stories like that,” Susan said.
As their way to continue to evolve as an organization and capture the stories of the artists and the people behind Celebration of Fine Art, Susan started a podcast called “Celebrating Art Podcast.”
Hosted by Susan, the podcast highlights a diverse array of including collectors, acclaimed and emerging artists, experts and editors to discuss the people and stories behind the art, the business of art, and upcoming trends shaping the industry.
The idea for the podcast came from their Art Discovery Series, which started five years ago.
“On these Fridays, we have a one-hour dialogue where we have a panel of four artists, and we pick a topic. That was part of the genesis of the podcast,” Susan explained. “The content is so rich because every artist has tons of stories.
The podcast launched on Nov. 6 and is available to stream on Celebration of Fine Art’s website.
Guests include Malibu-based abstract artist Robin Branham, wildlife artist Trevor Swanson, and Scottsdale’s Museum of the West’s Assistant Director for Curation, Research and Exhibits Tricia Loscher.
“One thing I inherited from my dad is a sense of curiosity. If we go way back to the beginning, I think that was one of his reasons for success: He was always curious and always willing to try something new,” Susan said.
New episodes are released every Sunday.
Tickets for Celebration of Fine Art range from $8 to $10, and each ticket is a season pass good for the duration of the 10-week show and sale.