The Extraordinary Kurt Tallis

The Fourth Avenue Merchants Association (FAMA) is a nonprofit organization that represents the heart and soul of one of Tucson’s most historic shopping districts composed of eclectic mom and pop stores, restaurants and bars. The organization receives most of its income through two street fairs which can bring in up to 300,000 people each year. For over 40 years, the Fourth Avenue Street Fair has been a destination for artists, jewelers, and culture lovers alike.

Kurt Tallis, who started out selling his art at Street Fair, is the Events and Marketing Director for FAMA and has experienced what it’s like to be a part of such a supportive community and how the Street Fair has been affecting so many people for the past few decades. We got to talk to Kurt about 4th Avenue, the Street Fair, and what it’s like marketing online.

WBN: What is 4th Avenue and what part does the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association play?

Kurt Tallis: 4th avenue is a historic, streamlined shopping district that has about 100 merchants that are all locally owned, mom and pops. It’s an incubator. I call it the ‘street of dreams.’ It’s low rent, starter–definitely not a mall. We’re the eclectic, hippie, geek and freak area. We’re the Haight-Ashbury of Tucson. We’re classic Tucson.

Sixteen of our business have been here for over 25 years. Two of our business have been here for over 70 years. 70% of our business are owned by women.

We’re a facilitator. Our job is to promote the socio-economic well being of 4th Avenue and the surrounding neighborhoods.

WBN: What is Street Fair and why is it such a big part of what you do with the 4th Avenue Merchants Association?

KT: Street Fair is a tradition in Tucson. It’s the changing of the seasons. It’s bigger than me–it’s bigger than everything! It’s 44 years old. People have set their circadian rhythm by Street Fair. It’s the largest event in Southern Arizona.

Street Fair is twice a year and it’s the money maker for us. What do we do with the money? The city of Tucson does not pick up our garbage on 4th ave. We do. They don’t power wash the sidewalks, they don’t do graffiti defeatment, they don’t pick up the cigarette butts, they don’t water the trees, they don’t trim the trees. We do all of that. Thank you, Street Fair.

Ordinary people do what they know how to do, extraordinary people do what they do not know how to do.

We’re more than happy to do that because we represent small business in Tucson. Small business can’t wait for government handouts, they can’t wait for government to solve their problems. So in the true entrepreneurial spirit, they solve their own problems.

Street Fair has been the golden egg that has allowed us to be successful as long as we have. Street Fair brings in 300,000 people a year. A full third of any given Street Fairs are local artists. We’re a nationally known show. In the 10,000 events measured in the event industry, we’re in the top 100. We’ll have anywhere from 600-700 artists apply for 300/400 slots. It’s a great event. And we’re [only] a staff of three. Full time staff of three.

WBN: How does the community help with running Street Fair?

KT: I have homeless people and laborers (who aren’t homeless) that have worked the street fair for well over twelve years. They show up at the right time to make sure their names are in the hat so they can start working. I can count on these people.

The reason for that is we’ve tried everything else. The sororities and the fraternities didn’t like the garbage, and we found that homeless people worked their butts off and we treat them like kings and queens when they’re with us. We hydrate them, we feed them, we care about them. We see them year after year.

Putting together street fair is relatively easy for me because of the community support that we have. It’s just huge. It’s even bigger than huge.

WBN: Who are the artists that participate affected by Street Fair?

KT: It is the opportunity for Tucson and Tucsonans, to see art from all over the United States, Canada, and sometimes Japan, that they normally wouldn’t see. There are 400 artists, a third of them are local from Tucson. We don’t point them out as local at Street Fair because this is their opportunity as a local artist to be a national artist for the weekend. You’re no longer local yokel, you’re a national artist in a recognized show!

The 76% of our attending artists are returning artists. They’ve developed business, clients, people look forward to them, it’s amazing.

Hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Just organizing it because we’re such a small staff. I spend inordinate amounts of time planning, planning, and planning. We’re planned out through the year 2020.

It’s important not just to our organization but to these merchants, to these neighbors to these associations, to these nonprofits, to the city as a whole as an economic footprint. Having such a long run at 44 years is astounding, it’s amazing, it’s cool. My job is relatively easy just because the tradition of street fair is so big. It’s part of the fabric of Tucson.

WBN: What are some benefits and challenges you’ve seen with working in the digital age?

KT: Huge benefits, blockbuster benefits–beyond blockbuster. The digital age is just phenomenal in terms of connecting to people. I can’t remember the last time I used a phone book.

It’s part of the fabric of Tucson.

Biggest challenge? The biggest challenge is making the transition from old to new. It’s the way we’ve always done it. Change is hard. Once you make that change, once you make that turn and make the commitment, everything starts flowing from there. When I made the transition myself, that’s when I realized the importance of digital media. I’ve been engaging more and more with our customers than I ever have before.

WBN: What’s your favorite thing to ‘nerd out’ about?

KT: I absolutely am infatuated with digital music and the applications that are available. I love it. I’m all over that. Making music — and I’m not a musician. I’m a  painter and a sculptor, really, I actually started off doing my art in Street Fair.

For me it was finding this talent that I’ve had in music that I didn’t know I had because of the digital media and I’ve got a  sound system in my hand, in my tablet and that is just phenomenal.

What I love about geeking out about the music is that there are no preconceived perceptions for me. There’s an old saying that ordinary people do what they know how to do, extraordinary people do what they do not know how to do. I love being in that place where I don’t know what I’m doing, and these music programs get me there because I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m extraordinary.