ST. PETERSBURG — The e-mail delivered exciting news to hundreds of artists hoping to get into the 36th annual Mainsail Arts Festival in April.
"Congratulations! You have been accepted … " Saturday's e-mail began, followed by a list of instructions and information about booths and parking.
Less than an hour later, another e-mail: "We apologize. … This e-mail is to confirm that, unfortunately, we will not be able to ask you to join us later this year."
The reaction from more than 350 applicants who thought they were invited, then weren't, ranged from shrugs to total outrage and demands for explanation. On some online forums, jilted artists railed against Mainsail. One woman said she was humiliated after announcing her acceptance to hundreds of friends on Facebook, then telling them after they congratulated her that she didn't get in after all.
"That's a roller coaster for someone who is impacted financially by whether or not they can get into a festival," said Steve Vaughn, an Orlando photographer who received the acceptance and rejection for the April 16-17 festival. "When your mortgage and insurance and groceries are paid by how well you do at art shows, and then you get into a big show like Mainsail, then find out you didn't, that's traumatic."
Vaughn said he first received a rejection e-mail from Mainsail on Saturday but didn't see it because the second e-mail congratulating him was listed first in his in-box.
"Then I got one saying I was out," he said. "Then I got one saying I was really, really out."
Meanwhile, Mainsail organizers were panicking.
Bridget Nickens, a festival board member, explained how the error happened: Like many other art festivals, Mainsail uses an application software system called Zapp, based in Colorado. Artists send their applications through the system, festival judges sift through them and send out rejection or acceptance notifications. The system is intended to simplify the process for everyone.
Mainsail organizers clicked on the artists who did not make the first cut, instantly sending out rejection e-mails to 363 people. But they neglected to unclick those recipients when they sent out a second batch of e-mails notifying those who were accepted. So both the rejected and accepted got the second e-mail.
Organizers immediately realized the mistake, Nickens said, but it was too late. "God, we felt so horrible about it," she said. "Then we were typing fast and furiously."
A third e-mail apologizing was delayed for technical reasons, so another e-mail reconfirming the error was sent.
The delay was a less than an hour but long enough for Mainsail's e-mail in-box to begin filling with inquiries from artists who were confused, hurt and angry. "I mean, some of these e-mails would just break your heart," said Nickens, who is married to Times editor of editorials Tim Nickens.
Unfortunately, she said, there's no recourse. Mainsail is an all-volunteer effort, so no one will be fired. And it cannot accept all applicants because the park can hold only 250 booths and the artists are picked by a jury.
The organizers have spoken with Zapp and suggested modifying the software so that clicking on the invited and uninvited at the same time is no longer an option.
Vaughn, rejected from Mainsail nine times, said he understood the mistake.
Still, he's hoping for one more.
"I keep waiting for a fifth e-mail," he said, "telling me that after all this I have, in fact, been invited."
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.