Show Artists, Speak Up!

Here is your chance–you are being asked for an opinion on a topic you’ve always wanted to speak up about. If you are a show artist, your opinion on what’s happening to the art show world is being counted.

The National Association of Independent Artists (NAIA) has a survey on its website. You don’t have to be a member of the NAIA, just an artist who does art/craft shows. The survey is in the left navigation bar. It takes about 15 minutes and is worth taking.

craft showHere’s my take on the condition of art shows–it’s my opinion, based on 15 years of observation and doing shows, big and small.

Once upon a time, in the 1970s, the purpose of an art show was to let artists who did not have gallery representation sell their work to a local audience. Artists could show and sell their work, and the public had access to good, original art.

Over time, promoters took over shows, giving them organization, advertising, and recognition. To make the show profitable for promoters, they charged the artist for the space and the public an entry fee. In those days, the promoter spent the artist’s fee money for expenses and advertising, and took gate money as profit.

Skip forward to the 80s. Promoters noticed that art shows were profitable. It was a time of art appreciation and the cash to buy it. Artists could make a living in the show circuit. Promoters added loyalty rules and raised prices. Scouts from one promoter swept through other promoter’s show and took names of artists who “weren’t loyal.” No promoter ever guaranteed you a living, but you played by the rules or you didn’t play. Many artists were able to make a decent living.

mpatrizio.blogspot.com posterBut many artists admitted they didn’t know much about business, and were happy to turn the business end of being an artist over to a promoter. There were whole groups of artists who became known by the show promoter they were loyal to.

The crowds, however, didn’t want to see the same artists over and over again. Particularly if the artists didn’t add more and different work to their line. The public was eager to attend different shows to find new and different artists.

Promoters took that as a sign that the public wanted more shows. Shows who wanted the best artists dropped the loyalty rules.

There were many factors that signaled the collapse of the art show success. Promoters raised prices for booth fees. A $250 fee became a $600 fee over five years. Artists had to pay extra for electricity and corner spots, so a $600 booth could become a $800 booth if you wanted to light up your corner spot. Artists who did all of a promoters show were given an incentive–free corner spots, or a whole free show. Promoters began to ask for full payment six to eight months in advance. And not all promoters used all the booth fees for expenses and advertising. Instead, they looked to artists to develop mailing lists and bring their following to a new show.

Artists had their own ideas. In the face of rising costs, they began to cut corners. They hired friends, relatives or other cheap labor to do the time-consuming work while they created originals. In time, the cheap labor did more and more of the work. In fact, you could pay the cheap labor to be at one show, while the artist did another, creating more income on a weekend when there was more than one good show. It was easy to add a few pieces that looked a lot like your work, even thought it was made by cheaper labor overseas. Newly arrived immigrants joined the art show circuit and had their relatives in poor countries do the work. It seemed like a wonderful world where everyone made art and enjoyed it.

Except for the third leg of the art-show stool: The public. While artists were creative in cutting corners, and promoters decided not to enforce the buy/sell rules because they were increasingly difficult to apply, the public grew from art lovers to bargain lovers. We raised up among us a Wal-Mart Nation. Art lovers turned into art consumers, and the buying decision was based on price. Artists who had bargain prices were those who by now had stores, factories, or at least a lot of family employees. They could pay the higher booth fees.

To a promoter, a check that clears is better than one that does not. The original artists, who made every piece by hand, who hand-fabricated everything, were not honored as national treasures. We were laughed at for being slow, expensive and not consumer minded. The public reminded us at each show that “I can buy something that looks just like this for half the price at Wal-Mart.”

Original-work artists began to dwindle. As we couldn’t afford the shows, art evolution worked by natural selection. Why pay full price for a painting, when print was cheaper. In fact, you can print it on canvas, treat is as special, and call it a “Giclee”? Why buy a painting at all, when a photograph does as well? Why pay full price for a photograph when a print will be no different, but a lot cheaper? Who cares if that necklace clasp is handmade or purchased in bulk? Does it matter that that jacket is hand-sewn and stitched or if you purchased it pre-made from China and painted it?

Promoters, needing larger audiences to cover expenses, increased the size of shows. It was not unusual to have shows with 400, 500, even 700 artists. To the public, this looked like the best flea-market in town. If one artist wouldn’t lower a price, they simply went to the next row, where an enterprising art-representative had a piece of “family made art” to sell, and much cheaper.

Large shows meant longer stays, so families began to bring the kids and dogs. Food and entertainment was added to the art mix, turning artists into part of an entertainment package. Dogs peed on tent corners, children touched art work while holding french fries, fried dough or cotton candy. To an original artist, it meant a ruined piece of work. To a store-artist it meant a tax write-off.

What no one noticed was that art lovers left the shows. And the original artists followed them. Some opened galleries, some got part time jobs, some began to teach what they knew at art retreats.

Is it too late? Are original art shows a thing of the past? It depends on what artists want, what the public values, and what promoters are willing to do. We are now a consumer nation, a bargain-loving nation, and a nation who has become used to outsourcing. If your job is being done by someone in India, why shouldn’t your art be done by someone in China?

I believe the art show is now a flea market show. I’m still an original artist, and I will continue to make each piece of my art by hand. That means my work won’t be cheap and won’t be outsourced. Why am I so stubborn? Because the original purpose of my art is not to make money. It is to make meaning. I’d rather do other work (and I do) to allow each piece of art to have a voice and speak with a clear voice. So far, my work has always spoken to an audience. It is the only way I want to make art.

–Quinn McDonald is an artist, writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.com
Images: Tents, westcoastshowsmaine.com Poster: mpatrizio.blogspot.com (c) 2007, Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. No reproduction, electronically or in any kind of print, without express written permission of the author.

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4 responses to “Show Artists, Speak Up!

  1. Deb–Good to see you here! You said it exactly right. . .the promoters changed the look to attract bigger crowds. And now a lot of shows look like flea markets, and artists are part of the entertainment, to look at. Sales for artists have dropped at these shows. It’s the reason I don’t do a lot of shows anymore. Four this year, down from 21 last year. It’s a way to vote with my booth fee.

  2. Deborah Corsi

    At a recent art show, I listened in as a potentital customer asked a needlework artist why her smaller bags were the same price as her larger bags. The artist patiently explained that the same amount of effort went into crafting the smaller bags, as all were handmade. She also showed the customer that each bag was, in fact, unique, incorporating details and trims specific to the bag. The customer took all of this in, then said, “But at McDonald’s, like when you buy the smaller fries it’s, like, cheaper!” Yikes. I could not help but wonder if the show’s “look” complete with kiddie rides and fried-everything food booths didn’t, in some way, create the impression of ‘bargain land’ for the visiting crowd. The artist, to her credit, simply smiled and rescued her bag from the (undoubtedly grubby) hands of the (non)customer.

  3. Incidentally, something very similar to what’s happened to art shows also happened to science fiction and comic book conventions in the late 80s and early 90s, with many similar results. There, the outside complicating factor, instead of Wal-Mart, was a clamp-down by studio copyright lawyers on unlicensed fan-made products.

    I suspect a variation of this will eventually happen (or may already be happening) to the emerging self-publishing market that’s being powered by print on demand technologies. Right now, it’s an option for writers who can’t crack traditional markets. As soon as the promoters figure out a way to make reliable money off the generally non-business-savvy writers who use this option, we’ll see something similar.

  4. OW, TESTIFY, Sister! I gave up 6 years ago for *all* of those reasons!

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