The End of the Art-Show Circuit?

This weekend, a path I’ve followed for 15 years will come to an end. I’m doing my last art festival. It’s an odd feeling, but I chose to end the shows after deliberate thought. There was a time when the thrill of setting up, the clang of the pipes, the smell of expo center dust was the happiest moment I could imagine.

But times have changed, and so have the artists, their work, and the role of the promoter. We raised up among us a Wal-Mart nation, quit teaching art in schools, we are a culture that values the rule-breaker and the person who doesn’t get caught. We can’t be surprised when the art show attendees make buying decisions based purely on price, and artists take short cuts to earn a profit.booth
In the last five years, booth fees (the price of  the space an artist uses during a show) has risen. To earn a living doing shows, artists, whose profits are slipping, signed up for more shows on the theory that a slim profit at the end of the show grows into a larger total if you do more shows.

Doing more shows requires creating more inventory. It seems fine to ask your family to pitch in and help assemble items you’ve designed.  It’s a small additional step to use friends’ families to help. Many of the new immigrant artists use their extended families, too. Except their families live in countries with a much lower standard of living, so the pottery in the booth next to you is considerably less expensive than yours. But you believe that we are all one world, so you’d feel guilty  complaining.

Artists who don’t have large families look for ways to cut corners, too.  Maybe it’s creating one hand-fabricated piece of jewelry and then having hundreds of copies cast. I don’t know a single promoter who forbids this.  The additional step of selling your cast pieces to another artist and letting her sell it as her own doesn’t seem so tragic–after all, the original was handmade by an artist. The line blurs a little more, and the artist buys components from a wholesale company, assembles them, and sells them as original work.

Maybe it’s buying  the items that the immigrant’s extended family made, removing the labels that say “made in China” and selling them as your own. After all, the promoter allows “family made” work, it’s just not your family. But who’s checking? The promoter, who wants to fill a show, will look the other way. The line is not only blurry and hard to define, but damn near invisible.

Much of the show-going public doesn’t notice or care, as long as the price is right.   About a year ago, I noticed that many of the “artists” were retailers who had employees, factories and stores.  Clients in my booth kept asking me where my store was and were surprised when I said that I make a living doing shows.

People who have stores don’t need to sell their work at art festivals–they have that opportunity every day at their retail location. But they are also the ones who can keep up with rising booth fees–and don’t have to worry about the extra charge for corner- or double spaces. If I were a promoter, I’d like them, too.

At first, I complained to the promoters. I was told that “family business” were fine, that there are too many fine distinctions without a difference,  and that I was absolutely right. But nothing changed. I have no desire to be the art police. My solution, of making a larger variety with a wafer-thin profit, was turning me into a one-person production line. My art no longer made meaning, and it was threatening not to make a profit.

One of the points I hammer home to my writing students is “Who is your audience? Write to them.” Now I’m taking a slice of that advice for myself. My clients are no longer at art festivals. My clients want handmade items that contain a good deal of the life of the artist. They want to know that their purchase is one of a kind, not one out of a box. So I’m leaving the shows that sustained and delighted me for years.

I am moving on because the show values no longer match mine.  I’m not bitter or angry, but I would be if I stayed.  I’m going to let shows go their way, and I’m going to sell my work online and in galleries. I’m lucky enough to have items that I can wholesale.

There is an excitement in the opportunity to make original art at a deliberate pace again. Change is not frightening, it’s just a different view. And a chance for emotional and artistic growth. Tough to resist.

–Quinn McDonald is an artist and certified creativity coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.