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. 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
Images: Tents, Poster: (c) 2007, Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. No reproduction, electronically or in any kind of print, without express written permission of the author.

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.