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.

More Doubt

This past weekend, I participated in a retail art/craft show. I’ve done them for a living for almost 20 years. Some shows are good, some not. This one, run by a respected promoter, was dim. At best.

A good sign that show doesn’t have a good turnout is not having to wait in the ladies room. I never had to wait. No once. And my sales showed the lowered attendance. For the first time in ten years, I didn’t make my show fees back in sales. I planned to sell my outdoor tent, and it sold, which boosted sales, but that doesn’t count, really.journal

Not doing well at a show is an invitation to doubt. Doubt shows up as negative self-talk, gremlins that chatter unceasingly while there is no one in the booth. That was a long time this weekend. Negative self talk starts small, with the idea that my work is slipping. Then the chorus of “what else are you bad at?” starts in, and by early afternoon of the first day of a three-day show, my gremlins were yelling that the quality of my work is horrible, that I was foolish to think my product had value, and no one would ever, purchase another

It took effort to pull myself away from those voices that I hate, but will listen to. I’ll bet you have the same problem when self-doubt begins to nag at you, don’t you?

In the middle of all that noise in my head, I pulled myself up out of it and began to look at the audience. Not only was attendance light, the audience was all wrong for my product. These weren’t people interested in handmade paper, journals, or notecards. These were people looking for bargains. These were people strolling and shopping. Many were on their cell phones. A number of people didn’t believe me when I said I make paper from plants. One told me it was impossible.

Another said “no one cares about art anymore.” That phrase may have been true for her, but sweeping statements generally are more telling about the speaker than the product.

As hard as it was to focus on the real issue, I forced myself to. First, the checklist–my product is made with attention to quality and creativity. I have had success with it when in front of the right audience. The audience was not right for my product at this show. That meant that I was on the right track but at the wrong station. Handmade, quality work doesn’t come at bargain prices. It was as if I were selling flowers at the butcher shop. The wrong product at the wrong place. But that left me with three days of failure.

I needed a way to focus on what would work. I made notes on exercises to include in the journaling classes I’m starting. I thought of some items I could add to the website–another size of journal cover, and then add some covers that I make for those people who don’t want to make their own.

The show has been over for six hours now. I was not the only one whose show didn’t work well, but I am a person who has a list of improvements, ideas and plans for moving forward with the product. No one promised me a life of ease as an artist. And doubt is still waiting for me to look its way to nip my ankles. But knowing that self-doubt will chew a hole in your soul if you listen, I chose to focus on next steps. It wasn’t easy, but I left the show with my head up and excited about tomorrow.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach. See her work at