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St. James (4th Street), the Great Deluge, and riding off into the sunset

It’s been a lousy couple of weekends in a row. Riverfront in Columbus, Ohio, was pretty bad with only $175 in sales, and who would have thought St. James would get worse? Hell, not only was it worse, the damn thing spiraled down in flames right through the rain and into the soggy ground. It was one of the worst shows for me in 25 years.

We’ll get the “Nels Stats” out of the way first, though. Set up would have been easy if you showed up early at 11:00 on Thursday morning. I didn’t and neither did half of the artists in the show who showed up about 5:00 in the afternoon, so I and others had about a 60-75 minute wait to go in line from Gaulbert up to Hill Street. After being on the road for about two and a half hours plus starting the wait time, my bladder was working overtime. Several of us folks jumped from the vehicles and hot footed it over to the bar at Gaulbert and Fourth to avail ourselves of the porcelain facility. Thank heavens the bar was open :-)

After we got into the artist zone, the place was packed with vans and trailers, and good luck, which was non-existent, on getting in front of your booth. Out came the carts and you started trollying things to your space and weaving between parked vans. Supposedly we had two hours to unload and set up before moving the vehicles, but by that time, the official set up time was over so you just kept on working. The smart thing was to use shims to level the Propanels, and mine were 2x4 blocks on the first panel from the curb. The curbs are crumbling badly at the edges and the best bet would have been to bring either 2x6 or 2x8 ten foot boards to bridge the curb from the street. There’s a hell of a crown on the street and almost a 6 inch drop from 10 feet out in the street to the drop off at the curb. A ten foot board is just about right to keep everything level. Too bad I didn’t bring mine.

Space behind the booth is ample to set up an awning that can go 7 feet behind the booth. I use adjustable painter poles, 3-axis corner connectors, and a couple of Flourish upper Sta-bar clamps on my EZ-Up to mount an awning frame work. It came in mighty handy when the Great Deluge hit on Saturday. The neighbors to either side had to contend with telephone poles and squeezed inward toward me so there was very little clearance between tents but still enough. Barely. Tubs can be stacked along the retaining wall at the back of the sidewalk or on top of the wall and still leave adequate room to walk through. Signs were out in force, along with pedestals and plastic chains, indicating that only artists and show staff were allowed behind the booths. Didn’t do much good as people still walked back there.

Power is not available unless you find a friendly resident and I assume a reasonable exchange of funds is done and you can plug in an extension cord. One artist about 6 booths further up did that. I brought the boat battery but thought there was enough charge in it. I was wrong and only had about 5 hours operation out of it. Lights are needed as it’s dark under those trees.

Friday showed up nice and clear, and people were wandering the show about a half hour early. Crowds picked up a little but not the hordes I’ve seen in past years. The TV stations were telling everyone to go on Friday or go on Sunday when "bargains would be available”. If someone can find that WAVE-TV dumbass reporter, be sure and pimp slap that twit until her ears ring. That kind of crap we can all do without.


I had a smallish number of people come into the booth, relative to the numbers out in the street. I had lots of oohs and ahhs, and compliments on my "eye". At least no one asked what camera I used. Unfortunately, no one bought anything on Friday despite that being rumored to be the best day. I guess they were planning to come back on Sunday and try to get that "deal" the TV station was talking about. Luckily I was staying with relatives and had supper with them or I would have been tempted to drown the disappointment of a zero day with excessive amounts of alcohol. Those compliments may be nice, but there is no currency conversion rate to turn them into bucks in the bank.

Saturday rolled around, and I left early in order to get a close parking spot again. Turned out to be a very good idea the way things turned out. Low lying areas were fogged in as we drove in from the south side of the county. That was a harbinger of bad s**t to happen later that day. We get in early, I set up the rear awning and wrap a couple of extra side tarps around the sides and back of the awning and close it in. Damn good thing as a few hours later it started to rain. And rain. Then rain some more. People were out with umbrellas. Some were wearing trash bags. Some were just wet. I still wasn’t selling anything. Finally someone comes in and asks if I had a small print of a larger framed piece I had. Nothing in the flip bin, but I did one out the print box I keep in the back. Sold it as is, no matte, tossed it a bag with a foam-cor backer for $20. That was my sole sale at St. James this year. A grand whopping $20. Damn, just kick me for good measure.

This was to be my make or break year at St. James. It’s broken; I ain’t going back. No way in hell. The staff and volunteers are great, they bend over backwards for the artists, I’ve got no complaint with them. I wish they ran other shows I’ve been at. I do other shows in Louisville and do much better with a lot less expense. My local relatives, who used to live in the middle of Old Louisville where the show is, tell me the show has become too unwieldy and large, and it’s difficult because of the size to find specific art you’re interested in. The cachet of finding something at St. James seems to be for lower end price points according to them. I don’t know, as all I know is first year was break even, my sales went up the second year and made some profit after all was said and done,and  last year I lost money although not as much. This year marks one of the worst shows in 25 years for me.

The crowd, for whatever reason, is not my crowd. My prices are middle of the road, not the lowest and not the highest, and it does sell occasionally. Damn near getting skunked is not a pleasant experience, and the time has arrived to pull the plug on it. Unlike other shows that did poorly, I can’t point a finger at the promotion or the way things were run. What I do and the prices I ask just don’t seem to be the right fit for this show. I read earlier on a thread that was deleted that several people had very good shows, and there are always some people who will do very well just as some are going to do poorly. If I’m going to do poorly, don’t count on me to be back very often. I may be stubborn but I’m not stupid.

I ran into one artist who was a prior customer at another show who is now doing art shows himself. He said this was his make or break year for the show, and I talked to a few others in the same situation. I chatted with another artist at tear down who was stuck in traffic in front of my booth and she related it was a poor show for her and she won’t be back next year either. It all makes sense when part of the promotion on the TV stations included information about how there were many new artists. Yeah, no kidding, I think I know why.

Now for the rest of the story. It rained off and on all during the day. The water started flowing in the gutters and started rising just like the Ohio River during the Great Flood of 1937. First there were trickles, then the water started running fast in the gutters. The drains couldn't keep up. People were still out there walking the show. What I did observe is that few of them would flick their heads from side to side to check out the booths; they just seemed to be on a mission to go somewhere and it wasn't in the booths. More than once, I overheard conversations about having to hurry up so they can “see” the rest of the show. My gut feel is that the show has become a social event where you see and be seen.

The rain kept coming down, the water started getting higher and pretty soon it was at least 5 inches and deeper as it lapped up over the curb and started back on the sidewalk. It reached about 7 feet from the curb up into the street, leaving only about 3 feet of “dry” pavement in the booth. The west side of the street was even worse with the water reaching 3-4 feet out in front of the booths.

The artist next to me said that several artists further up on the street were talking about pulling out that night because of low sales and conditions. That turned out to be a moot point as about 3:15 or so we got word from the volunteers to shut down at 5:00 and tear down with Sunday being cancelled. By that time several booths around us had already dropped their fronts and were closed, presumably with tear-down taking place inside. We started about 3:45 taking down prints and drying out a couple of tubs that weren't as water proof as I thought they were. Sunday was supposed to be high winds, heavier rain, and lightning. Given that forecast, it was a good call. There was a nice period where the rain stopped and we got a lot of stuff carted to the van over on Hill.

As neighbors left, we were able to get the van in and finish tearing down the tent. The last part was in the rain although everything was packed except the tent frame and the top. No way in the devil was I going to fold that John Mee top with the rain coming down, so I had the bright idea to collapse the frame, lift the back corners and start rolling the top like a giant jelly roll. I’ll be durned if it didn’t work and that sucker was taken down in a couple of minutes, folded over, and crammed in the back of the van. Woo-hoo, we were out of there. Sorry to say, but I won’t be back.

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Here are some photos I took about mid-afternoon, just before the water reached the high point. The view is from booth 625, a little bit north of Belgravia and is looking north. The black lines are not carpeting but are the water line inside the booths. Notice that a couple of booths are already closed.

This next picture is looking south toward Hill Street, still on 4th Street and from booth 625. There's another booth closed up

I've got one more show this year, and it's about 6-7 weeks off. I've got time to do some thinking about improving prsentation and getting some new ideas worked out. Next year is gonna be a strange one as I might as well stretch and have some fun with what I'm doing.

Views: 2454

Comment by Roxanne Coffelt on October 7, 2013 at 1:06am

Wow!  At least the organizers did the right thing and cancelled Sunday.

Comment by Richard L. Sherer on October 7, 2013 at 9:34am
Interested by your comment that people weren't taking time to buy because there were too many booths to see. Another factor to consider in analyzing shows.
Comment by Richard L. Sherer on October 7, 2013 at 9:46am
Here is the analysis: 750 booths. A patron spends 5 minutes per booth, 12 hour day with no bathroom or food breaks. It would take a patron 5.21 days to see every booth in this show. Is bigger really better?
Comment by Robert Wallis on October 7, 2013 at 9:46am

Richard, there are about 750-800 artists in the entire set of shows in this mega production. There is too much competition and my feel is that quiet understated work is going to get lost in all the eye candy. If the visitors don't buy something right away, the chances of return visits are slim to nil (although it does happen) because they're too tired to make the trek back again to find you. Friday had great weather but I had zero sales that day. BTW, another artist made the comment yesterday that the weather was okay on Sunday, but this morning the national news was showing pictures of flooding in Louisville and boats being used to get people out of their homes. Some of the flooding wasn't that terribly far from the art fair location.

Comment by Richard L. Sherer on October 7, 2013 at 9:52am
Robert, wonder if the promoters have ever considered that they are too big to be of benefit to artists? 750-800 booths sounds like a small town or something that should be at Burning Man. LOL.
Comment by Robert Wallis on October 7, 2013 at 9:53am

Hah! We crossed wires on that one :-) Bigger is not always better. A friend of mine took the tactic the last couple of years of staying with 80-120 artist shows that are non-promoter ran. He says expenses are cheaper, and his overall profit is higher. It's the after expenses take home to the bank money that counts, not what the gross is. 

Comment by Richard L. Sherer on October 7, 2013 at 10:53am
Next summer I think I will gather some hard data on how long people are in booth who buy. Empirically, there are those the go right to what they want and others who dicker around for 20 minutes or more looking at everything. Personalities? I agree on the <150 booth size shows. They work very well for me too.
Comment by Geoff Coe on October 7, 2013 at 11:22am

Wow, what a brutal, honest report, thanks Robert.  I have never done a show this large and never will...I think the largest I've done is around 350 (Cape Coral) which is tough enough (if I didn't have such a great location every year, right by the east entrance, I would not do so well.

Show size is a bigger determinant for me than whether it's promoter-run or not.  That said, I agree that my gross profit is much better at smaller shows run by non-profits. In general, from low to high profitability:

$- Big show, promoter run
$$- Big show, non-profit run
$$$-Smaller show, promoter run
$$$$-Smaller show, non-profit run

I'm arbitrarily calling a "smaller show" one with less than 150 artists. But I really prefer shows with less than 100; it's just that there aren't enough of them to fill a schedule.

Comment by Robert Wallis on October 7, 2013 at 11:48am

Geoff, shows like this can really shake your confidence when you do poorly, and in this case almost zeroed. You start wondering what you're doing wrong, and if your work is that sub-par.

I'm rethinking how photography plays out in today's climate of everyone has a camera of some sort. The differentiation has to be that there is no doubt in any wandering Joe Sixpack's mind that there is no way they can do work like that. No matter how hard the shot is, and no matter how much creative PS work is needed, if it looks "natural" or easy, then they seem to think they can do just as well and they don't buy. 

Comment by geri a. wegner on October 7, 2013 at 3:39pm

Robert, sorry you had such a lousy show.  The weather certainly didn't help you.

I have said for years that you will never see me at a show the size of St. James or Ann Arbor.  It is sensory overload.  And it is impossible to go back to a booth where you may have seen something you like.  150-200 seems to be the best numbers.  There is enough variety to attract a large enough crowd for the artists and patrons are able to see everything and honor their "be backs".  

Richard's math is correct but the supposition that you are going to go into every booth isn't true.  There are media that you aren't interested in so you skip those, the everything is in one color booths that aren't your color so you don't stop and the wonderful booths where you can't possibly afford half of a piece so you don't stop.  That being said, a 750 booth show is just too long to walk through even skipping 2/3's of the booths.  

Sadly, your last paragraph in the comments section probably has a ring of truth to it.  Anyone can have a photo printed on canvas or metal and there are "experts" at these sites to help with color enhancement and a variety of other techniques.  Find the differentiation, as you said, and your chances of success increase.  Take an ordinary picture and I will hang my own work, thank you.

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