Addicted to Gushers

I was at the Krasl Art Show in St. Joseph Michigan this July on a hot day. Looking down from the bluffs I could see the children playing in this wonderful water park that is pictured above. Most of the time, little bubbly waterspouts would pop up in many spots around the surface, but about every 15 minutes the water would recede and the children would run to the center in anticipation of what would happen next. I could see them dancing and fidgeting with excitement. All of a sudden the water cannons on the outer perimeter would let loose their spray to the delight of the children. They were addicted to the gushers.


I too am addicted to gushers but of a different kind... art show gushers. As an artist there is nothing more invigorating then participating in a show where folks are excited about the art and buy it. Regrettably, unlike the predictable gushers in children's water park, art show gushers are more random these days.


Does the unpredictability of art shows these days have anything to do with show organization, patron participation, or weather? Some would say it's the economy. All these can be factors, but I don’t think these are the main factors. The main factor is that we are experiencing a glut in the number of artists (part-time and full-time) entering the field and competing for art shows. This wouldn't be all bad if the number of art shows remained constant, but the increase in artists has result is an unrealistic and unsustainable growth in art shows across the country. Any affluent geographic market that demonstrates potential will soon have an abundance of art show options, which in turn dilutes the market. No longer are art shows perceived as special events to a community. If you miss the show this weekend you can catch another in a few weeks. The art show model has changed ... it can no longer sustain the number of artists and art shows that have proliferated over the last 10 years ... there just isn't enough cheese to go around, making art shows all too unpredictable.


To the growing number of show organizers, the large pool of artists is a good thing… let’s create a new show to increase profitability, but to the artist, it becomes a very risky proposition. There are no guarantees that enough eligible buyers will attend a show on a given weekend. It's not that the show is poorly managed, it's that there is a glut in the number of shows being offered, each being filled by a glut of artists wanting to participate.  Every promoter is in the process of increasing the number of art shows they sponsor and many show organizers are looking to increase the number of artists they invite, why, because they can. In this forum alone 5,500 members have register. If I could search on number of years in the business, I'm certain that I would find that most artists on this board had entered the profession within the last 6 years (myself included).


The testimonies I have heard from artists this summer have been heartbreaking. Homes and retirement funds have been lost; successful artist of 30 years have seen their annual revenue dry to a trickle and the business model that served them all these years is no longer sustainable.  I spoke with an artist who added Florida shows to his schedule this year to try and make ends meet. He spent the month in Florida sleeping in his 5X8 trailer to cut cost. There are so many artists living on the edge of financial ruin. Many are scrambling for an alternative revenue stream. What happened? Who moved the cheese?


You have probably read the book:  Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson published more than a decade ago. Recently I decided to reread it. The book tells the parable of four characters who had to deal with change. You can easily find a copy at most libraries or used bookstores. Though simplistic, the book sheds light on the changes that many artists are facing in art show sales … the cheese in station C is gone. Many would like to believe that once the economy turns to positive that the art show model will again be solvent. Surely it will be better, but no one believes it will return to what it was like 10 years ago... too many artists, too many art shows and not enough cheese.  Time to find new cheese. What are your thoughts about this?

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  • One of the most telling things is the lack of younger artists attracted to the circuit. I recently asked some newly graduated artists from Parson's and Savannah art schools if the festival circuit was ever was not.  Perhaps we are the dinosaurs in the tar pits and the young mammals are watching us safely from the banks.  I think the most important thing that has been lost is the relationship between art and the patrons. We have to make it exciting and the promoters need to stimulate buyers' buying imagination with displays that go beyond free yogurt, cells phone service and banking. It used to be that the  transaction was art in exchange for $. Today, patrons ask if you have a web site, then take a business card and leave. 

    • My bad... I was away from this forum in Dec. so I missed the continuation of this discussion. Paul you are right about this...the thought that art shows never cross the minds of young artists. It is not perceived as an alternate venue for selling art.

      One of the shows that I have done has an artist-in-residence program. Artists doing the show are invited to the schools the days before the show to meet with students and join in the discussions about art. Local businesses sponsor the artists, covering lodging and food. The talent and creativity of many of these younger artists are phenomenal. None of them knew anything about art shows and certainly not that shows were competitive and a career choice for many artists. These students were excited (well maybe too strong a term for High Schoolers) about meeting with artists and were filled with questions. The faculty were delight to have us come into their classes. Budgets have been cut so much that there is little resources.

      Art show promoters need to view art shows as more than just fund raisers, but also as opportunities to leverage the talent of artists into the community. After my visit to the schools several of the students came to the art show having a better understanding of what was going on. I also corresponded with students afterward. We cannot expect young artists to display at art shows if they think of the participating the artists as common vendors.

      I will add that also at this show, the artists where treated to a wonderful feast in the evening and then asked to judge a local art show. Area schools were invited to submit a few of the top pieces from their young art students. I will tell you that judging that show was difficult because the talent is there. I also know that seveal of the students who submitted work also came to the art show knowing that these artist were important enough to judge their work.

      Dear promoters, instead of turning your art shows into a circus, look for ways to leverage the talent that is coming to your community and keep the focus on the art! This will have a much more lasting impact.

      Thanks, Paul for adding this important point to this discussion.
    • How true, Paul! Not only are younger artists not attracted to the circuit, younger buyers are not either.

      If we're being truthful, we'll admit that the majority of our artists and buyers are "boomers" or older. I'm on the leading edge of the boomer demographic, and I can see what's happening with this group from my personal experience. We already own way too much "stuff." We're downsizing, cleaning out, getting rid of things. Our walls are full of art we already love. We are really over the acquisition process. (And in retirement or layoffs, a lot of us join the circuit, because we always wanted to... ) Even if we are secure financially, the economy has scared us, and forced us to become more prudent with our dollars. With more shows popping up, older buyers "window shopping", older artists joining the circuit is it any wonder that sales are down? It's not just the economy. That's the "easy" excuse.

      Your dinosaur analogy is spot on! (Although technically, it was mammals like mastodons & saber tooth tigers in the tar pits...) When's the last time you saw something completely fresh and new at a show? I know the opposite is true. Lots of stale hangers-on from years past  - goose clothing, on-a stick stuff, etc. (I know, I know - those aren't at tier 1 shows but I see them at a lot of shows I go to...) Yawn! No wonder younger buyers aren't there!  Go to an indie art/craft show and you'll see a whole different crowd of artists and buyers. Lower price points. Fresher art. Etsy is popular for a reason.

      New cheese is out there. You just need the right flavor.

      • Opps, sorry about the dinosaur ref...musta been sleeping in class that day.  However Linda, I am digging this discussion, you have opened another page. (Thread for Nels) Check out Alabama Chanin. She designs dresses/fashion that can sell at $7K a copy. It is high craft in the face of fast Bryant Park fashion.  Each piece is made by hand. Each is designed to last forever. She calls it slow fashion (as in slow cooking)

        If we can steer the ship toward people who have fewer things that they get greater pleasure out of and will pay substantially more for, perhaps we have a brighter future. 

        • Hi Paul, great discussion. I find that my higher price items always sell before my lower priced items. I needle felt and the materials are expensive and it takes a great deal of time ti make a 3d item.  I had an item that I loved and was not sure if I wanted to sell it so I put a price of $155.00 on it and it was the first items that sold (i  love the $s more than the item?!!  :)  ).  I also tried a new item that made with wine bottles in my kiln and put my own designs on them rather than just wire and labels and they sold out!  I always have different items at my shows.  Yes directing out items to the demographics is what is necessary.  I find that one item may sell in one area but not in others - go figure!!

      • Dear Paul and Linda,

        you both have many good points but I have to still say that although the economy is not the primary reason for slow sales it plays a significant role in it.  I am a school teacher and although I am not an art teacher I make art an integral part of my lesson plans and talk to the students about crafts and how they can have a business if they have some really good, different items.  Our school has a holiday craft fair and we bring in only items that are made by local artist - many of them give them to us at great prices - we then have all the students shop for their families at the fair.  It is a wonderful event and successful for the artist, students and the school.  I have a few high school students who make wood items and have started going to craft fairs.  Although , yes, there are many "older" people I see some new fresh faces in their teens, 20s , 30s etc.  so I have a much different perspective than you.  If we keep our items top of the line, quality they will eventually sell but even with all the "excuses" we are down sizing, have enough stuff, etc. etc. the economy is a significant factor and it shows in our area and in the retail market.  If you see the new this week it mentioned over and over again that many people who went out on "black Friday" to shop and bough and spent a lot have returned the items to get their cash back because they need the money for more important things.  this has been on the new for the pat two weeks.If you are happy with how you are working your shows then fine but I in opinion you have to change for each show and demographics.  My college shows have been some of my most successful and the purchasers were mostly college students .  This is an issue that needs to be addressed over and over again so that we do not become stagnant.  Thank you for your ideas.

  • The economy isn't the only reason that people aren't buying.  In a marketplace that is over saturated with a bazillion choices for personal expressions of wall art, there is a limited amount of people who will seek original art. People seem to be looking for more utility in their art.  That's why jewelers, potters, etc. seem to be doing somewhat better. People can always use another pair of earrings or another coffee mug or some garden art. People are over loaded with "stuff" - art included. Something has to give - and it has. People aren't buying like they bought 20 years ago. The market has changed. We have to change with it - or perish!

    • Why would garden art sell better than wall art? I've wondered this. It's not utilitarian usually. It's meant to decorate your garden vs decorating your home. Maybe it's just a lower price-point. But you're right, it does seem to sell.

      • Because it's generally inexpensive.

        Because people have lots more yard space than wall space.

        Because they can't make it themselves.

        Because it's kitschy.

        Because it's generally inexpensive. (oh, did I already say that?) Oops.

        • Jim,  you are right on!  Garden art is so popular lately.  I think because people want to decorate their yards because they are spending more time in their gardens.  I have a friend who use to make garden items from concrete and they sold very quickly.  she told me that people told her that due to the price of gas that they spend more time at home during the summer working on projects at home.  she has sense given it up because the items were too heavy to cart.  I thought her prices were very inexpensive for the the work and the quality of the items as you kow we ca never reap what we put in to our items.  Merry Christmas!  Pat

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