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Call for Artists, Making Money at Juried Art Fairs, Craft Shows and Festivals

The band of nomadic Gypsies descended on Estero, Florida on Feb 15th, 16th, and 17th. I arrived early on Friday, but, as usual, there are 30 or 40 already up. What “go getters” we have in our merry band! There is definitely something uplifting when you glimpse those white exclamation points in the distance. Man! One just gets overwhelmed with optimism.

While asphalt parking lots are not particularly welcoming, an easy set up kept the positivity going and after just a couple hours I had things set and was checking out the local restaurant scene before heading back home (about 30 miles away).

I knew the Saturday load in was limited to 8:30 but arrived at 8:32 (caught in horrendous traffic) with my ice chest and survival supplies. The lady controlling the scene would not let me drive in to drop off the ice chest. 2 minutes late! Not a good start, but I know “Rules are Rules.” This relegated me to carrying a 40lb object about a half mile, since the artist’s parking was Way-Way off in the distance. Grrr! I was still cursing under my breath when we kicked off.

That dissipated when the crowd started to arrive. I noticed that there were more folks carrying stuff home than the last shows I’ve done. And right off the bat. However, by Saturday PM, the crowd had thinned and sales were less apparent. What seemed to be moving? I saw a number of ceramic flower wall hangings, electric lamps made from old musical instruments, pictures of WW2 planes, and the usual doo-dads on brazing rods. Also, a number of framed prints and at least one big painting of sand dunes. (Yeah, sorta’ real art!) The problem was that this little gush of commercial success was short lived and by around 2PM the sales died and pretty much of the mall shopping crowd did too. “Ut-Oh!”

The farther one travels down the Southwest Coast, the older and the more conservative the populous gets. For instance, the congressional district here is the reddest in America. SWFL also must hold some record for the most decrepit fair attendees. Go-go scooters, casts, canes and bandages galore. Kind of like an art fair at Mayo Clinic. We had a pretty large contingent of bicyclers as well. I wonder if they realize that 4 bikes gathered in front of a tent gabbing is definitely not conducive to sales. Also, hard to buy art when you are on a bike. Where was the Show Sheriff when we needed her?

I have one large piece that features 2 nudes, back views. Nothing risqué. I had groups of 4 to 6 adults standing in front of my tent, pointing and laughing. Sophisticated crowd, huh? So maddening and RUDE. But, I’m not too sure these attendees were there to buy anyway. Lookie-loos. Or, “Laughy-loos.”

Saturday died away with no sales on my part, and neighbors starting to grumble loudly about the situation. Sunday, Day of Hope, was even worse. Smaller crowd and less sales. By about 3 it was dead and gone. We were all just sitting there waiting for 5PM. I was warned by a pro to not even look like I was starting to break down early because the tent across from me was staffed with a Snitch! Can you imagine? We pay $500 to get in the show, make little to nothing for our efforts and the promoter insults us with Snitches and Show Sheriffs? I know you can’t break down at 4:30, but a snitch?

I had plenty of time to discuss the situation with my experienced colleagues. Here’s what they were saying:

There are basically three kinds of shows.

One is a Community Service Organization show (like Rotary) in which they have a goal for the years fund raise. These tend to be a bit looser, sometimes not heavily promoted and often, poor sales. Not all! But many. But they are kind of fun and have amenities. Man, the donuts and coffee were great in Maitland.

Then, there are the Promoter’s shows (in this area Howard Alan and Paragon) which are more advertised. They are run by the books, very tight and with little to no amenities. Not even a name badge. They want to make every buck they can; strictly business. I’d say the average promoter collects between $125K and $150K on entry fees alone. I suspect they also get funding from the malls because the fair brings so many customers to the site. It looks like to me the promoter has a half dozen or so employees present. Maybe their overhead on that is a few thousand dollars. I’m sure they have insurance and other costs, but I’d guess the profit off a show is in an astronomical range compared to the 2 to 15% profit level of most businesses. I don’t really care how much the promoter makes, if the artists are doing well. But the promoter’s strategy is putting on as many shows as is utterly possible. This tremendously dilutes sales and kills the craftsmen. The guy in the tent across from me says one promoter has single handedly ruined Florida art fairs. Yes, yes, I know: nattering nabobs of negativity! But I can’t blame him, he came all the way from California and Florida has been awful for him. Coconut Point was a zero. Not coming back to Florida.

A third variety is the Community sponsored event. Coconut Grove, Winter Park and Ft. Myers come to mind. Here, the city has a formal event planning department and they handle everything. There is only one big show a year. Theoretically, this would give the best experience for the individual artist. However, if the local Service Club and the Promoters have also been active in the area (and if it’s Florida, they’ve been everywhere and repeatedly) the show can still be a bust.

My Pro network seems to complain (accompanied by foot-stomping) the most about the Promoter shows, secondly the Service Club shows and least the Community shows. But everyone agrees: there’s just too many shows. Art-wise in Southwest Florida the population is uneducated, uncultured and overfed.

Still, I do see success out there. The guy selling painted hollow doors knocked off 3 of them for 2K a piece! “Wall Furniture,” my neighbor exclaimed! Some of our crew really knows the crowd and what they will buy. Me? NEP! Not whining, just the truth.

So, I ended the show with a goose egg. Nada. Nothing. Along with at least 3 of my neighbors. Lots of “My worst show ever.” Lots of long faces in the neighborhood and lots of vows to never come back to Florida. Perhaps this is a self-correcting problem.

My own response is that these shows are darned hard to do and doing them for the sake of some Promoter, who sort of disrespects you, is especially grating. I had three shows left on my calendar and all three were Promoter shows. I bailed on all of them. One, in Sarasota, is in a venue where they have dozens of shows a year. It’s every 2 weeks all winter. I know exactly what will happen. A St. Pete show turns out to be one no body up there has ever heard of and is sandwiched between bigger, better shows. Get real. In Tampa, there was a 5AM Saturday set up in an area that has gotten somewhat sketchy reviews in the past. No thanks.

I’m leaving about $1500 on the table which is killing me. But the out of town shows cost me well over a thousand to do and so I’d likely loose another $1500 trying to do them. You gotta know when to hold them…bla, bla, bla.

Next season I’m going to be much more selective where I show. My stuff just doesn’t sell in SW Fl. I’m going to hope to get into a few Community shows on the East coast. No more Promoter shows for me and I’m going to be very skeptical of the Rotary scene, as well.

Get a new plan. One foot in front of the other, chin up, hut, hut. I’ve taken a lickin’ but I’m still tickin’. And, without a Go-Go or an oxygen tank. I just don’t fit Southwest Florida! Onward! Somewhere-else-ward!

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Comment by Jeri Vitello on March 23, 2019 at 4:48pm

Rick,

I love reading your reviews.  I especially liked your comment "SWFL also must hold some record for the most decrepit fair attendees. Go-go scooters, casts, canes and bandages galore. Kind of like an art fair at Mayo Clinic".

You may not have a pocket full of money, but your sense of humor is priceless!

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