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

Just got home from Krasl, my 7th show of the year. A great spot for an art fair, a little resort town on Lake Michigan, beautifully run, so it feels more like being on vacation. Easy. Got off to a great start on Saturday but then things fizzled out so my sales ended up being just adequate. Like most of 2017. 4 Bridges in Chattanooga (okay), Southlake in Dallas (hideously bad), Three Rivers Pittsburgh (an okay profit but not worth 5 long days in a difficult show), Old Town Chicago (horrible again), Boston Mills (not bad but down from last year), Cherry Creek ( okay, the outlier. My all time best sales. Well over 5 figures for a simple potter. Other worldly.) and then mediocre Krasl.

Not a great year so far, Cherry Creek notwithstanding. I’ve had the repeated experience of thinking that customers are ready to buy. I reach for my square, ready to swipe. And then they don’t pull the trigger. They say thanks and back away. Weird. Because this is only my third year of doing shows I don’t trust my own experience entirely, so I talk to a lot of artists, especially ceramic folks. And I hear the same thing. This is bad; as bad as 2008 some say. 30 year veterans are finding other sources of income, or looking for a total exit.

There are lots of theories about this. But eventually, in every conversation, there is a moment when the other artist has figured out my politics, and they begin to talk freely about the national anxiety and uncertainty sponsored by the current administration. Will people lose health care? Will we go to war? Will there be serious civil unrest? What will the next psychotic tweet say, or the next big lie ? And there is a sense that people in the middle to upper middle income bracket are now cautious and holding tight. Not buying even when they can afford to buy.

Beats me. I never bought the “it’s an election year” uncertainty theory, but now, yes, I feel the anxiety myself. I tend to buy more under such circumstances, especially good bourbon, but hey, that’s me. Other people may get restrictive. I do know that many more customers now spontaneously talk politics, mostly expressing alarm, which is a bit weird because they can’t know where I stand. But politics is on people’s minds. They talk but don’t buy.

I know that things tend to short circuit on this site when things turn to politics, but here we are. Consumer behavior has to be affected by the national mood, for lack of a better term, and the Current Occupant has elicited many feelings but confidence, calm, and security are not among them [insert right wing rebuttals here]. There are other theories too: young people not buying, technology, etc. etc. etc. But mostly they center on national politics and a general sense of foreboding that inhibits buying.

My politics are slightly left of Che Guevara so I’m surprised that people actually leave their houses to go to art fairs, let alone buy, given our national condition. But I’m also well aware of my biases. Are others having an unusually difficult year and if so, how do you understand it?

Views: 1718

Comment by Nels Johnson on July 11, 2017 at 11:40am
Interesting commentary.
I am a photographer, been doing the shows for 42 years.
In the last seven shows I have done more money in them than the previous eight months in Florida.
Those shows are:Main Street Ft. Worth, Artisphere, Kalamazoo, Columbus, Des Moines and Krasl.
All of them killer shows, even little old KIA.
Maybe you need to examine your product you are selling.
Is it new, is it fresh, how are your price points.
I agree politics sucks in the USA right now, but people are still buying.
Keep positive, look for new ideas.
I am always changing, never look back.
In 42 years I have only had a handful of bad shows.
Comment by Nels Johnson on July 11, 2017 at 11:43am
Oops, I realized I only listed six shows.
I cancelled Boston Mills because I just about sold out at Des Moines.
And before you say, "those fricking photographers...." It does not matter what the media is. Fresh will always sell. BTW my price points are $30-$500 and I have sold plenty in the $500 range.
Just saying.
Comment by Craig Roderick and Sara Beck on July 11, 2017 at 12:28pm

Like Nels, we are photographers.  Unlike Nels, we have been unable to get into some of the top shows he listed in his comment.  Nevertheless, in our second year in the business full time our revenue is up about 100%.  Just about everywhere we go it is our first time in that community.  

Some of our work most conservative folk find troubling.  We have a collection of images from old cathedrals in the U.S. that are in ruins.  In some places people come in the booth to ask questions about where the images were taken and how the churches ended up the way they are and then leave.  Some say the images make them sad.  Others are intrigued and find them beautiful.  

Despite the images not appealing to a broad base of people, it is what I enjoy doing most and will continue you to do so whenever I have the opportunity.  But, we have learned that we need other images with broader appeal to pay the bills.  We have adjusted our offerings to appeal to more people who come into our booth.  We have been in places where people agonize over a $20.00 purchase, or are there for reasons other than art, or where the promoter has not done what was needed to bring in a crowd.  We have not done well in those places.  But we have done well enough elsewhere to be happy with the first half of 2017.  

My point is that I do not think lack of buyers has anything to do with the political climate.  In the shows you have listed we only have one in common, 4 Bridges in Chattanooga.  We had a great show.  I only wish we could have gotten into some of the others you have done such as Cherry Creek rejected, Krasl wait list, Old Town wait list, and Boston Mills rejected.

Our price points are $20.00 to $1300.00  We did our largest installation ever yesterday based on a referral from a show we did in April.  So I think you need to look at what you are doing or not doing that might impact your sales.  Have you changed anything from last year?  Has your approach to people in your booth changed? I looked at your web site a few minutes ago.  Your work is beautiful.  If you project a down attitude, the public will pick up on that right away and move on to the next person. I sense from the comments at the end of your post that you are in a doom and gloom mentality.  More than anything we have found that if you send out positive thoughts into the world you get them back.  

Comment by Al Scovern on July 11, 2017 at 2:35pm
Those fricking photographers... okay, I feel better now. Nels, I didn't know you were at Krasl. I would have come over and introduced myself and watched you sell photographs. Here's a funny story about photography. My wife took some photos of my pots and we had them blown up on metal and I hang these in my booth as advertising. I've had four offers over the past two seasons by people wanting to buy the $&@!ing picture, while a pot that looks just like it sits right below it. I tell them it costs $5000.00. Nobody has taken me up on it. I've been tempted to tell them where they can put the photograph, but insofar as it's printed on metal it would take some serious effort on their part.

Actually, I don't quite know how to judge this year, which is why I've talked to many other artists. Some are doing well, but many not, and maybe especially my fellow ceramic folks. In point of fact, when we talk about sales, I seem to be doing better than many of them, but not great. My price point is probably part of the problem. I sell decorative pots that range from 185 to 700, but mostly in the 300-450 range. Nothing even close to 100. At Cherry Creek I couldn't wrap them up fast enough. In Chicago I couldn't give them away.

Yeah, I'm not a positive thought kind of guy. I tried sending out a positive thought once and I got prostatitis the next day so I've sworn off that. My attitude ranges from amused to curious to cynical, but I've got my incredibly socially skilled, terminally cheerful wife by my side to chase away the impact of my dark side. She's great with people and makes me probably above average, so I don't think that's the problem. Ceramics may well be a problem, and Ceramics in my price range may be a problem, and my particular style may also be a problem when I stray from Cherry Creek, St. Louis, Artisphere, Fort Worth where I've done very well. I think about my work constantly, and it evolves quickly so I'm open to change. And experimentation. I'm almost even open to ditching the whole pot selling deal and just selling my wife's photographs of my pots... though not quite.

All that said, there seem to be a lot of artists out there who think that the current political climate has hurt the art fair market. I really can't say, because being relatively new to this, I don't have enough years for comparison. But it's also not an idea that I would easily dismiss. Being the lefty cynic that I proudly am.
Comment by Nels Johnson on July 11, 2017 at 9:53pm
I liked your post Al. I am sorry we did not get to meet.
That said, the political scene is indeed scarey, but people with money are buying good original art.
There is a lot of wealth in America, it has nothing to do with politics when it comes to buying art. If you have good shit, they want it.
I love the response on this blog.
It is almost like we were on Art Fair Reviews where lots of people chime in.
Why is this site, with such good insider info, so lacking in response from the persons reading.
You all need to get a little more proactive and start responding back.
Melanie Rolfes gave you a lot of insightful info about the Des Moines show and your response was pathetic.
Get active.
Start talking.
Say what is on your mind.
Comment by Judy Christian on July 11, 2017 at 10:52pm

Ten-fifteen years ago I did not see anything new at the shows in ceramics, and customers did not seem to mind, they were still purchasing the usual stoneware.

Now I see a lot of new and interesting work which has taken a different direction than before.

Here is an article that may explain it- I have not done any shows this year -yet- so I don't feel qualified to contribute much to this discussion.

Currently, a LOT of people seem to be interested in learning how to become potters. Over the past 6 months, I have had four people that I know speak to me about their daughters, and could I give them some advice/ show them my studio, etc.  And I don't get out much!

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/17/fashion/why-handmade-ceramics-ar...

Comment by Jeri Vitello on July 12, 2017 at 8:10am

Al, my friend and favorite booth neighbor, you are attempting to unlock one of the two great mysteries of this business; the first being the psyche of the art show shopper.  I am convinced that not even the BEST bourbon money can buy will assist you in discovering the answer to that all elusive question.  In addition, I would temper comparing your results with other artists; for it might be fair to say that most of those 30 year veterans suffer from some PTPD (post traumatic pot disorder) and their memory isn’t as good as they profess. 

However, if you do have an epiphany and are able to solve the enigmatic shopper’s behavior, I would suggest you donate your Trimline to a newbie and sell your “intellectual property”.  Then you can work on the second biggest mystery debt free; the psyche of the jury.  Perhaps you will come up with the answer as to how one gets into Fort Worth, St. Louis and Artisphere and not Plaza.

By the way, Gene stopped by booth space 90 on the bluff Friday to see you and help you set up but was too early.  So he came home, we set up our booth in our yard since I didn’t get into Krasl.

Comment by Nels Johnson on July 12, 2017 at 8:13am
Nothing wrong with my memories, pot or no pot, and I did plenty in my early years.
That said, you have to be a pragmatic business-person as well as artist to survive in our business.
Comment by Loc Tran on July 12, 2017 at 8:47am

From a business standpoint I think Nels offers the best advice. Unless you've saturated the market, you should always find an audience as long as your product is fresh and new and priced accordingly (no matter what the political climate is). If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, the obvious red flag for me is your price range. You only have moderately priced items. No high end and no low end. Especially no low end. Although my background is in 2D art, when I attend art shows, I look for ceramics to purchase. I look for $50 items but can be upsold to $200. If you could create a lower priced product tier, that might allow more people to be able to enjoy your work for a year and then sell them into your moderately priced items the following year.

Comment by Al Scovern on July 12, 2017 at 9:18am
Hey Jeri! Did Gene actually come by or are you pulling my leg? Even though we were two miles away in the morning I know I'd have heard that ridiculously gravely voice of his if he'd been there. I would love to have seen him. You write some funny stuff. You'd think that Diane and I, two old clinical psychologists, would be able to shed a little light on consumer behavior. In fact, we've put our heads together about the question and we've come up with this: we have no !$&@ing idea. Can't predict it. But when I figure it out, you'll be the first to know. I think I asked my original question because I like talking about politics, but I think I'm in the minority there. You and Nels talking about pot reminded me of another question. Whenever I talk to old timers I hear the stories about the good old days-- the eighties and nineties when people sold out every show, got buried in commissions, got paid in stacks of cocaine sprinkled cash, had to beat away beautiful women offering themselves in exchange for art, and so on. Now it's possible that there is some pot induced memory inhancement thing going on, but I don't doubt that things used to be much better in the art fair world. My question is this: is there reason to think things will get better, will they remain as they are, or are we in a long, slow, death spiral?

Thanks for the article Judy. Interesting. I teach Ceramics and there is a lot of interest in it across the age range. But I've noticed one thing about customer buying. If a potential customer indicates that they've taken or are taking a pottery class, they almost never buy. We often have long and interesting conversations but they don't carry pots home. What they do carry home is information about my firing techniques, which I freely give.

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