Call for Artists, Making Money at Juried Art Fairs, Craft Shows and Festivals
I needed to wait a week to write my comments about Ann Arbor. A friend of mine called me last Thursday and she said she still hadn't recovered from the grueling 4 day show. I was feeling the same, except that I had another setup on Friday and then 2 more days of direct sunlight. So, it's taken me another week to get it together.
I think I am uniquely qualified to talk about Ann Arbor because I have watched this show for 45 years from different perspectives. When I was 15 years old, I thought I was an intellectual. I joined a summer group that introduced me to a lot of very cool things. We listened to Coltrane and Charley Parker. We read Ginsberg poetry and James Joyce novels. We went to the old Hillsberry theater to see Shakespeare and to the movie theater to see "Raisin in the Sun," Lastly, we took a trip to Ann Arbor to see the art fair. In those days the show was on just South University and East U. Artists leaned there paintings against ladders and potters displayed their pots on old crates. That was 1964. After I got out of college, in 1972, I ended up working as a store manager and buyer in the shoe business. We had 6 stores in Michigan and I ended up at the Ann Arbor store on South U., where I ran our store for 2 years. During the Art Fair we brought all our sales merchandise from the other stores and set up racks on the street. We did 1/3 of our yearly business during those 4 days. In those days, the Ann Arbor Art Fair was the premier show in the country and many of the artists were museum quality. Realizing that retail was not for me, I went back to school and took clay classes at a college. I started doing art fairs in 1981 and got into the State Street show in 1982 and I have done it off and on for the past 30 years.
By the time I got into the Ann Arbor shows, they had morphed into 3 shows, the Original, State Street, and the Guild. The reason for this was that the whole business community wanted to get into the act of selling their old merchandise during an otherwise slow time. This worked throughout the '80s and the '90's because the artists did well and the merchants did well. But, make no mistake, this was always about the merchants selling their wares. We were just there to get the people to come to Ann Arbor. The show committees never did much for the artists but it didn't matter because we did really well. And expenses were low. You could get a room at the Michigan League or the Bell Tower for less than $80. You could park in a lot for less than $5, but, if you got there early and left after 10PM you didn't have to pay anything. Show fees were less than a third of what they are today.
In those days, the Original show was considered the best show, State Street next, and then the Guild. But it worked because once you got into your show and got a space, you stayed in your space for years so that your customers could find you. The shows had grown to over 1200 exhibitors. Consequently, the quality of the 3 shows remained high and there wasn't much difference in the shows. Everyone had their preferred space. I know plenty of great artists, like John Long, who had a spot on Main Street(the Guild Show), for years. The State Street show liked to put its best artists on North University to compete with the Original show. I was on North University in those days and I loved my space. North U. did not have any vendors on the street except for Moe's Sport Shop. The rest of the street was dedicated to the artists. I regularly did between $6000 and $10000, which in todays dollars would be $10K-$18K. The Ann Arbor shows were considered in the top 2 shows along with Coconut Grove.
In the late '90' things were starting to change. Sales were still good, but, we would hear grumbling from the merchants wishing we weren't there. And, you'd hear about the locals saying they go out of town during the event. And, it seemed like everyone with a parking lot or an empty building were renting out spaces to anyone willing to pay for it. And, the 3 legit shows kept adding booths, opening new streets. Starting around 2001 things started to change. Attendance started to go down very slightly. The buyers starting staying home because the shows had gotten too big. None of the serious art buyers wanted to wade through all the junk to get to the good stuff. Even though sales were off all little, they were still good, so, nobody really complained.
Things really started to nose dive in the mid 2000's(2005? I'm guessing) when the Original Show had a problem with the South University Area Association. I can't speak to the problem because I don't know any of the details, but, the Original Show was moved to the campus on North University abutting the State Street Show. The SUAA started their own show in the same location of the old Original and now there were 4 legit shows. Show fees started to skyrocket, there was absolutely no free parking anywhere, and if you wanted to stay at the Bell Tower it would cost you $350 for a room. It is my opinion that the attitude of the merchants and Ann Arbor, in general, crossed a line. They never welcomed us warmly except to thank us for bringing all that business to the local community. But then around 2005 it seemed that they started taking us for granted. Many, many really great artists stopped doing the show and over the years are being replaced with average or really poor exhibitors. And, more and more commercial vendors showed up on the streets and in spaces where artists used to be. And still, none of us really complained, except a few of us, because sales were still decent and since the majority of exhibitors hadn't done these events during the golden age, they accepted the status quo.
Then came this year, and because of the heat, which kept people away and kept people from buying, you are all whining and saying all the things that I have been saying for the past 10 years. I agree with everything that was said in Nels review and everything that was said in the comments. I've always been accused of whining too much. I really glad some other people stepped up to the plate and said what needed to be said. This was the worst year ever in the history of the show. I would have been embarrassed to show some of the things that I saw being sold in the booths. With the reputation that Ann Arbor has, you would think they could attract better art. Oh yeah, ridiculously high booth fees, high parking fees, inflated hotel rooms, and commercial vendors encroaching on the artists spaces. Maybe the smart ones are doing something else. On any weekend there are now 5 shows to chose from.
Some of you talked about reducing the hours and making the show 3 days. That will never happen. Nothing will ever change because the Ann Arbor events are about and have always been about the merchants selling their sales merchandise. I heard some grumbling about boycotting the shows. None of you have the balls or the commitment to do that and that would be the only way to change things. As I've said many, many times we create business for any community that has a show. That, in turn, creates taxable income, so that the city and the state benefit from our being there. Ironically, no other community benefits more from a show than Ann Arbor and no community takes us for granted more than Ann Arbor. So, unless you are willing to make a real commitment, nothing will ever change.
Now about the economy and the show in general: I talked to a lot of people. The thing that makes the Ann Arbor shows great is that it attracts people from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. No other show does that and because of that fact, there is always the possibility of making great sales no matter what the conditions are. What was missing this year were the buyers from the North suburbs of Detroit, who make up the majority of the buyers at this show. It was way too hot. The radio stations were telling people to stay inside and not go anywhere, which meant not coming to the show. And in talking to everyone, it seemed that everyone I talked to were from other states. I talked to nobody from West Bloomfield, Birmingham, etc. Those people stayed home and that was the real reason why people did poorly. In fact, there was some indication that things are turning around for those of us that make one of a kind objects. I base that on the fact that I hadn't seen any gallery owners for 2 years. I could always count on at least 1 gallery order at any show that I would do. In the past 2 weeks, including Ann Arbor, I had 4 galleries come into my booth and express wanting to do business again. One gallery had sold all my work this summer and needed more. Two of the galleries were galleries that that I had sold to regularly in the '90's but hadn't bought in the past 10 years. They are now eager for new work. Because of this, I feel that things are turning around for us.
I will probably do the show next year because I've always accepted the situation and am willing to live with it.