Art Fair Insiders

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.

Views: 1009


You need to be a member of Art Fair Insiders to add comments!

Join Art Fair Insiders

Comment by Marjorie S Rawson on August 11, 2011 at 8:08am
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this Barry. I live in AA . I have said it out loud years ago that this show is on life support. I agree that we can stay or go on this sinking ship. This year took such a toll on my body. It took me a week to recover and feel normal again. So...that adds to my losing more money as I couldn't even lift a finger to produce anything for that week.
"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."
This is SO true. If I had to travel at all for this show I wouldn't do it. I will be looking at other options (including staying home) next year.
Comment by Connie Mettler on August 8, 2011 at 12:16pm

An excellent review, Barry, worth waiting for. I am in total agreement with almost all of your points. For many years we had outstanding sales (best of the year) at AA but when on Friday morning a few years back and we had just cracked $2000 (previous years sales around $20,000) in sales we turned to each other and said, "I think it's over." It was.


I just came across the list of the award winners at the Street Art Fair:

Charles Gatewood, Phenix City, Ala., Painting, Booth A352
Matthew Naftzger, Hannibal, Mo., Metalsmithing, Booth A375
Melissa Finelli, Boston, Mass., Jewelry, Booth A109
Nicario Jimenez, Naples, Fla., Mixed Media, Booth A301
Chris Roberts-Antieau, Manchester, Mich., Fiber, Booth A307
Heinrich Toh, Kansas City, Mo., Printmaking, Booth A304
William Kidd, Miramar, Fla., Ceramics, Booth A380
Joachim Knill, Hannibal, Mo., Painting, Booth A382
Matthew Hatala, Danielsville, Ga., Wood, Booth A378
Devon Driscoll, Minneapolis, Minn., Jewelry, Booth A247

Charlie Gatewood, Matthew Hatala, Nicario Jimenez and Chris Roberts-Antieau have probably won the award here multiple times. Joachim Knill always has surprising work. You can't beat Charlie for just plain old fine painting. Congrats to all.

Comment by Barry Bernstein on August 5, 2011 at 5:48pm
Yeah!!  They really drove me up a wall with that constant shouting at Moe's,  But here is proof that if you complain strongly enough, sometimes you get results.  After that year, Moe's toned it down and it was actually pleasant on North U. for a while.  I eventually moved down the street about 20 booths away from them.
Comment by Bill and Jon Slade on August 5, 2011 at 4:25pm
I am more amazed that you could remember all those years-especially being across from me on N. univ. with those clowns at Moe's singing YMCA on the tables in the street.The $$ were real good but you could see that it was always about the merchants-- always hot long hours that really equal three 2 day shows and the $$$ better also.  Thanks for the memories - see ya down south- I don't miss this show at all-         Gone Sailing- Fair Winds
Comment by Sara Aune on August 5, 2011 at 2:11pm

Very good historical rundown, Barry. Most of the artists don't have the  perspective that growing up in AA gives.   I'm not defending  the city and how the show has come to this, but these are the realities.

Ann Arbor is my home town, I have always felt great pride, and excitement to be returning home for the best show in the country.....and because of that fact my tolerance level is pretty high................. not so much any more. my sadness comes from watching the Jewel of art fairs, sinking to the same level as a third rate "VENDOR" event.

However this has gone beyond the retail merchants selling their own merchandise on their sidewalks, ( I admit, I looked forward to those summer sales too ! )  If they aren't a retail merchant, they can rent their space to anyone who comes up with the $$, Many merchants order in shoddy merchandise to sell out there in front, during the fairs, to turn a fast profit. Check the stores, does it fit with  the merchandise INSIDE ?   lots of them do not. 

Each year, I think the show can't possibly get any more congested, and degraded, and every year it does.

So, eventually, this one is going to look like Wyandotte----it's a crying shame , but I'm over it.

I will come back, as long as my good customers continue to want to shop with me at this event, and it pays to be here.  That's my bottom line.


Comment by Barry Bernstein on August 5, 2011 at 1:08pm

Warren, too bad you didn't get to do the show in the '90s. You would have gotten in, no problem. As far as having 'arrived," I don't think it's the same as it was at one time.  You don't have to be that good to get into the shows anymore.

I don't want anyone to think that I was criticizing people who were complaining.  I was just happy that, finally, people are saying the same things I've been saying for years. 

Comment by Barry Bernstein on August 4, 2011 at 4:39pm
Wendy, you reminded me of something.  When you grow up in Lower Michigan, the people who live there think you have arrived if you do the AA art fair.  For me, it gave me a certain sense of legitimacy with my parents and siblings, who still think I'm nuts for making pots and doing art fairs. Plus, the local population still lives with the image and hype of Ann Arbor from 20 years ago. Just read the articles in the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News that ran before the show.
Comment by Wendy Lin on August 4, 2011 at 4:30pm

Thank you, Barry, for that well-written and well-thought out report on Ann Arbor. I've only been at this for about 6 years and have never understood the mystique of AA until now.

I get it. It's sad, but I get it. 

Comment by phillip hall on August 4, 2011 at 3:59pm
This thing called ann arbor is a joke. Putting upwith the artist abuse makes anyone who does it part of the joke. I started boycotting it years ago along with a lot of other artists. It will never change if artists enable it year after year. Exhibitors should be issued a rubber nose at setup.
Comment by Char terBeest Kudla on August 4, 2011 at 2:28pm
Thanks Barry for your thoughtful words.  I did fine at the show - however - it did take me days to recover.  I will definitely be coming back.  I have adjusted my product line and, yes, I do make all my things myself.  I did have Michigan customers based on a large mailing list I use every year.  I sent out my own post cards.  I think it's been a very difficult year for many artists/craftsmen.   Most show attendances are down.  With decreased sales.  I think people are frustrated and the heat this year was just to much.  I understand An Arbors point of view, though I do wish the show would close at 7 or 8 PM.  There are thousands of us there who would go out to eat and shop if we had the time to do so.  By 9 PM...all I want to do is crash.  Thanks again for the history lesson.

Fiber artists -- use this resource to find new buyers:  Advertise with Reach over 60,000 fiber arts lovers.

Our 50 Best Art Fairs

Look Inside the 2018 Art Fair Survey:
Who Won and Why

Join the MasterMinds Group for personalized coaching on your Internet Lifestyle Business! 

60 Page Report - Best US Art Fairs

Click Here to
Learn More


  • Add Photos
  • View All

© 2021   Created by Connie Mettler.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service