The Zero Show:
Ouch. I knew better.
But the old adage says ‘hope springs eternal’.
I did the show last year. Got a really nice commission job in the last ½ hour of the show………..
I was originally invited to participate last year by a really nice, diligent woman who touted her show as ‘a fine show, only the best’. She wasn’t wrong. The quality of the exhibitors was wonderful. What she couldn’t control was the heavy spring heat, the ‘riverbugs’ and a supposed ‘down’ economy. I went to the patron preview party on Friday night and met some seemingly interested people. I watched the shuffling small herd with gasping dogs, walkers and a smattering of small kids go by all weekend in the heat. I laid out water for the dogs, talked to a handful of people who noticed me in the corner of the lot. Sold a small selection of prints and watched my neighbors sell nothing at all. And then, there they were: The commission job people. They came late on Sunday. I hear stories about ‘Sunday shows’ but really; that had not been my world until that day. It was a beautiful piece I made for them. Delivered on time & they loved it.
So, when invited to participate again after going through the jury process without a fee, I went back to the show. I had watched/know of others in the show who had received ‘purchase awards’. People had pledged money to spend. I didn’t receive any of those patron bucks in 2012 but thought “why not me”? I sell my work……….I am not an amateur. How can I make this show work for me this year? I convinced myself that the heat of 2012 would not be around for 2013. Couldn’t happen two years in a row right?
I brought a bit more ‘conservative’ body of work. Watched as the weather forecast was not in the ‘searing heat’ category. I had asked for a different spot in the show. A better spot so I thought. I got to the show to check in on a beautiful day. There was someone else in my spot. The beautiful corner I had anticipated had another artist in it. To make a long story short there was a ‘mix-up’ of sorts. Well, another artist decided that the corner spot was ‘more suitable’ for them. Hmmm. And, it was marked wrong on the map but not the packet info. Hmmm. There was no chance of moving to the other side of the show (which is where I would have preferred at that moment) so I gave in and backed away. The booths were spread apart to give my sidewalls some visibility. I tried to stay positive and not let the incident rattle me too much. I enjoyed the very beautiful day. I thought about great sales to come for the weekend. Went to the patron preview party that night with my ‘show-stopper’ piece. Again, met people I thought were interested. Enthralled. Asking questions about my work. Went to the show that next day with high hopes of a big weekend.
Then it happened: or should I say nothing happened. After 2 days of standing around in my booth I had a solid zero. The fair volunteers kept asking me if anything was happening sales wise. I didn’t lie. I told them the truth. Nothing was happening. I could not even sell a 25.00 print. It was in a word: pathetic. I wasn’t begging or pleading patrons. I wasn’t praying but continuing to try and do my job. At some point though later on Sunday I started coming apart. I have bills to pay like everyone else. Asking myself what I had done wrong. Wondering what I was doing there. Analyzing every aspect of the weekend. Questioning my body of work. Very late on Sunday another artist came by who I think was a jeweler…..praising my ‘beautiful work’ and asking about how my show was. That brought the tears. “This was not the weekend to be losing money” I said. Bills to pay. I hate to cry. It gives me a headache. She probably thought I was crazy and I still don’t know who she was. Soon, it was over. 5 p.m. had passed. Time to pack up and go home and still, nothing to report. There was nothing on the plate.
After a two hour pack up, I drove home the 3 ½ hours without getting out of the car. No extra food or drink. Didn’t need gas in the truck. I got home with my family asleep but was greeted by two happy dogs and proceed to sit curled up with them on the couch at 11 pm and downed a big glass of wine. I thought about the funny ‘Art Fair Neighbor’ YouTube video of the potter who was ‘now questioning his entire existence’. You know, it is really difficult to have a ‘zero’ show. It was not my first. It was my second. The first was worse. That was a huge lesson learned but that is not why I am sharing right now. I thought I had done everything right this time from the initial decision to go back.
I remember telling one of the organizers at the show that I realized I was not in my market. This was an older crowd. I heard one too many times that “our walls are full”. This crowd had already owned the big house but was looking to ‘downsize’. Bought the wall art years ago, splurged on the furnished second home and now were looking for something else to spend their money on. I heard rumors of big sales: expensive jewelry or five-figure bronze sculptures. I didn’t have the right stuff. I could tell but didn’t want to believe it. See: I knew better. I wanted to believe I had a chance for a better show this year.
Epilogue: I moved on. Like everyone else who does this crazy job full time there is little time to morn. You have to get back on that bike and ride again. On to the next show the next weekend and pull it together. I didn’t even change the body of work. Truck was already packed. Ready to go. Still held out hope that there may be a ‘follow-up commission job’. By show end day three and no emails or calls I gave that up too. What happened next do you ask? I did what I do well: I sold work at the next show. Plenty of it; in all different price points. A combination of small, medium, large and a commission thrown in made the next show the reason I keep going. (Besides a talent for painting and my love of art of course).
So you see: I knew better. Listen to your gut. I wanted to believe that I was doing the right thing. It is so easy to blame the organizers of a show. Or, the volunteers, weather, economy, and the fact that the guy next to you stole your booth space or whatever it is beside you. I knew enough that I should not have tried the show again. Another artist that I highly respect shared with me some great philosophy last year: “If you have multiple shows with no sales you really need to take a hard look at your work and understand what is wrong with your art”.
If you only have one really bad show it was just not your weekend or show whatever the reason is. We as artists are gamblers anyway in some sort of fashion. We play the odds over and over. I’ve heard that in about 1995 every show was good and people were spending money like crazy. I wouldn’t know what that was like. I came to this business just a year before recession became the word of the moment. I don’t know much of anything else and have built a business in trying times. While I don’t have 35 years under my belt I do have eight years of art fairs behind me and like to think I have at least some knowledge of the business and a formula of what works. I have tried shows that were not great and built clientele by being diligent. I have chased leads, commissions and corporate work. Taken huge chances that have paid off wonderfully. Perfected a body of work and learned marketing and studied what I needed to do to be successful.
Well, I thought I knew what worked until that ‘zero’. I like to think that ‘zero’ will never happen again but obviously I am still thinking about it so I want to make sure I don’t forget at the very least: the lesson. And, on a more positive note: I would like to not forget the good feeling of ‘moving on’. J
P.P.S.... I showed this article to Connie while I was at the South University Show in AA...the first day I was there a big order for a commission piece came through finally as a direct result of the above mentioned show (although I had met them elsewhere). This time though, I am still of the opinion that I will not got back.