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Saint James Court (Louisville)--Afraid the love affair is over at SJC--Sadly I must say,"Adeiu" to it

Been doing this show for 22 years. Met my wife there's--it was a whirlwind love affair from the very first kiss there, secretly in my booth, then magic dinners at booming bistros on Frankfort Avenue, magic stays in Third Avenue B&Bs,and then there was all the moola we made.
A fairy tale come true.
We always looked forward to October. SJC, oh boy. Cool October days, get to put the sweaters on, instead of sweating. Got to see lots of great longtime personalities from the circuit there. In the beginning (early nineties) it was a mellow setup. You just showed up and setup. The smart ones did it early Thursday morn, then we had time for a round of golf or sightseeing around the city. Visits to the Bat Factory. Checking out new eateries on Bardstown Road. Then a leisurely dinner at Jack Fry's. Life was really good.
This was always our last summer show.
We would pack up the summer cottage and studios in Saugatuck and head home to Ybor City, fat and sassy with plenty of money in our bank accounts.
We could take the rest of October off, go fool around in Key West, drinking margaritas all day and watch the Dolphins at sunset.
This ritual worked really great until about six years ago.
We started seeing subtle changes. None of them good.
Got harder finding reasonable lodgings for five days.
There was a change in show directors, then there was a structured setup. Now you had to get there early, at least two hours before your scheduled setup if you wanted any reasonable chance of getting your van positioned.
Then the show fee started getting a lot more expensive.
Then our revenues started gettin smaller. Not a good business plan.
We still came. Hell, I fell in love with Ellen here, I wasn't about to abandon a romantic show.
First Ellen started seeing her sales fall off big time. She needed the big sales customers and they were harder to find.
In the early years I had a steady group of repeat customers who bought,lots, every year.
There was this one airline stewardess from Indy that bought mega bucks worth every year. She could have started a Nels Johnson Photo Museum with her purchases.
But nothing lasts forever.
I noticed around ten years ago that some longtime artists moved out of the SJC show to the 3rd Street show. These were savvy people who always made money. On Sunday morns I would walk the 3rd Ave show and check people out.
They were snagging sales before those people made into the Court show.
Originally, the Fourth Street show was pretty crafty almost buy-sellish and then things changed. New savvy director, better artists with true original work, we're making an impact on our sales.
About five years ago, I saw my high end sales take a big plunge south. It was now a lowend sales show for me. I needed more volume to make what I used to do. Then I saw the volume turn south.
Enter the era of the Zombie Walkers at SJC. This is a well used term on many of the other sites out there like AFR and AfRS. It is an apt description of what is going on now.
Unfortunately, the huge throngs of fair-goers walk right down the middle of the road, neither looking left or right. Very rarely do they go inside a booth. Most have a Bloody Mary in hand and nothing else. About one in 50 carry any art purchase.
You have to understand there are six shows going on here plus the scab show on Hill Street.
There is a lot of talent in all those booths competing for the very slim core of buyers with disposable income.
Then you gotta remember what it cost you to be here.
All shows have a $550 booth fee plus the jury fee.
Most artists need a hotel for a minimum of three to five days. (You setup on Thursday and show Friday to Sunday).
You gotta eat all that time--and frankly, the show food is utter crap and vastly overpriced.if you are working on being a heart victim this show will set you up perfectly.
So most people are going to have $1500 invested in this little soirée before they make a dime.
I go news for you folks, if you can't make more than a minimum $4K at this show, then you should look for another venue because you are getting a lousy return on your money plus time invested.
I bet more than 70 per cent of the artists at the show are not hittin this mark.
I know we had bad weather this year, two out of the three days, it was rainy and fricking freezing. I had five layers of clothing on and wrapped myself in a heavy wool blanket
And I was still freezing.
Sunday was perfect. It should have been an easy 2K day for anyone. Crowds were out and most were not buying.
All I could sell was $30 photos. I did $900 that day--pathetic.
I was not alone. I saw very few 2-D packages go by me.
I did not even break $2K. It was my worst ever. I won't be back--which is ironic since I was a peer juror this year and was thus, automatically invited for next year.
For me, this show does not work anymore.
I am mostly selling black and white hand colored photos, using acrylic inks and oils. The images are laced with irony and humor. Louisville does not get it. They get it at Lexington and other places, but not here.
They buy mostly traditional and clicheied and here. They buy lowend, they love art on the stick, they love the alphabet-number photo people here. They are not big on out of the box art. That is just the way it is.
So there is my epilogue to Louisville, Ellen and I will find some other venue next year. Texas here I come.
Aloha, Nels.

Views: 2351

Comment by Brian Billings on October 6, 2015 at 7:39pm

Great review. I've noticed more and more art festivals sell mostly traditional and cliche art. Rarely do I see an artist selling something that another artist in the same show isn't. Seems the people who do like out of the box art find other ways of collecting. Perhaps the internet could be a big culprit!

Comment by Nels Johnson on October 6, 2015 at 9:15pm
You gotta remember that I give a much more realistic report on this show, then you will see anywhere else. AFR and Reviews are nice reports but they don't come close to me about telling it like it is.
Comment by Robert Wallis on October 7, 2015 at 12:07am

I gave up on the show after the Great Deluge when the show was cancelled on a Saturday. I'm originally from Louisville and the show has a place in my heart but four years of breaking even doesn't cut it. My in-laws who still live in the area said it quite well, "Most folks are there to see and be seen, and maybe buy some cheap and cute trinket that they can say they got at St. James"

They crowds may be large when the weather is good, but they are like a herd of cattle moving down the trail just looking to the side and not stopping because they won't see the entire show if they walk in someone's booth. I first did the SJC show back in the early 90's when it was a commission show. I didn't know at the time that the locals would inflate their sales figures in order to get invited back so they had the prestige and bragging rights of being in the show. I was moved out of the SJC show, since my reported sales were too low, to one of the outlying ones that was hard core crafty at the time. I was between a hand made broom maker and a country craft potter who was really low end. I zeroed out and said it would be a cold day in hell before I came back.

About 20+ years go by; global warming took place and my work was different. I figured the global warming was from heat being pumped from Hell and therefore Hell must be cooling off. So I apply for SJC and Fourth Street. I get in for Fourth St. I did it for four years and each year was a steady decline with the last one the disastrous rain cancelled show. That was it, ain't going back. I had almost considered buying those chasing rope lights and powering it up with the battery inverter, using a couple strings that would go in opposite directions. I figured a double string of those annoying lights draped across the top of the booth from and down the legs would break the zombie spell on the mindless hordes out there. I don't think even that would work.

There are other shows in Louisville that are much smaller and I find those have a higher gross than SJ with booth fees about a third of what St. James charges. Those shows are smaller and much more leisurely where the customers can take their time and find their way back if they don't buy right away.

BTW, I'll buy you a drink in Bluffton in a couple of weeks :-) I'm taking a week early to be there and see if I can do some local stuff. 

Comment by sean McDougal on October 7, 2015 at 9:54am

Hi Nels, it was nice to meet you at the show. I was lucky to get a $3500 follow up sale on Monday. If not I would have done $800 for the weekend. I would like to get another Walken piece from you. If you do the Boots are made for Walken I will want one. My daughter and son are going to love the ones I got for them. I think you are right about the show. The people are like heards of cattle. I will give it one more try if I get more follow up sales in the next month or so. But if not I may count my blessings that I got out alive. The costs of the show are to high and not a great return.

Comment by margaret luttrell on October 7, 2015 at 10:21am

I've gotten in a few times recently... but I have never been able to make myself do's such a #&$#$ show. Too many people too few buyers (for years now). I got in in 86' and 87' that's when I should have done it, when it was only the Court and Belgravia. Now a days it's a hard sell anywhere you go. Seems like we might be the bell ringer of the economy shift? Sorry Nels, and sorry to anyone else that had the same kind of show... 

Comment by Nels Johnson on October 7, 2015 at 10:41am
The trouble about this show is that the crowd scene is never going to change, and good artists will drop out, but there will always be others wanting to try it, they may last a couple of years then drop out,on and on ab nauseum, it sucks, but nothing will get better.
Comment by Robert Wallis on October 7, 2015 at 1:06pm
A friend of mine who used to do the show back in the early days, late 60's or early 70's, used to tell me stories of what it was like back then. It was like the Oklahoma land rush, with artists getting pieces of 2x4 with their name on it to place on their spots. It was first come, first served, and it got pretty bad with occasional fist fights breaking out over who got there first. One artist was hit in the head with the booth marker when another artist threw the block out of a van window to claim the spot first. In that respect things got better, but that's about all.
Comment by Matt Estrada on October 7, 2015 at 2:06pm
This was my first time at SJC. I was on Belgravia Ct about a half block off SJC. I agree the weather did play a part, but Saturday ended up being my best day, with Sunday running a close second. I was invited back next year to the same spot. I'll definitely sign up again. My neighbor had a good show with his high end oil paintings.
Sorry you had to suffer through the egregious weather. I watched on the news Saturday evening that 54F was the lowest high temperature for that date. Yuck!
Comment by Wallace Fuller on October 7, 2015 at 5:34pm
Nels you are right on about SJC as far as lack of interest on Sunday which was the best weather day. Lu's days were Saturday,Friday,Sunday as far as sales. However are most expensive purchase was on Sunday but it was the only purchase other than her cheapest prints. As far as expenses we stayed at Red Roof for 50/night and we are not big restaurant eaters. We will see you and Ellen in Florida hopefully.
Comment by Emily Gartner on October 7, 2015 at 6:16pm

I tried SJC (4th Street) this year. I had not done it for 4-5 years and I had new art to show.  I take photos of familiar landmarks and print them onto different surfaces.  Some in a classic traditional way, some in a funky, pop art way.  Once someone came into my booth and I had the opportunity to explain the process of a digital photo on a variety of different surfaces 2D & 3D, they were blown away….but getting the herd to be interested enough to stop was difficult.  I've educated my local folks through house shows, trunk shows and at special events….but I'm convinced this simply is now the wrong venue for me.  So much to that point, that I am going to cancel my participation in the next juried outdoor show at the tune of $300.  It's 10 hours away and I simply can't take the chance to lose the money.  My alternative is to add more things to my online website and reach out locally through a mass email to my customers.  I really didn't want to fall into the 'misery loves company' category, but I'm also glad to know that I wasn't the only one suffering from the same issues.


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