Art Fair Insiders

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

I was inspired by Jennifer's post about Bayou City to discuss The Distraction Factor..........


     Well, friends, we have all experienced this at one show or another.  You arrive, unload, sleep and start the first day of the show with high hopes.  As day one begins, you notice the crowds are moving fast, people are there, but they all seem to be in one area.  The area at the other end of the show, about a block or so from where all the artist are.  What are they all doing down there?  We are down here!!!!

     Well, today, everyone is there for the talent show!!!!  On center stage this morning we have several pre-teens and a little older teens singing and dancing their hearts out!  What proud parent, grandparent and casual observer could resist?  Pictures are being taken, the newspaper is there, awards will be given out, it's a grand time!!!  You sit in your booth and wait!!  Maybe once this is over, people will shop.  Nope, not likely!  Those people, that crowd, is not there to buy your beautiful work. 

     As you sit in your booth or walk around a bit to stretch your legs, remaining optimistic that the patrons will come and buy your work, you begin to see a lot of fast walkers with hanging baskets, potted plants and shrubbery.  Is there a farmer's market somewhere close by, you wonder?  I love plants, maybe I will check it out after the show, you think to yourself.  Afterall, many of those plants looked healthy and nice.  An artist a few booths down, also slow and bored at this point, walks over to chat for a bit, compliment your work, and informs you that the local nursery has a big corner booth a block or so down and seems to be cleaning up!  That's where all those plants are coming from.  People are buying plants at an art show that you drove several hours to get to, paid a booth and jury fee and they are buying plants instead of your art! 

     Art shows all have food.  Food is a great draw, keeps people engaged and I am all for a show having good food available.  Last year, I was fortunate enough to do Main Street Festival in suburban Nashville.  They had the best food in my opinion!  Anyway, at your show you are noticing few people walking around with bags and packages, but they aren't empty handed.  Every person, it seems has plunked down $7.00 for a big, mega sized bag of kettle korn!  Yep, at this show the Boy Scouts are selling Kettle Korn!  The scouts are selling so much of this sweet and salty treat that it is all over the street.  It's clinging to everyone's shoes and it is stuck to the floor of your booth!  If you were at the same show I was at last year in the upper midwest, you noticed the woman who was going by every booth and pointing and laughing while literally shoving handfulls of kettle korn in her mouth to the point of being nausiating to look at.  If you were like me, you gave a disapproving look when she passed by your booth and shook your head.  You remain poised in your booth, waiting on the art patrons while the kettle korn crowd looks at your work like it is some kind of infectious lesion they are afraid to touch, interpret or consider and audibly balk at the reasonable price you have affixed to it!

     You survive day one with a few modest sales and head to the hotel for a much needed relaxing evening.  You awake on day two optimistic that maybe the lookie loo's are done and now the real art patrons will stop by your booth and buy something!  My dear, you are in for more disappointment I hate to say.

     As you start day two of this show, you notice a lighter crowd and something else you were too distracted with yesterday to realize....the local hospital is having a health fair today at the show!  Free blood pressure checks, cholesterol screenings and a nurse practioner is on hand to answer your health questions!  They're giving away all kinds of free medical swag and people are eating it up!  Who can resist a few free bandaids and some chip clips, right? 

     As the medical fair is overshadowing the art show, the petting zoo for the kids is getting going with $5 pony rides and the local chapter of the 4-H is there with baked goods for sale.  Not to be outdone, the window and siding people are hawking free home estimates and a complimentary coin purse for giving them your coveted e mail adress and phone number so they can schedule that free home visit with you in the coming weeks.  Don't need siding or windows?  How 'bout a free in-home energy audit from the local electric utility company?  Tired of your cable tv service?  Direct TV is there giving super cheap tv service for the first year if you sign a two-year contract today, and we'll give your child a free face painting just for stopping by!!!  Are you tired of having just "some college?"  The local university is there offering free applications for their upcoming semester!!!!  Finish your degree in months instead of years with their convenient on-line courses for busy adults!!!

     You sit in your booth or stand just outside it and think to yourself "I spent this much money and invested this much time to be an afterthought!"  You are getting more and more pi**ed off by the moment, all the while a teenage garage band is belting out their new track, "I wanna kiss your face"  "I wanna kiss your face"....yes, I have "I wanna kiss your face" burned into my memory from a show I did last summer!  "I wanna kiss your face" went on and on and on and was being blasted throughout the fine art show I was participating in!!  Now, whenever I am mad or stressed about something or think of a midwestern state known for their abundant corn crops, I immediately have "I wanna kiss your face" on a continuous loop in my head for the rest of the day!!!

     The end of day two finally comes and you vow never to return to this show.  You draft an e mail to the show director and air your grievances and wish them the best, but you will never be back!

     What you just experienced was the distraction factor and you paid for it!  You paid dearly for it, becuase you barely broke even or lost money on this circus of a "show".  You participated in a show that was so full of sponsors, unrelated art activities and the desire to appeal to everyone, in hopes of drawing a good crowd, it made the art seem like a sideshow or an afterthought.  The people who were drawn to this mess weren't there for the art, they were there for all of the other ancilliary bulls**t, and they didn't leave disappointed.  Yet, you, my dear artist friend, certainly did. 

   Now, I know full well that every show has to have sponsors to cover the extreme costs of having an art fair, I get that completely.  I have been contemplating starting a show in my area, so I know sponsors are important.  Food is important, children's activities are important to a degree, but shows, at least the good ones have to draw a line and artists need to be aware of what they are signing up for. If shows are going to have ancilliary activities they need to be ART FAIR APPROPRIATE!!!  A good pairing of a non-art vendor with an art fair would be a local bar/restaurant/winery having a wine tasting or bringing in a design firm, an architectural firm, as a sponsor, not a local nursery, 25 charities, punk rock bands and Direct TV!!!!

    Artists at fine art fairs should not have to compete with a plethera of distractions for their work to be seen, appreciated and ultimately purchased!  I did some good shows last year that kept the distraction factor to a minimum or eliminated it completely.  Brookside Art Annual was one where there was no distraction factor and I made a fortune at that show! 

     Artists, especially new artists, please read the reviews of the shows you are considering and take the distraction factor into account.  It is time well spent and could save you a lot of money and time by avoiding shows that draw the wrong crowds with all of their ancilliary bs!!!!  

    Artists, what have you encountered related to the distraction factor?  Do you see it getting worse?  Are you considering it when you evaluate shows?

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Comment by Robert Wallis on April 15, 2014 at 12:31am

I think the ultimate distraction had to be at the Dayton Institute of Art Oktoberfest where it was the beer. Holy mackerel, you'd see twenty somethings, thirty and forty-somethings wandering around with these tall plastic beer steins, several in their hands, and drinking from all of them. Half the crowd was sloshed and the rest were looking for the party and the bands. one older guy walked past wearing a large hat shaped like a stein with a faux head of foam on it. I told him he had a nice head on his head, and he was still chortling as he staggered off into the evening. The show was an excuse to drink massive amounts of beer and party down. The art was the facade that made it legit. Doing that show once was one time too many. Music was too loud and the beer flowed too freely and too long. 

Comment by Kathleen V. Smith on April 14, 2014 at 10:46pm

Yes, I hate being a side-show at a circus, where a row of us "Artists" were backed up against the line-up of a ferrus wheel & at another show next to the ice cream line that was truly the most popular place in the show~it kept on moving~not even enough time to really see our work, but blocked our booth the whole show it the whole show~! Oh, yes, & downtown Mpls., a panhandler was sitting up against the front table in the booth with his bucket next to him playing a guitar!  He made a pile of money & even after I kindly asked him to move & he smiled & wouldn't, I asked the police about it & they said there was nothing they could do.  Now this was YEARS ago & I hope laws have changed by now~after all WE pay sales tax & booth rent~he pays NOTHING!

That was the worst I can remember...I even offered him enough money for an expensive dinner or WHATEVER & he STILL wouldn't go~what can I say.

Comment by Mel Hamrick on April 14, 2014 at 2:59pm
I once done a show & all the artists booths were in a straight row across from the stage. It was so loud when we would have customers in our booths, you had to holler just to talk to them & talk over the music. Several of us kept having problems with people lining up to watch the show in front of our booths. I even had a man come over & set his chair up right beside the entrance of my booth blocking the view of one of my panels. The whole row of us artists packed up and left the show a few hours early. Normally this is not something I would have done but I wasn't going to be the only artist to stay given most of us might have sold one thing the whole show. I could have made more money staying at home.

Another show I participated in the draw was the money booth & all of the massive free drawings. People were professional at this because they showed up with peel & stick address labels to stick on the entry forms. The artists area was upstairs & there were no elevators or any access for potential customers that couldn't walk or had problems with stairs. After lugging my whole display upstairs I was told my 10x10 foot booth could only be set up in certain ways. You were not allowed to block your neighbors on either side. Because my panels were taller than 4ft I could only use them 10ft across the back & no further than 4ft out on each side. Instead of having a 10x10 foot booth I was only allowed to use a 4x10 foot space. I told the promoter I had never heard of such a thing! She tried to explain that it would be unfair for me to block my neighbors. The aisle way runs down in front of all the booths & I have no clue what she thought would be blocking? I thought I paid money for a 10x10 & would be able to use it how it would benefit me. I had my guestbook in my booth & people kept asking me what I was giving away for free so they would know whether to put their addresses or not. After explaining it was for people that liked my work & wanted to join my mailing list, they closed the guestbook & walked out of the booth. The lady next to me said we should give something away so we can get names but I told her I wasn't interested in wasting my money & time on sending out tons of promotional material on a bunch of people that only want free gifts. Most of them didn't even look at what we were selling just scanned the area for the free gift sign up sheet. This is by far the most horrible show I have ever done!

Another show I did all vendors had to be meet up at 5:30 in the morning. We then had to sit in our cars until after 7:00am & then they drove us out in a train line to our spaces. Arriving at our space at 8:10am & the show starts at 9:00am & somehow I'm supposed to get setup in time. The show said we are on pavement. Well my space had about 2feet of pavement & the rest was a 4foot drop off. I then had to find the promoter & they moved my space to a flat spot. She told me on my application next time to request a flat space. (I figured most spaces that were pavement were mostly flat). They moved my booth between two food vendors. I had the smoking barbecue pit on one side & then chicken on the other side. I had Girl Scouts walking around trying to sell me cookies, little ball players asking for donations to their team, & church organizations handing out materials & asking for donations.

I did all these shows my first year. Half my shows were strictly art shows & the other half were these others. I only had to get burned this first round to learn my lesson. But I wouldn't change any of it, it was a good learning experience.

Comment by geri a. wegner on April 11, 2014 at 9:30pm

Here is a suggestion---picket the next annual IFEA meeting.  Where do you think a lot of these ideas for non-related art events are coming from?  

Beware the show with the "S" after the word ART.  The art you are thinking of will not necessarily be a priority at the show.

Comment by Karen Holtkamp on April 11, 2014 at 5:28pm

Elle, I loved your wonderful description of the distraction factor (great name), told with far more humor and whimsy than most of us could muster when we drag ourselves home on Sunday night.  I've also quit doing the shows that have too many distractions because it totally kills art sales.  It took me awhile to pull the trigger -- after all, the crowds were huge!  even during the recession!! -- but I finally faced reality and crossed them off my list. 

My favorite was the karaoke stage with a DJ inviting members of the crowd to "come up and sing us a song!"  The crowd was resisting his invitation this particular weekend, so he filled the empty air time with his young, pre-teen daughter and her friend.  Two little girls who were sweet, I'm sure, but who sang very loudly and very off-key all. weekend. long.  Several times during the weekend customers would be in my booth looking at my work, and after a minute or two would turn to me and ask "how can you stand that?"  What I really couldn't stand was all the people who left my booth prematurely to get away from the noise.

This same weekend my neighbor was selling dog clothes.  Yes, DOG, not doll.  Also dog strollers and dog carriers that are worn on your chest or back and, for the stylin' dogs, dog sunglasses.  She swore she made them all, but I was hard-pressed to understand how an artist could turn out a bunch of baby, uh dog, stollers, and if she did where exactly was the art?

Anyway, as I sat in my booth and watched the crowd run by to get away from the karaoke girls, she was on my right about 8' in front of her booth wearing on her chest a tiny dog wearing sunglasses and ballcap.  She faced the crowd as they approached from my left.  About a million times over the weekend, people would be about 10' from arriving at my booth when they saw the sunglassed dog and they were literally drawn as if by a magnet past the potter on my left, past me, and into the waiting wallet of the dog lady.  They didn't even see my booth, much less slow down to enter. It was a stunning display of merchandising on her part and a miserable show for me.  But don't worry, she had a great show.

Joan, you are right.  The directors, promoters and city councils judge success by the size of the crowd, any crowd, and it's killing us.  Now WE are the ancillary entertainment, WE are the eye candy, as the parents and kids rush to the real show.

Now I always try to find out what else is going on at the show, however I've discovered that many times I don't get the real story from the organizers.  Maybe they don't know at the time I ask how many distractions will be booked, or maybe they know and they're lying.  Either way it's a damned sorry way for an artist to throw away a weekend and hundreds of dollars in expenses.

I wish Elle's post could be sent to every show organizer in the country.

Comment by Jennifer Ivory on April 11, 2014 at 4:11pm
I'm at the Atlanta Dogwood festival this weekend (didn't get into Main St Ft Worth :( & I am pretty sure the show committe has set a new record for "distractions". So far we've got the Disc Dog Southern nationals competition, hot air balloon rides, soccer tournament (starts tomorrow), an Earth Eco village that includes:
a market place, Girl Scouts planting veggies for people to take home & plant in their gardens, Nepalese refugees making sustainable baskets, weavers making things from donated cloths & the Georgia Tech solar car team. There's all the usual sponsor booths, food & beer vendors, a full line up of bands which play until 11pm (we artists get to close up at 7) & believe it or not, a full on carnival Mid-way! It's completely insane. It's so over the top it's funny.
Comment by Ruth Finkenbiner on April 11, 2014 at 3:43pm

Great post Elle.

Other distractions we've seen, Little League sign ups with a major player or two available for signing autographs.  Lots of complaint from the regular art show patrons that parking was way worse than usual because the sports crowd showed up, not the arts crowd.

WII stage - oh yes - it was horrible.  All weekend long we had to hear over and over again about the new game to be released, come try it here first!!!  Still goes down as one of worst shows ever, sweltering heat, we were placed in the new section and then we had the WII stage.

Beauty pagent - started as an idea to have a fashion show to highlight the wearable art and turned into a full blow pagent by the time the show arrived.

Cooking demonstrations - kept the crowds enthralled all afternoon

Comment by Joan Tweedell on April 11, 2014 at 2:18pm

Spot on, Elle! My worst show ever was the huge Uptown Art Expo in Altamonte Springs FL last year. There were constant side shows, including circus acts, going on all weekend. The advertising featured the music acts with the art being sort of an afterthought. The public flocked to the stage and hardly gave the art booths a second glance. It was the first show ever where I saw jewelers make no sales! I sure learned my lesson there, and when I wrote an honest review about the show the promoter contacted me to tell me how wrong I was. All he saw was the $$ we all gave him and the crowds that came to watch the acts.

There are shows that are run by and for artists, and I love them! But they are getting harder to find.

Comment by Vincent Fink on April 11, 2014 at 12:30pm

I am starting to see this more and more. My biggest pet peeve is when a DJ or band starts playing and you can't hear anything else. No one wants to shout over it to inquire about art nor do you want to have to shout back at them. It takes attention away from the art for what is usually just noisy. I really don't like when it's a DJ b/c I know they can simply turn down the volume but they seem to think the louder they are the more awesome they are but it's the exact opposite.

On the other hand, some musicians and organizers are keen to this and only have acts who understand low volume is required to make it work for everyone. I've seen plenty of really good sounding folksy musicians pull this off, right next to my booth and I loved having them there with no problem hearing my customers.

Comment by Robert Wallis on April 11, 2014 at 12:01pm

I still have bad memories of an indoor show I did in DesMoines in 2008, Metro Arts Two Rivers Expo, where there was a children's section. They had a giant banner up, larger than a living room wall, which did effectively draw kids back there. Unfortunately, there was a row of artists back there parallel to the wall and and adjacent to the children's area that was neatly hidden from casual view. Yep, what little people showed up for this under attended show, even less came back there assuming the entire section was children related. During the rush times you could have unloaded a dump truck of bowling balls and not hit anyone. That show still ranks as my worst ever loser show with a $1,000 loss. Since then, I make sure I'm not around the children's sections.

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