Art Fair Insiders

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

THE PAST, THE PRESENT, AND THE FUTURE--OF ART SHOWS--FROM A PIRATE WHO LOOKS AT 68

Well, 2013 represents my 38th year in the biz, that is a little over 1100 art shows done all over this great land.

I started in 1975, in Hawaii while in the Army, and migrated back to Florida.  I average about 30 shows per year.  That's what it takes for me to make a living at it.  On the average, I get one weekend off per month, and you can bet your buckeroos I don't spend it hanging around art shows.

Still missing a tooth from when I bit into that delicious chicken wing at Phils Bar in Saugatuck in 2010.  Gives me that pirate look, just like many of my images from the Keys.

I am a photographer.  Have been from the beginning, probably will die still being one.  So a lot of what I am going to tell you comes from a 2-D perspective.

I am going to talk about beginnings of the biz, where we are at now, and where I see it going.  I will discuss past,present and future trends and how they affect us in our biz.

FIRST OFF, AND MOST IMPORTANT, WE ARE IN ONE OF THE BEST BUSINESSES IN THE WORLD.

We get to be our own bosses.  We are captains of our own time.  We get to have fun and laugh a lot.  We meet and network with some of the most free and creative spirits out there.  People envy us.  All the time, I get told by folks, "When I retire, I want to do what you are doing."

So, I guess I retired when I was the tender age of 30.  Barely out of the fog of Pink Floyd and other surreal happenings.

THE PAST--INNOCENT AND WONDEROUS TIMES, WE WILL NEVER SEE AGAIN.

When I started, we all had handmade booths, and most of them were creative and cool.  Granted, it may have taken us four hours to put them up, but who cared when you were smoking a good doobie and having great times with your neighbors.

These were the times of orange,blue and sometimes white tarps.  Walls could be plywood, pegboard or fabric.

In the old school days, you sent slides into art shows and waited for the outcome.  There was no instant network of notice like today.

When the return envelope came on Friday (Most shows sent out notifications on Monday) you instantly felt the envelope to see if slides were enclosed.  If so, it was the FU notice from the show.  One of the coolest ever ways of knowing you were in a show was the way Harvey Weinberg, director of the Cain Park Show, did it.  If you were in, the envelope, right above your stamped return address would say, "Good news for..."  How cool, it made your day.

More shows then, were on grass rather than the street.  Usually setup was the day before, unrushed, mellow, take your time.

A lot of us would sit in our vans, not far from our booths, and suck on a great number of doobies.  Then pleasantly blitzed, we would go out and make money.  It was awesome.

Then one day, we had a small epifhany.(I know I misspelled it, get on with it)  We figured out we were missing out on a lot of early sales by eager patrons.

This was one of earliest inklings to how we maybe should present a more business-like image.  Yikes, some of us started wearing clean shirts--and they were not all tie-dyed.

In the day, at big shows like the Grove and Winter park, you could hear a symphony of "clack,clacking going on."  That was the sound of the old knuckle-buster credit card machines clicking over the card and the carbons.  The sound was deafening at times, especially on Sundays between 1pm and 3pm.

Then off course, you had call in all those transactions and get an approval code before submitting.  Bill Coleman (photographer of the Amish) once had to call in more than 300 of them.

On Sunday nights, you could see a cavalcade of vans and sedans, laden with racks upon their roofs.  Yep, that was us gypsy artists making for home.  Take the money and run.

It was more innocent times.  I really believe we saw much more knowledgable patrons at the shows. They knew they could find some really original and creative art, at better deals than galleries.

Many artists made enough money to not only put their kids thru schools, pay med bills, but also build their own homes and studios.  I knew several of them like ceramicist Ken Jensen and mixed media artists Wes and Judy Lindbeg.  Everybody knew somebody, who was doing real good, was socking money away and having a hell of a time selling art.

Competition was maybe a little different from now.  There was no Zapp or JAS or Entrything.

There was Sunshine Artist, Greg Lawler (later on) and of course the most important, insider info from a good friend.

Back then, people had little secret shows they could go to.  Little gems, not a lot of competition, and you could make serious money.  These were the days when if you paid your booth fee, you expected it to return ten times its amount, or it was not a good show to do.

People kept secrets.  They might tell a good friend, especially if they were not a direct competitor of theirs.  I remember years ago, glass artist Jeff Jackson, from Micanopy,FL, telling me about how good Boston Mills was.  But, that is all he said.  He gave me no address, no link, we didn't have them yet.  It took me about two years to figure out Boston Mills was not a show outside of Boston, Mass.

I would say the early wondrous, innocent times ended in the mid-nineties.

The magic bubble probably burst in 1999.

All of a sudden, shows were not that easy to get into, or make money at.

TRANSITION TIME--1999 til now.

When the stock market bubble broke, free spending habits got a lot tighter.  It drove a lot of talented people out of wholesale into retail.

It upped the competition.

For years, savvy artists developed a good line of products (Nowadays we know this as Branding).  They got weary of being on the road.  They had families to raise.  So the prospect of creating and selling from home was a God-send.  The money rolled in, the product rolled out.

When the bubble burst, wholesale dried up for a lot of artists (This also includes crafters, we are all creative artists).

So, needing to still make a living, these guys jumped back into the retail scene.  And, they were good.  Very good.  All of a sudden it wasn't a cakewalk getting into the Columbus show.  Applications started increasing, jurying got a lot tighter, the booth shot became all so much more important.

A lot of good artists started getting knocked out of longtime shows, they got beat out by better artists.

A vacuum was created and some savvy individuals saw the potential to fill it.

ENTER THE ERA OF PRIVATE PROMOTER RUN SHOWS.

To be fair, there had always been private promoters out there.  But most of them were known for having one show like say an Audrey Levy show in Ann Arbor.  Nobody had really taken the idea of producing multiple shows at multiple locations and running with it.

I got to give Howard Alan credit, he hit upon a great idea.

Put a show on in a well known location, (like around a well known show like Los Olas). He also figured out if he could build a steady growing family of artists to do his shows, he would achieve nirvana.

Howard paid his dues mostly on the east coast of Florida for many years.  He put on shows, advertised them well, and built up a steady stable of artists.  He basically said, if you come along with me, you will be in most of all my shows without being rejected.  This was a tantalizing proposition, and many savvy artists signed up--and prospered.

The magic moment for Howard which really propelled him into the big time is when the legendary Los Olas Museum Art Show imploded and left a vacuum, ably filled by Howard.

A little history.

In the 80's and 90's it was routine that either the Coconut Grove Art Show or the Los Olas Art Show would be the numero uno show to do in the country.  40K sales were not uncommon for the savvy artists there.

Then Los Olas made a fateful mistake.

For years this show was held on Los Olas Blvd. (Where it is now).

It is amidst trendy show, bars and restaurants.  Of course you would want a show there.

Then they made fateful mistake and got greedy.

Mind you, this is my take on it when I say they got greedy.  They will deny it til the day their Picassos run down the kitchen sink.  Nobody likes to have egg on their faces.

They took the show off the boulevard and moved it onto the grounds of the museum.

Dumb move.  No bars, no restaurants, no fun.

They imploded and became a nonentity within six years.  Imagine going from being the number one show in the country to being nowhere.  What were they thinking?

Ah, wily Howard saw an opening and took good advantage of it.  He talked to the boulevard merchants and said "Let me put on a well-run show here and you will get those lost crowds back and everybody will make money."

And they did.

And from that came the empire known as Howard Alan Productions.  The guy is a genius.

I don't do his shows.  I respect him, I just don't want to get up at 3 AM in the morning to set up. I am too old for that, or truth be told, I just don't want to do it.

I think Howard started the modern promoter-business model.  Many have followed like Amy Amdur, Patty Norazney and Bill Kinney and Richard Sullivan, to name a few.

The promoters have influenced our present biz in many ways.  Some good, and some bad.

Amy was one of the first to figure out you could start charging artists for every little conveniece you can think of.  You want a corner, sure, that will be $150 extra, you want to be next to a loved one, sure that linkage fee will be $100.  You want storage behind your booth, "you are kidding me, you don't have enough money for that, and I don't have enough space for that."

Thus enter the era of paying for every little extra at shows.  They quantified it, assessed it, and said "pay up."

Ooh.  One other very important thing happened.  They raised the price of the booth fee.

Now average shows that returned for many artists only $1500-$2500 gross were costing $300 and up booth fees.  The old 10x booth fee model was out.

Guess what, the established organizational art shows took notice of all this, and jumped on the band wagon too.

AT THIS POINT I AM TAKING A BREAK, IT IS NEW YEARS EVE AND I AM PUBLISHING THIS.

I will start another blog, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, which will deal with the almighty Present.

Then we will get into what I see next year and the future.

Suck down a few martinis and Jacks and stay tuned.  I have lot more to say.

HAPPY NEW YEAR YOU ALL.  WE ARE BLESSED.

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Comment by Robin Chipman on January 29, 2014 at 6:09pm

That is the best thing I have read on this blog, no, the best thing I have read on the internet so far! Thank you Nels for your anecdotes and honest depiction of your life on the road as an Artist! I know you love your art but I think you might have a calling in writing as well.

Comment by Connie Mettler on January 20, 2014 at 10:21am

I'm sure lots of people have these images, Robert, as do I. The problem is that they are on slides, maybe a few polaroids taken at a show and getting them digitized ... not fun for me anyway. But It would make a great discussion and if you started it I'd try to add to it.

Interestingly, our first display was an adapted gazebo also.

Comment by Robert Wallis on January 19, 2014 at 10:23am

Connie, it might be interesting to see who still has booth images from the old days. I found my original wood lattice "Gazebo" booth slide from the mid 80's. That one used 4x4 corner posts with door hinges for attaching a pair of 2x4 ten foot struts on each side that lattice wood panels were tacked onto. The roof was flat and needed a set of 2x4s across the top to keep the top from sagging when it rained It's only advantage was it didn't require weighting as it was heavier than hell. I strained and pulled shoulder muscles many a time with that beast. This might be a good spin off post so we don't hijack Nels' post here ;-)

Comment by Christina L. Towell on January 6, 2014 at 9:26am

Geez, Connie, you should have stayed in California another week...talk about driving from the cold to the warm, you just did the reverse ;0)...silly girl. 

Comment by Connie Mettler on January 6, 2014 at 4:00am

We had this fantasy of the Starwish booth that was on a little trailer -- we'd just pull up to our space, put the trailer in place and push a button and all would unfold. Maybe it would be so cool that we'd manufacture them and be another EZ UP --, never happened though. We did figure out a system so we could get our handmade booth up in 4 hours, two of us working on it! Most of the shows we did didn't allow setup until Saturday morning and Norm always wanted to be the first one in the park before anyone encroached on his space and so he could get the primo parking spot.

We started doing shows in the late '70's and our income went up every single year until 1990. I walked away from a good job in 1984 and never looked back. So there was this Reagan recession where we learned that what goes up goes down. In fact, our best year for sales was 1989. We slowly rebuilt it and were nearly back to those sales totals in 2000. What a great year that was.

I know many people had a hard time when the tech bubble burst, but we lived in Michigan and earned about half of our income there. Michigan never recovered from that bubble. It has been hard times here for working class folks (who earned very well in the manufacturing industries) and middle class ever since. Still hoping for that Detroit comeback. I'm sure Nels you will remember when Michigan was the land of milk and honey.

My take on Las Olas (speaking of Bill Coleman -- his daughter Nina lived in Ft. Lauderdale and was a docent at the Art Museum and she told us that no one wanted to work on the art fair committee, which is why Nina said it had its downfall). Why would these society ladies want to do all that hard work, tromping up and down Las Olas Blvd. in the sun? I do speak with a bit of a voice of authority on that as I've done a bunch of that tromping myself ...

One of my favorite memories, loading up the van in early February, shoveling the snow out of the driveway and at the break of dawn starting the drive South. By the second morning we were in sandals and t-shirts ... loved that drive from the snow to the sun. For years we did the Miami Beach Festival of the Arts on Collins Ave. as a prelude to The Grove -- folks in bathing suits, amazing cars pulled up behind booths piling the art in. The huge prize ribbons and the lovely ladies of Miami Beach in their purple smocks -- plus Joe's Stone Crab food booth ... yum!

I ran into Jeff Jackson and Loretta last winter at the Buyers Market in Philly. It was so great to see them. It had been years. Anyone reading this knows the fun of running into those people who were your neighbors in cities around the country when you haven't seen them for awhile. My report: they haven't changed! They are a few of the people who moved from retail to wholesale.

(Why is this comment so long? It is 4 am. I am sitting at the valet parking at Detroit Metro waiting for them to retrieve my car. They say the tow truck will be here soon and the car will be coming in on a flatbed.)

Comment by Nels Johnson on January 3, 2014 at 4:44pm

Meant diners.  But,hey, if he has even just a million diners, he will make a bazillion dinereros.

Comment by Nels Johnson on January 3, 2014 at 4:43pm

Thanks C.C.  Good point about the ProPanels, they were a smart game-changer.

The guy who figures out how you can arrive at a show, pull the booth out and press a button--will make a million,jillion,bazillion diners.  It is every artist' dream.

Comment by C.C. Barton on January 3, 2014 at 12:17pm

Hi Nels,

I didn't get into the game until 1996, because I came to my art abilities late.  I did get to experience the last sigh of the 'good old days' even though I didn't have a mature body of work until around 2000.  I also (thank some deity here) didn't get my start in the era of making my own display panels - Armstrong panels were available by the time I got in.  I always hated them and the icky polyester covers and personally consider the introduction of the fabulous and now ubiquitous ProPanels also to have been a watershed moment in the history of art festivals.  Those guys deserve a lot of credit for so well utilizing the old adage of necessity being the mother of invention - and their urge to be resourceful for their own benefit has made life easier for a whole lot of us with 2-D art.  They deserve all the bags of money they've been dragging around.

 

Now I'm going to go read your part deux.

Comment by Pat Falk on January 3, 2014 at 11:29am

Nels, Wondered what happened to that tooth.  Now I know! Thanks. Now on to part 2.

Comment by Christina L. Towell on January 3, 2014 at 9:46am

Fascinating look into the world of Art Fairs from your perspective, Nels...can't wait for Part Deux.

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