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Show Review: Seawall Art Show (Portsmouth, VA 2015)

Winners from the 2015 Seawall Art Show, held Aug 22-23 (left to right):

Kristine Kennedy, Savannah, GA,  Jewelry (4th place)

Michael LaRoche, Christiansburg, VA, Clay  (J. Howard Johnson Award for Clay)

Jacob Pollock, Williamsburg, VA, Mixed Media (Best in Show)

Susan Wolf, Toms Brook, VA, Gourd Art (5th place)

Elise Iglio, Prince George, VA,  Digital Art (3rd place)

Ernest Taliaferro, Virginia Beach, VA, Wood (Albert Morris Artisan Award)

Matt Leverett, Virginia Beach, VA, Wood (Arengee Design Award)

Paul Stevens, Achilles, VA, Photography (2nd Place) 

Jana Baker, Pelham, NC, Acrylic (Labyak Award for excellence in acrylic) 

(Photo: Geoff Coe) 


Prize money ranged from $500 to $2000, I believe: Not bad for a show with an under-$300 booth fee. 

This show is held literally along the seawall of Portsmouth, part of the Virginia Beach-Hampton Roads-Norfolk area.  Portsmouth is rich in nautical history, has a charming downtown area, and several hotels within easy walking distance of the show.  

Weather this time of year can be a factor--brutally hot, squally, or just downright windy--but it wasn't this year.  Blue skies and cirrus clouds all weekend, with gentle breezes from the southwest and temperatures that peaked in the low 80s made it a pleasure for artists and show goers alike.  The show is kind of a Y shape, with the base of the Y a double-row of booths, back to back, along a single block of High Street.  The southernmost booth (mine, this year) is in direct sun all weekend, but most of the rest of the booths in this row get shade nearly all day, afforded by trees lining the street and the urban shadow from surrounding buildings.  (Not a bad idea to bring battery-operated lights in you're on High St., just in case, especially if your walls and/or work are dark.) 

Much of the show runs along the seawall itself (a tiered area that forms the "arms" of the Y).  Here, it can be a bit windier even on nice days, but this year the breezes were gentle and didn't cause any issues.  There's a nice student art program here, an easy-to-find Show Headquarters booth, and, at the end of the harbor, live music.  Although the bandstand is about 100 yards or so from the closest booth, the sound easily carries across water.  And yet, on only one occasion was the band too loud.  I walked over to show HQ, let them know, and the director was on her walkie-talkie to request a volume adjustment before I'd even finished talking.  

Many of the artists have done this show for years, and the incredible dedication of the volunteers is a big reason why.  This show truly gives you a first-class artist experience: They'll remember your name when you check in on Friday night for setup; you'll get a barbeque awards dinner on Saturday night, a coffee cart with juice and pastries makes the rounds each morning, and volunteers bring chilled water throughout the day.  Plus, the prize money ranges from $500 to $2000 (I think)--not bad for a show this size.  

It's a small show--about 90 artists, total, with about two-thirds from the immediate area--and yet sales were perplexingly so-so for most artists I spoke to, and for myself.  Portsmouth can be difficult to get to on weekends, with a long-term construction project on the downtown tunnel often closing westbound traffic from Virginia Beach and Norfolk.  There is an inexpensive ferry that comes right to the foot of the show with regularity.  Although many ferry passengers visited the show, it's not a given that passengers would want to carry heavy, bulky, or large artwork on a return trip.  (I sold several pieces that I wrapped in oversize plastic bags for just that reason.)  People enjoyed it, were complimentary, and overall were pretty art-savvy...but generally, they didn't spend a lot of money.  

Setup: Friday night, with checkin 5-8 pm. A few chose to set up early Saturday morning.  The show volunteers and police assigned to this detail know what they're doing, and they've been doing it for years.  Very easy to manage, despite the narrow street.  Ditto, breakdown on Sunday.  
Hours: 10-6 Saturday; 10-5 Sunday.  The hour between 5-6 was S-L-O-W for everyone. In that, Seawall is not alone; I've done VERY few shows where extended Saturday hours were worth it.  

Recommendation: Quality show and great artist amenities. OK for artists who live locally or farther-flung artists with a place to stay. Can't recommend it for out-of-towners with hotel bills and road expenses. 

Views: 544

Comment by Christina L. Towell on August 27, 2015 at 8:59am

Thanks for this critique, Geoff, and the great photo as well.  It sounds like they're doing everything right, too bad that sales weren't better...good advice for those that may be considering it in the future.

Comment by Geoff Coe on August 27, 2015 at 9:18am

The one thing I am concerned about, with this show and a few others run by local art leagues, is that a very large percentage of artists are juried in year after year.  Not to say their work isn't worthy, but I sometimes wonder if shows that do this become "stale" to buyers, who ultimately stop coming.  

Comment by Shoshana Matthews on August 27, 2015 at 9:46am

On the other hand, I still get queries from my customer base there as to when I'll be doing the show again.  They collect my stuff from year to year and aren't happy that we're not coming up north for it anymore.

Comment by Alison Thomas on August 27, 2015 at 9:56am

I've done this show for several years and one thing Geoff didn't mention is be sure and bring plenty of weights especially if you are going to be in the section near the ferry.  This is the first year I didn't help pick up the pieces of a broken EZ-up but my neighbor's tent (with insufficient weight) jumped back a foot in the wind and several of her pottery pieces were broken.

Comment by Geoff Coe on August 27, 2015 at 10:03am

Thanks, Alison! And it was great to see you!

Comment by Geoff Coe on August 27, 2015 at 10:09am

Shoshana: Do you have a website for them? 

Comment by Shoshana Matthews on August 27, 2015 at 10:15am

Of course.  But with clothing they like to touch it and try it on.

Comment by Alison Thomas on August 27, 2015 at 3:14pm

Great to see you too Geoff.

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