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an observation about shows (very long-sorry)

updated tue 25 dec 07


Tom at on mon 24 dec 07


Thanks once more for your thoughts and observations on the art show market.
We have gotten back into it after an approximately 5 year hiatus while we
did some wholesale and started our gallery. Now we're doing a few more and
have seen many of the things you, and others (Kathi, Chris, et al) who have
joined in this discussion have noted. Please note that I'm aware I'm
speaking in generalities here and there are many exceptions. And that
there's going to be some duplication of what others have said.

The consensus I've heard (and seen in the two shows we've done throughout
our 15 years), is that art shows are becoming more entertainment than art
purchasing venues. There seem to be many factors driving this. Also, in
general, sales for artists except a few, have been stagnant or declining for
2 or 3 years.

--Too many shows....shows getting too big, and too many shows that are
actually fund-raisers for some other organization.
--Shows are adding more entertainment, food and non-art vendors giving the
show more of an entertainment feeling like going to a state fair, than a
serious art experience.
--The traditional market is aging and younger people haven't been brought in
to the market. Our customer from the 1980's and 90's is entering the
"downsizing" years. Their children haven't been brought up to appreciate
handcrafted work. On the other side of this, we have had more requests for
wedding registries for sets than ever before. Is the 20-30 year old going
to pick ups some of the slack? Trend gurus say the handmade/,and
especially, custom made is just starting on the upcurve.
--Lots of disposable income is now being spent on electronic gadgets and the
'subscriptions' necessary to use them. How much art money is now being
spent on cell phones?
--As in retail, the high end and low end are doing OK, while the middle is
getting squeezed.
--As others have noted, there seems to be the beginning of a trend toward
artists picking up the pieces and starting their own shows (everything goes
around this the new 60's?).
--With electronic show submissions, juries are overwhelmed, and shows have a
wider application base to choose from. NAIA had an excellent article on
this a couple of months ago. The good shows are going to get harder and
harder to get into.

So the net/net....
---The market is changing, very rapidly and no one knows where it's going.
In such a situation, you 'roll your own' but keep sniffing the breeze for
the other guys blend. ( and etsy,com discussions, websites, etc.
etc., but as Lois pointed out, electronic media only works if you spend time
and money promoting it in more traditional ways).
---The methods of marketing have, and will continue to change very rapidly.
---Get involved, either in starting shows or talking to management of
existing shows. Get your customers involved. Tell them how to give feedback
to show management. Kathi L's notes on this were great. I've also attached
a note I wrote to the Edina Art Show here in Minneapolis, at their request,
with what we see happening to their show. What used to be an excellent
show, will be gone if they don't make major corrections this year...took
only 3 years to kill it.
---be sure you are adding new items every year,
---Write a business/marketing plan. This is probably the most crucial step.
Who are you, why and what do you sell, to whom, how and why? As Ellen
noted, know your numbers. Sorry, if you don't you will go broke.
Understand your market and how you fit into it. You must have a strategic
framework to work within to be successful over the long haul.
---Advertise, publicize, build your mailing list. Set it up for email. This
has gotten harder as more people move to check cards. Now you have to
proactively solicit being on the list.
---Take time to educate yourself and, especially, your customers. This year
I'm going to start a series of workshops in local art centers and here at
the gallery on 'How to Buy Pottery". Charge for it, serve a little wine and
cheese, have fun and educate.
---Network, network network. Talk to people. Don't whine and complain, keep
asking how do we fix it-where can we go?

Don't know if this added anything to the conversation, maybe it just
supports what many have said.

Tom Wirt
Hutchinson, MN

Letter to Committee Chairman for the Edina Art Fair, sponsored by the 50th &
France Merchants Association.

Dear Laurel,

First off, thank you for being there for the Edina Art Fair. Obviously,
there were a lot of problems this year and, since you invited, we‚EUR(tm)ll

Second, we‚EUR(tm)re going to approach this not as a ‚EURoebitch‚EURĚ session, but from the
viewpoint of our customers, since ultimately both we and you need to satisfy
them. As we mentioned, we‚EUR(tm)re involved in jurying and helping run our
Hutchinson Art & Craft Fair (200 booth show) in September (as well as being
a vendor) so we have some understanding of show administration. We‚EUR(tm)ll try
to stick to what we know as facts, and disregard show ‚EUR~scuttlebutt‚EUR(tm).

Some observations after standing in the parking lot for 3 days‚EUR¶.

1.. There were relatively few Edina residents at the show. We identify
them by dress, the booths that get the traffic, and conversations. This
wasn‚EUR(tm)t just a factor of being in the parking lot, it was true ‚EUR~out front‚EUR(tm)
also. Weather didn‚EUR(tm)t cause this since this group is especially ‚EUR~weather
resistant. They bring umbrellas, duck comfortably into booths or
restaurants, and, since they live close by, can come on a moment‚EUR(tm)s notice.
2.. They have been ‚EUR~replaced‚EUR(tm) by a somewhat younger crowd, lower income,
more interested in ‚EUR~crafty‚EUR(tm) things than fine art/fine craft. (This
impression may be more from #1 being missing than from an increase in the #2
category). In any case, something has caused the higher end customer to
have abandoned the EAF.
3.. The crowd was considerably smaller than in previous years. This was
confirmed by a couple we had dinner with Sat. night who live about 4 blocks
south on Halifax. Normally parking goes 2 or 3 blocks beyond their house,
this year it didn‚EUR(tm)t even reach them for most of the show. And that doesn‚EUR(tm)t
take into account that most of the first 2 blocks or so of parking were
taken up by vendors (bad situation‚EUR¶we‚EUR(tm)re parking where our customers should
be). Again, we‚EUR(tm)re not convinced this is totally weather related since
weather hasn‚EUR(tm)t diminished the EAF crowd that much in the past‚EUR¶and we‚EUR(tm)ve had
some doozies.
4.. A number of people who were there said they had seen no advertising
for the show.

Some thoughts about the show itself‚EUR¶

1.. We feel the elimination of the north row of booths on 50th has
seriously hurt the ‚EUR~feel‚EUR(tm) of the show. (We did hear this from a few of our
customers unsolicited). In the past, when you walked down 50th, between the
double row of booths, you had a feeling of being at a real art fair. There
was buying pressure, excitement. That wasn‚EUR(tm)t there this year, and we think
this translated into lower buying at booths in the rest of the show.
2.. The second effect of this loss of booths on 50th does is to put
‚EUR~non-rev‚EUR(tm) booths in key booth locations. Ultimately the Fair is paid for by
the food and art vendors. If the paying vendors get put in secondary
locations (lowering sales), it becomes harder to justify the show expense of
money and time. Doesn‚EUR(tm)t seem to make sense strategically.
3.. Moving vendor locations every year unnecessarily is very disruptive to
the customers. We have to say that we were surprised at how many customers
remembered specifically where we were last year and commented at the
difficulty they had finding us this year. Several wondered at why the
vendors needed to be moved around since no other show does this. Shoppers
go to these fairs generally looking for specific favorite artists. This
ensures that, for them, the show will be ‚EUR~successful‚EUR(tm) (interpreted as
finding something to buy). We know that customers will only go to a fair a
couple of times without buying something. If they find nothing, it isn‚EUR(tm)t
worth the time and effort just for entertainment.
4.. Quality of vendors is slipping as the number of booths is pushed. A
rule of thumb we‚EUR(tm)ve found is that, on any given weekend in the Twin Cities
area, it is almost impossible to have more than 200-250 quality fine
art/fine craft artists. There just aren‚EUR(tm)t that many artists available even
including ‚EUR~out of towners‚EUR(tm). As you let in lower quality, you lose the
higher end customer. It is definitely a balancing act.
A couple of other thoughts specific to us‚EUR¶

1.. A rule of thumb for professional artists is that we HAVE to do 10 to
15 times the booth fee to justify doing a show. This year we did less that
half of the lower number where in the past we have easily done the top one.
2.. The move last year from 50th to Lund‚EUR(tm)s lot cut us from 15x to 10x.
The changes this year, plus the late notice of inclusion, cut us to about
5x. We‚EUR(tm)re better off staying at home making work for the next show, or
improving our web marketing.
3.. The late notice of inclusion meant we couldn‚EUR(tm)t get word out via the
3,000 post cards we send past customers. We know from 15 years of
experience that these mailings generate 35-50% of our sales at any given
show. Checking the names on charge slips and checks from this year‚EUR(tm)s show,
only about 10% of our customers this year had bought from us before.
Typically it‚EUR(tm)s more like 80% are return customers.
4.. There was no signage to direct customers back to the Lund‚EUR(tm)s lot. I
spent a couple of 15 minute sessions watching traffic flows at Halifax and
50th. Of people coming west on 50th, maybe 40% found the ‚EUR~backlot‚EUR(tm). Of
those coming eastbound, maybe 50% turned in. Understanding that some of the
westbounders were in the 50% that turned in coming back, it still means
somewhere between 30 and 50% of customers never made it back there. There
was no provision for site lines or foot traffic direction.
Show committees may not realize that, as artists, we know we have to invest
3 to 5 years in building a show to a high level of return. Once we get
there, we must continue to improve our work and service, or the return will
level and then start to taper off. For us it means new items, new glazes,
new booth arrangements and continued promotion of the show. That is,
obviously to the show‚EUR(tm)s benefit, also. The professionals in this business
who make a living from their craft must do that to survive. It is not a one
way street where the organizers provide the show and we come and take the

We have seen a number of times, when the motivation of the show management
is to make money, the quality of the show starts to diminish . We did it
here in Hutchinson and it took less than 4 years to turn it from a good
small show, to essentially a flea market of buy sell and country crafts.
(The Chamber used the show as its primary funding source). Now it will take
years, and some serious money to turn it back around.

Some thoughts on the show operation‚EUR¶

1.. Changing directors in a show dramatically loses momentum. As you
know, there is a steep learning curve in running one of these shows,
especially a large one like Edina.
2.. Consistency in jurying, with set jury standards, and a qualified jury
is critical to the consistency of a show. Consistency is important to the
customer because they are going to commit valuable time and effort to get
3.. Consideration of foot traffic flow is critical to show success, both
so customers can easily see the whole show and for movement safety. When
customers northbound on south France hit the construction section, there was
no indication of what to do next. And as mentioned above, there were no
directional signs or visual paths to get customers to the various sections
of the show.
4.. Show management needs to be visible during the show‚EUR¶not just to take
complaints, but to solve problems customers are having (like the above
France Ave. situation).

>>>From: "Ellen Currans"

Subject: An observation about shows

>>I agree with Mel's philosophy of selling local and Kathi LeSueur's post
>>about doing our own shows. The shows that work for me are local and
>>organized by the artists ourselves.

>>>We all have different needs to be happy in our craft. Finding the formula
>>>for that takes time and thought.

>>>The last 4 years have each gone down a bit, and we are looking (as all of
>>>you are) for the reasons. Not good enough publicity? That is certainly
>>>very important! What gets shown in the papers or on TV makes a lot of
>>>difference. More competition from the Glass, Fiber, Bead and Metal Guilds
>>>who now rent spaces and piggy back on our show the same weekend? That
>>>makes for a very interesting event for the public but it probably siphons
>>>off some of our profits. Good weather (everyone goes to the beaches or
>>>stays home to mow the lawn) or having to move to a late April, rather
>>>than an early May date also affect our sales.

>>>I think one of the reasons sales are down for potters is that we are not
>>>doing a very good job of educating the public about our work. Changes in
>>>college curriculums to art instead of pottery creates fewer lovers of
>>>nice pots. For a few years glass has taken over as a more exciting craft.

>>>The concept of lovingly prepared and presented meals has gone by the
>>>wayside with two working parents and over-programmed children.

>> Some sell well one year and not the next. Some change their work to
>> something they like better and hardly sell anything in the new style.
>> Beginners with rather crude work some times sell better than MFA's with
>> very sophisticated work.