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(long) year 2000 shows in the midwest (craftfairs)

updated sun 9 jan 00


Tom Wirt on sat 8 jan 00

Hi Nina....

Sorry to be so long in getting back...been gone for a week and sloughing off
for a few more days.

I'll give you my take on choosing fairs, and hopefully others will dump in
with their approaches. 'tis the season for show application, so here goes.
I'm going to ramble a bit here to give you a flavor of the thinking process.
I will also assume your objective is to sell, not to boost your ego that you
got into "good shows" (these are not mutually exclusive).

The reason I asked what kind of work you do is that it is the key to
choosing shows. You also added some of your longer term goals, which is
important since it also must be considered.

You're facing the "Catch 22" faced by all artists/artisans when they are in
their early years of creating. "I need to sell to keep going, but my work
won't get me into the "top" shows yet." (It's too bad some of these top
shows don't have a section for up and coming people). So you need to set a
strategy for show development.

The strategy we used was to pick lower quality shows to get in, develop a
mailing list and get some sales going, and every year trying one or two new,
upgraded shows to test our work and get into better shows.

One generally can't judge a show by the 1st year's results. Our
experience is that it takes 3-5 years to grow a show to it's maximum....and
then it may be time to move on. After 5 years of doing Art Plus's Fall
Arlington we finally crossed the 5 figure mark at a show. "Boy are you guys
lucky" we heard more than once. I'll rephrase Les Kouba's answer..."Yes,
and the harder we work, the luckier we get". Would I recommend this show
for someone seeking "Fine Art/Fine Craft" status....absolutely not. Over
the 5 years we've developed a 2500 name mailing list in Chicago. Over 50%
of sales at that show are from the list. At the same time we've backed the
number of Chicago shows from 12 per year down to (next year) one. With each
withdrawal from the market our average show sales have gone up. Better
work, less exposure, higher prices, bigger mailing list, going to a double
booth layout, having enough stock, not sitting on our asses looking bored in
the booth....all contribute to the increases.

The first show we ever did was the Frankfort Fall Fest in Frankfort. We've
always done well at "crafty" shows...probably because our work is moderately
(not low) priced, we're willing to make a lot of pots (the MacKenzie
philosophy) and at these shows we are kind of "fine craft" compared to

We tried everything over the years. Mall shows....yechhhhh. Country
Fairs.....blecchhhh (want to see what spell check does with these). We've
applied to the Uptown's (Minneapolis) and Madison (WI) Fair on the Square
but don't get in because we're plain-Jane functional. But that's been
intentional as we learn our craft. We're now entering a phase of
developing more individual "style".

Now to some specifics.....If you've sold some work, you kind of know the
"type" of people who like your work and will buy it. Then look at your
markets and choose the areas that have those kinds of people. Then look for
shows in those areas. It's about that simple. You have a problem looking
at other cities since you don't know the demographics. That's why it's
often best to start locally.

There are some top shows that draw from large areas...the Ann Arbors and
Cherry Creeks, 57th St., Old Town, etc. Once in awhile you can get in, but
most of the time you're just sending them jury money.

Be wary of "promoter run" shows. Most of the "promoters" who run a number of
shows tend towards "crafty". Their purpose is to fill booth space not
maintain quality and to do that they'll take almost anybody. I'll submit
that, even in Chicago, it's impossible to put together 400 high quality
artisans on any given weekend. (Remember here that we've done our best
sales at some of these promoter run shows, so I'm biting the hand......)

Watch out for shows that are run in conjunction with some other activity or
celebration. If the art show is secondary, sales will suffer. (But maybe
you just want to go to listen to the music)

The reputation of the type of work at a show (not necessarily sales) can be
a guide. Ask other artisans, customers and even the promoter.

"Destination" shows are often good. These are shows with a reputation for
which people will travel distances....they know they're going to buy and
come prepared to spend. Some of these are the top shows as well as places
like Galena (IL) Fall show (used to be at least...heard some bad things
lately), Frankfort Fall Fest, Art Plus's Arlington Fall Show, Evanston
August Lakefront.

Look at the number of people attending to the number of booths. Too many
booths, too few people equal small sales. I like shows in the 150 to 250
booth range with 25,000 and up attendance.

Think about Mel's advice on the that 50 mile radius as much as
you can. The more you can sell from your studio, or without doing overnight
stays, the greater your profitability and the less wear and tear.

Expect to spend the first year learning the ropes, finding out about shows
and discovering your customer base. Talk to everyone you meet, customer and
vendor, about good shows. Ask customers and even non-buyers what they like,
don't like, would like to see, re: your work. Greet every customer
immediately with a smile and enthusiasm even though sales are lousy (it's
easy to do when sales are great). And remember, there will be lousy days
and good days...not necessarily due to you or your work. And the guy in the
next booth may be selling like gangbusters.

In many cases you can create the exception to the rule about how good a show
is by your own marketing. The mailing list is the most important marketing
thing you'll do. Pick it from checks, drop bag stuffers in purchasers bags,
ask non-buyers to sign up.

The best show sources I've found are The Artfair Sourcebook
1-800-358-2045 ---expensive but the most information.

Sunshine Artist-800-597-2573. I think you can get their Audit Book

Apply to more shows than you'll need, and then drop/cancel some if you get
into the better ones. Most will refund any booth fee...but ask first.

We found it's best not to do back to back shows....can't recover production
in time to take enough pots to the next show.

I've put some specific notes in your references below.
----- Original Message -----
From: Nina Jones
Subject: Re: Year 2000 Shows in the Midwest (actually CRAFTFAIRS?)

> ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
> Tom Wirt wrote:
> Nina...
> I think, first, you need to give us a clue as to the type of work you do.
> There are a myriad of great shows in the Midwest, too many actually, but
> they range from weeds and seeds to highly collectible work.
> -------------------------------------------
> Good question! Right now I make bowls, vases and jars. I don't consider
> "highly collectible" as I'm just not that good yet. I've been told that
> beautiful and I have sold some of it. I would rate it, if I were so
> as functional and decorative.

> The Network - Marketing Guide for artists, artisans and craft workers
> PO Box 1248
> Palatine IL 60078-1248
> (847)604-3965 or (888)572-7377
> Cost: $25/1yr; $45/2yrs; and $60/3yrs

> Also there is (referred to me by one of the crafters at the Harper show; I
have > not contacted yet):

> The Michigan Crafter Magazine
> Contact person: George Walker (810)726-1125
> PO Box 183206
> Shelby Township, MI 48318-3206
> Cost: $20.00 + $4.00 S&H
> The one solid craft show lead I got from Harper was for the Wisconsin
State Fair Park shows in Milwaukee, WI. The promoter is:
> Craft Fair USA -
> 9312 West National Avenue
> Milwaukee, WI 53227
> (414)321-2100.

Most of the people we've talked to who do these say they are real marginal.
Low quality almost flea market.

> Other Promoters:
> Art Plus Associates, Inc.
> 16W129 83rd Street
> Burr Ridge, IL 60521
> (800)979-9797
Wide variety of quality in shows. Arlington spring and fall are their
showcases. Well run shows but tend toward the crafty. They have tried in
some cases to improve jurying or lay the shows out with better stuff
grouped. Their crowds are not high art buyers.

> Promoters I've received info on through the Illinois Arts Council (James
> Thompson Center, 100 West Randolph, Suite 10-500, Chicago, IL 60601-3298;
> (312)814-6750 or (800)237-6994; )
IL Arts council used to publish a booket of Illinois do/did
Wisconsin and Michigan. Unfortunately I don't have numbers.

> Heartland Creative
> Contacts: Herb Adler/Peg Sancya
> 3232 Ridge Road, Suite 2
> Lansing, IL 60438
> (708)895-3710; FAX (708)895-3868
Sounds like a weeds and seeds promoter. Many mall shows.

> American Society of Artists
> PO Box 1326
> Palatine, IL 60078
> (312)751-2500 or (847)991-4748
They have a couple of good shows and some real dogs. Shows are generally
pooorly run and promoted.

> Huffman Productions, Inc.
> PO Box 184
> Boys Town NE 68010-0184
> (402)331-2889
They used to make you do their lousy shows before you could get into "good"
shows. Hard to work with but I know some who do well with them. Tend
toward weeds and seeds. Strange group to work with.