Tuesday, October 23, 2012

My Views on the State of the Art Fair Business

By Greg Lawler, Editor and Publisher, The Art Fair SourceBook

Things are definitely changing. If you’ve been exhibiting at art fairs for the past several years, you already know this.

While there are still exhibitors who report that their sales at shows have never been better, my impression, from booth-side, phone, and email conversations with exhibiting artists, is that most are struggling with declining sales, skyrocketing costs, and the new challenges that digital and ZAPP application processes bring.

Sales have declined...

Since the year 2001, the average sales at the top 300 shows nationwide (according to AFSB statistics) have declined by 22%, while costs have skyrocketed

Average net revenue at these shows has gone from $3,568 in 2001, down to $2,977 in 2011, with a more pronounced decline at the smaller shows. Factors likely include the challenging economic environment, a continued lack of consumer confidence since the Great Recession, cut backs in promotional efforts by fairs... hence less patrons, and the dilution of the market through a proliferation of art fairs, in many formerly lucrative areas (South Florida, West Coast Florida, California, Chicagoland, etc).

Costs have skyrocketed!

During the period from 2001 to 2011, the average booth space fee + application fee at the top 300 shows nationwide has increased from $322 to $462 – an increase of over 40%.
In addition, the price of fuel, airline passenger fares, air cargo, hotels, and the cost of materials have all doubled, or worse. Plus, the overall cost of living has increased significantly in that decade.

Predictability has plunged – the ZAPP attack...

Add to the above challenges the increased uncertainty of getting juried into profitable shows, and you have a situation that is challenging even the most successful exhibitors.

Trends indicate that artists are applying to 50% more shows than ever before, in order to insure having a venue - any venue at all - at which to try to sell their art on a given weekend, and this means the added cost of an increased number of jury/application fees to pay.

Why has it been so challenging for so many to jury into good shows?

The complaint I hear most frequently is about the digital jury processes, including Juried Art Services, Zapplication, and others. Many artists, formerly “regulars” at the better shows, no longer have confidence that they will regularly be accepted to exhibit at any of the ZAPP shows.

The increase in the number of applicants, the ability to “doctor” images of ones work digitally so it looks better than it really is, and the overwhelming number of applications that jurors must now process have led to a broken jury system.

While shows that convert to digital jury systems have reported that the number of applicants (read: revenue) has increased by 15 – 50% in their first year using one, I have yet to see a show that has increased the number of jurors hired by a similar percentage, nor have I observed that jurors’ stipends, and potentially the caliber of jurors has increased.

The increase in the numbers of images to be viewed by the typical juror, due to the increase of applicants with the ZAPP process, has contributed to an increasing denigration of the jury process, and a steady erosion of the quality of their selections.

Even at the top shows it has become commonplace to find amateurish work of very questionable quality; jurors appear to be so overwhelmed by the sheer number of images they have to view, that it is compromising their ability to make sound aesthetic judgments, to the ultimate detriment of quality at the show.

With digital images it can be easy to fool the jury with 3 or 4 that are tweaked in Photoshop to really POP for the jury, though they no longer accurately represent the body of work that will end up being displayed at the fair.

This can result in amateurs earning the spaces that once belonged to fine artists; overloaded jurors, wading through the increased volume of ZAPP images, can’t see straight after the first thousand or two images have been viewed, are most susceptible to this digital trickery.

In some cases, instead of increasing the number of jurors, shows are instituting the mysterious pre-jury process. Leaving artists to wonder if the “real” jury is not viewing their work because some other entity has taken them out of the running before the actual jury process begins.

Shows have an ethical responsibility to invest their jury/application fees in paying for enough qualified art experts to properly jury their shows, not to use the “application fee” money to fund other projects.

This means hiring jurors, not asking for volunteers, and hiring enough of them to significantly reduce the visual load on jurors. Also, jurors should only be asked to judge what they are qualified to judge; this means at least two jurors who are experts in their field should be judging each media category.

The funds for this exist. The average jury/application fee revenue at the top 300 shows in 2000 was $10,871; by 2007 it had increased to $15,312; that’s a whopping 41% increase in jury fee revenue!

Meanwhile, 70% of those 300 shows spent absolutely nothing to hire a competent jury; the average show spent less than $500 of the $15,000+ jury fee revenues on their juries. That’s disgraceful.

What can be done?

Shows must be encouraged to set aside a specified percentage of an event’s spaces for professional artists; “professional” can be determined in the following ways:

1) Street juries Re-invite up to 50% of the exhibitors from the show each year, like Old Town Art Fair in Chicago does. This allows shows to base their exhibitor selection on the entire body of work exhibited, not just on three to five images.

2) Resumes Require newly jurying applicants to list their last ten shows. This will make it difficult to fake your way into a show as a professional if you’ve never exhibited before.

3) Limit “emerging” artists New exhibitors are necessary for art fair vitality, and should be able to gain entrance, but only up to a set percentage, for instance, 10%. This will ensure new blood without contributing to a show being overtaken by amateurish exhibitors.

Using a system of criteria will provide shows with the necessary balance of new and returning artists, keeping the lifeblood of the show flowing, but allowing it to change and evolve over the years.

Why should art fair directors care about all of this?

Sadly, for too many formerly top shows, the directors seem to have decided that filling their show with eager applicants is a higher goal than filling their show with quality fine art.

Shows need to rely on a pool of high quality artists from which to select a dynamic and stimulating group of exhibitors for their constituents. When the business of art fairs becomes unpredictable and prohibitively costly for professional artists, a phenomenon that is happening even as I type, the available pool of quality, professional artists shrinks steadily, leading to the decrease of quality art fairs, and, eventually, the loss of interest from serious patrons.

Sure, for a while shows will be able to replace these professionals by weekenders and one-timers, but by eliminating the steady supply of professional applicants over time, the quality of the pool will degrade to the point where even the best jury won’t be able to find a qualified collection of exhibitors for their show.

What can an artist do about it?

Amazingly, in spite of the incredible challenges faced by artists over the past + years, I’ve spoken with many who have just had their best year ever. What do these artists have in common? Here’s what I’ve observed ...

• They pay attention to the presentation of their work in their booth, by making the layout simple but visually appealing, create space in the booth to maximize traffic flow, and actually try to engage those who enter.

• They offer a wide selection of items in a broad price range, so they create the widest possible market for their work. This approach will usually work best when selling work that has very wide appeal (functional craft, wearables, photography, etc.), and the artist must target shows with a large – very large attendance.

OR, they concentrate on the high end of the market, who seem to always have money, even in a Great Recession. This can be a risky adventure, and usually results in some ZERO shows, as well as some where the artist really hits the jackpot. One must really target their market carefully with this approach so as to maximize the chances of finding those few collectors who have the means to make a big purchase.

Marketing efforts such as mailers & broadcast emails to past customers in the area of the show are given high priority. E-mails can be effective, but as we all know, it’s all too easy to throw emails in the “Trash” without even opening them. Believe it or not, a physical mailer (usually just a postcard with an image of your best work) is more likely to be noticed in this time of communications overload.

• Artists who actually stand or sit/stand in their booth and speak with potential customers (instead of hiding out in back reading a book, or sitting across the way watching their booth from a distance) are most likely to be on the list of “Best Year Ever” exhibitors.

Reposted By:
Adam Brown
Osio-Brown Editions Website
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Monday, October 15, 2012

Fail-Proof Business Advice for Artists

(Brought to you by our friends at Art Biz Coach)

Today, let’s look at some sound business advice that it pays to review from time to time.

10. Proceed with caution when donating your art.
Most artists can’t afford to run a charitable business at a loss. Artists in the U.S. can’t even write off the full-market value of donated art, which is a fact that most non-art organizations aren’t aware of. Donating too frequently (1) lessens the value of your art; (2) weakens the art market in your area; and (3) encourages people to wait to buy at the next event you donate to – when they think they can get a bargain.

9. Challenge yourself.
Nobody ever got anywhere by playing it safe. Break out of your rut. Stop showing in the same locations and entering the same juried exhibits. While you’re at it, try a different medium or work with your eyes closed. Grow!

8. Acknowledge your achievements.
It’s too easy to focus on everything that you want or have to do. When you get into the habit of writing down your achievements (daily, weekly, monthly, and/or annually), you learn to give yourself a break. You know that you didn’t waste your time on Facebook or reruns of Seinfeld.

7. Ask a lot of questions.
Don’t accept things at face value. Don’t trust your interpretation of a situation (an exhibit agreement, a gallery contract, a commission arrangement) that isn’t clearly defined. Trust other people, but verify what they say by asking a lot of questions. This is key for maintaining control of your career.

6. Figure out how you will make money.
Saying you’d like to sell $50,000 worth of art is one thing, but getting there is quite another. How much art do you need to make in order to reach this goal? Is this possible? What must your marketing machine look like to get you there? Drill it down!

5. Express your gratitude.
Say Thank You often in handwritten notes, short emails, and via social media. Write silent gratitudes to yourself in your daily journal.

4. Under-promise and over-deliver.
I believe in this business commandment so much that I think about it before ever promising a deadline to anyone. No one likes to be disappointed, but everyone likes a pleasant surprise.

3. Get (or Put) it in writing.
This goes along with #7 above. Don’t assume anything. See it for yourself in black and white. If there is no written agreement or contract, make one of your own and get the parties to sign off. This isn’t just legal protection. It will deter potential headaches and might just save a friendship.

2. Treat your art like it belongs in a museum.
It’s appalling to see artists schlepping their art around in plastic tote bags and framing work with crappy mat board that looks like it’s been cut by a child. Until you start treating your art like it has value, why should anyone else?

1. Break the rules.
I give you advice for best practices in my book, in this newsletter, on the blog, and in my classes. They’re just starting points. You have to figure out what’s best for you and your situation at this time. Great artists throughout history didn’t become known because they did what had always been done. They made a name for themselves because they did something different.

© 2012 by Alyson Stanfield

Reposted By:
Adam Brown