Friday, October 2
What does it mean when you take the things you make to a show or art fair and no-one buys them? First of all, it means that the money you have paid to participate is wasted. If you have work that has sold well in other venues, and you bomb at a particular show, the work is not wasted. There are times when an artist can have worthy work that juries love and put into top shows, and simply no-one will buy.
Two good examples of this from my personal circle; one involves a long-time friend with many skills and great design sensibility; who saw beautiful canvas floor-cloths in home decor magazines and decided to paint some and see if she could sell them. First application – BAM! – The Bellevue Art Museum Show – accepted the work and she began working furiously to have inventory. At the show? Not a single piece sold, and she still rages about the incessant questions, especially the most hated – “Did you make this?” Uh… duh…
Another is a capable artist and craftswoman who had done shows with her husband for many years. She introduced a beautiful new series of encaustic paintings; got into every show to which she applied, and won Best of Show in several. But the work did not sell, and she has moved on to a new epoch of sculptural glass work. She is now achieving both entry to top shows and awards, and is also selling the work at prices a potter can only envy. But who knows what became of the floor cloths and encaustic paintings flung off into the vortex by the transition…
Bad weather can send an artist home without a paycheck. In 20 years of shows, the worst storm I have seen was Corvallis Fall Festival, 2013. CFF is a nice little 2 day show; efficiently run; with an educated audience that includes many working and retired academics. They like my work, and offer informed compliments if they are not buying. In 2013, my neighbor’s booth was reduced to a pile of pipe and canvas with the first gust.
The lawns of the park were quickly turned into a quagmire; we learned later that 5 inches of rain fell that day. I was nursing a terrible cold. We knew that the show would be cancelled… I refused to put my pots on tables or shelves, and sat inside my zipped and weighted tent until we were dismissed at 2:30 Saturday afternoon. Bad behavior on my part, yes,; probably too much cold medicine! The load out was a blur… all I remember now is the cheerful assistance from my friend who lives in Philomath. But I had automatic deposit from my day job waiting at home; others did not.
I have been skunked at new shows that did not yet have a following of customers. One was a Christmas show a decade ago, organized by a persuasive guy who had done art fairs years before. It was in the Oregon Convention Center, which is an expensive venue. I ended up trading many poinsettias from my day job for my booth space. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY came! The show was beautiful; the hall full of Christmas color and music. He had planned and purchased publicity, and it all sounded very good, but alas…. There was also a new show started by civic boosters in Sherwood, and another in a dusty lot on TV highway on a 100+ degree weekend. Lots of trading goes on at these shows peopled only by unhappy artists…..
But the show I am at in New York City will go down as my worst show ever, mostly because what it cost for space, and what it cost to get Pam and I and our stuff here and purchase a week of lodgings in the dreary Hotel Pennsylvania. I should have just taken a whole lot of hundred dollar bills and set them on fire, and stayed home with my dog and cat.
How bad is bad? In two days, I have made about $200. It’s cheering to think of how much pizza that will buy here in NYC, Pizza Capitol of the Universe. And no, I didn’t put any of this insanity of fees, lodging, and airfare on a credit card, I paid cash. Dawg Bless the day job, and good shows earlier this year….
And the burning question of interest… how are other vendors doing? Yes, I am low enough to take a perverse comfort in the unhappiness of other vendors. Ain’t nobody happy…. The weather sucks; chill, wind, and driving rain. Tropical storm Joachim has been upgraded to Category 4 and is bearing down on the NYC area. There are transit problems in the area. The show was moved this year from where it had been held for a decade.
And then there is the mystery of who buys what, and who will come to shows now. We all know that commerce is shifting; and fairs and shows where makers and vendors meet the public are an institution that is essentially clinging to life since medieval times. Dozens of times each day I heard, is this work all online? I will go to your website. The new version of “I’ll be back….”
Today I had an interesting conversation with a lovely woman in her 70’s with beautiful white braids. She told me repeatedly how happy she was to see my work at the show, and how gorgeous she thought it was. She said she thought I was the only artisanal bead maker that had been in the show for years. She didn’t buy… she can no longer see well enough to make jewelry. Another visitor was a potter herself, and shared lots of information about how people find places to work in clay in NYC…
Others have confirmed to me that the show changed dramatically after 2008… prior to that time there were many bead makers at the show. But the disappointing art fairs and shows that came with the recession ended the ambitions of many independent artists. I know for myself that pottery sales were halved in those first years of the recession… And I can tell you that there are plenty of bead makers out there in cyberspace… I have been learning from their internet posts. Many of them sell on Etsy.
Now the show, the New York Whole Bead Show, which once had a waiting list of years, is full of Indian and Chinese vendors selling strands of semiprecious stones; tables and tables of them. There is a calm Sikh vendor to our left, selling metal findings and fine chain by weight.
Customers lament these changes, and talk about the departure of all the NYC bead stores to Brooklyn, where rents are lower. I do enjoy looking at the Tibetan tribal jewelry components.
To our right, there is an Indian man with a Russian woman business partner. They have SUPERBLING finished jewelry. Their LED display lights are nearly blinding. Pam says, all dyed stones and they don’t make it. I can’t wait to see what the she wears tomorrow. Today it was denim hotpants covered with rhinestones, an equally encrusted jeans jacket, towering high heels, and a whole lot of boobs. She has on more eye makeup at one time than I have used in all my 67 years. Tomorrow I will create some pretext to take her picture.
But we are in New York, a city I love to visit. We have two days off, Monday and Tuesday, before heading home. The Metropolitan Museum is now open Monday, yippee! Tuesday, I hope to go to Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Museum and botanical garden for the day if Pam is willing. The rain has damped my desire to walk around the city, but the weather will improve. I like to walk the streets and listen to all the languages; I try to identify the country of origin of the Spanish speakers. One of my visitors had beautiful French-flavoured speech and a ready smile.
And what about all that stuff – beads and components and finished jewelry – I brought? I still like it – love some of it – and think it has worth. But I need to figure out if I should keep making it, inventing and improving it, and jurying with it. Making it is as much fun as pottery making used to be… but this type of show is no longer a possibility.
Sunday, October 4
It’s hard to evaluate what it means when you don’t sell new work. Is it crap? Wrong for the audience? Improperly priced? Is my display cluttered or barren? I have watched many friends try to change their work, usually because what they have learned to produce through decades of practice and natural mastery simply stops selling. The inertia of the jury system is a huge problem. With images required for entry to shows many months before the event, planning is necessary. With the sort of galleries that carry my work, new work is welcome as long as it is consigned, and the process is efficient to get it in place. Of course, they may want to send the old stuff back… into the Vortex with it!
When manufacturers generate new products, the costs of doing so are clearly anticipated. Market research, design teams, prototyping, process refinement, trial production, beta testing, and sales analyses are standard practice. For we humble artists, sometimes working on the kitchen table, each of these steps is conducted informally and the costs of a failed product line are intimate and painful. But for me, in this process of conception and realization is the real bliss of being an artist. You have to work to please yourself first. All that you have experienced, seen and remembered, studied, and loved, owned, and even lost, informs the making of new work. It’s the exercise of imagination made tangible that distinguishes what we make from what can be bought in a department store.
The experience of purchasing a handmade object from the person who made it is increasingly rare. I sell a little bit of stuff online, and will probably have to get better at it. The main reason I still make pottery is because people come to shows and tell me how much they love the things they own that I have made; what place a cup or bowl or vase occupies in their daily life. They buy another piece for themselves, or for a friend, and sometimes they just say hello. These welcome encounters are the counterbalance to solitary hours in the studio, with the clay and the TV or iPod and my dear little dog.
I am home now, and making up gallery orders from what came home with me. It’s good to remember all the great people I met, and the fun I had with my friend Pam, who I have known since she was a grower of cactus and succulents 35 years ago; not a bead merchant, and we both had armsfull of babies. And there were many good people at the show; customers and vendors. The people are what I will remember…