(Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy” played on the internet, Pandora – not the radio – as soon as I finished writing this piece, it seemed like a good title, thankfully it didn’t end with Chapin’s “Taxi” – that would have been awkward.)
It’s been a tough year for most artists that work the art fair circuit this year.
Oh, I know, I know – some of you just had a fan-damn-tastic year and nothing has affected your sales and in fact, you are on track to having the best year ever, etc., etc.
Others will say they are just starting out and they know just what to do (like walk around a show with a crab cake and wax poetic as if his or her opinion might just matter some day) to find a way to get people to decide to buy art they don’t need, probably don’t understand, and feel they cannot afford rather than just get another 3oz glass of crappy white wine to walk around with like it’s a $200 bottle of champagne and then go home.
A lot of people at the art fairs are blaming apathetic (even antagonistic) semi- or half-assed crowds on the economy for their lousy sales. They are right. If the economy was not making it’s presence known at the shows, we would not be having these problems with buy/sell merchants, pseudo-artists, crafters, commercial studio reps, ancillary and even completely un-art-related booths hawking their wares, and paid entertainers situated where artists are supposed to be selling their work. The shows have become a place where some divorced dad can take his kids on “his” weekend and show the judge pictures of his picture perfect family at the “art show”. They’ve become a place where it is not necessary to buy anything and still of course be welcome. “I think I’ll go to the art show and stand in front of some scumbag artist’s booth and talk about my latest prostrate cancer with whoever will listen for 45 minutes.” or “Let’s grab a bunch of us girls and walk around at the show to get some good ideas for our next crafter circle/bake sale.”.
The focus is not on encouraging customers to support the show and purchase, the focus is to get that crowd to just show up. Some shows even thank the crowds on Facebook for raising tons of money for local charities while the artists already went home broke after paying for juries, booths, hotels, travel, and overhead. Many artists cannot continue to run their businesses with compliments and “ooh’s and ahh’s” and “Thank you for sharing’s.”. My favorite line from a couple of weeks ago in St. Louis: “If you charged to come into the booths, I would probably pay a couple bucks to see this booth!”.
Classy. Really classy.
It does illustrate a paradigm shift though. Why buy when you can just experience the show? Get those artists to talk to you and, (Viola!) you are entertained – more bang for the buck – “value added” as they say. Bitch about them if they are sitting in the back of their booth completely exhausted too – it adds to the Gestalt of it all and gives a reason not to buy art at the show. Why? Well because the artist was just SO grumpy. She didn’t smile at me and say “Hi”. How dare they come here and not entertain me!
How do I know this stuff? How could any artist not? I and other artists have witnessed the shift probably the most this year over previous years. There is a pent-up demand for art that is palpable at every show this year. The sin of covetousness is well-defined in the eyes of art lovers at the shows, or maybe more evident in the ridiculously craned necks of people looking inside without actually stepping inside – because for some reason, people think if they step into a booth, they may be obligated to buy something. Sigh. Instead, they should probably go to a chiropractor over an art show.
So, they want to buy, but they aren’t buying – what’s the problem, then?
People are afraid to buy. They don’t know if they will have a job next week, next month, next year. On top of that fear is a desire for people to pay down their debt. Like our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Great Depression, they want to live within their means and to “waste not, want not”.
Sounds great, except no one is selling apples on the street corners to survive that I am aware of. Rather than encourage people to support the artists at the shows, what are the shows doing besides bringing in those stilt-walkers and demonstration painters and whatever else to keep the crowds there long enough to take a picture of how big the crowd is for next year’s brochure?
Are they making sure there is plenty of food, drink, music and diversions so people will come to party? Sending VIP’s out with those asinine “Art Bucks” or whatever cute moniker they can print on them so they can walk around and buy trinkets at the show AND look even more provincial than they really are in the eyes of their neighbors? Yep.
Encouraging art buyers to come out and buy art? Jurying in artists instead of buy/sell merchants and studio rep’s? Ignoring political blacklists and encouraging avant-garde, handmade, designed and created by the artist works of art instead of stamped-out, mass-produced, crafty, low-quality and even lower class bric-a-brac crap unfit for a garage sale? Removing fakes and posers when they are found? Nope.
The shows are catering to the lowest common denominators of the audiences of their shows. Those booth slots need to be filled. There are costs associated with putting on an art show, it’s too expensive and even prohibitive to cut the costs and put on a smaller, quality driven show – so let’s have a circus. Let’s encourage the one demographic that in all probability will not buy and get them to come. Let’s create a “new normal”. The new normal is to come be entertained at an art show rather than set the bar higher and teach the community about art – let’s lower the bar and encourage people to not know any thing about art, but at least know what they like – maybe. Lately, people at the shows like what costs under $20 and looks just like the one their sister-in-law just bought except she ordered hers to match her couch.
Are all the shows doing this? Of course not.
Are all artists over-priced, arrogant know-it-all’s that wear only black and look down their noses at the public. No. (Some wear khaki as well.)
Are all the attendees of art shows slack-jawed yokels without a clue as to what is art and what is a trailer park? Not by any stretch, but the shows treat them as if they are or should be.
So what’s the problem? How do we as artists get people to come to art shows and buy art?
Simple. The answer is simple: We can’t.
People need to get back to work again. That’s the only way they will start buying art again. The shows that are stooping to the lowest common denominator will eventually fall over like a dinosaur into a tar pit. The crappy vendors will gravitate toward some other capitalist venture like a moth to a flame. It’s not about the art for them, it’s the dollars. Hot dogs today, crab cakes tomorrow. Wooden frogs today, used cars tomorrow.
When times get better, people will buy the art they have been parading past on the show aisles the last couple of years. They want what we have – they just cannot justify it yet. Our customers aren’t satisfied with a piece of garbage welded onto a stick. They aren’t happy with taking pictures of our work and printing it off on large format photo paper to hang on their walls. They grow weary of artists that don’t take chances and try to grow and develop. They wave off alphabet photography, cheap prints of yet another misty mountain a la Ansel, the beaded crap, the imported garbage, the reconstituted toys, and the salespeople trying to pass themselves off as artists.
When times get better, our customers will buy again. In the meantime, people who are not our customers are coming to the shows and buying bright; shiny things. It’s their time right now, let them have it. I sold a large piece a couple of weeks ago. People stopped to watch the painting leave the booth. Most people didn’t really care because they knew and know they will never buy a piece of art like that. Who cares what they think? They aren’t my customers, but, this is important: some people were actually showing some anger in their eyes. They want to buy art again. They will buy art again. The trick for artists is to hang on and keep an eye on innovation and development while keeping the other on the prize and not on the garbage at our shows. Many of my best customers tell me it’s about the painting – they have to be in love with it – price matters too. Work they love at a fair price matters. It matters more than anything else at the show or in a gallery. (Yes, I heard you Alex!)
We can’t change the economy, but we can recognize it is in everyone’s best interest to get people back to work and earning money. When it gets better, we will be here and ready and we have to have our best work for the people that love art at a fair price. At the same time, artists will know full well who the “good” show directors and promoters and gallery owners are. They’ll know the “bad” ones too. Hell, we already do. Don’t forget who is hurting you when times are bad – will they stop hurting you when times are good?
If you are an art patron, an artist or a good promoter – just hang on – it will get better, “it don’t come easy”.