Life As An Itinerant Artist

Stories and anecdotes from fifteen years on the art show circuit. 

10 Things Shows Can Do To Be Better

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while — there are a few things that any show could do to make it more artist-friendly. The companion to this, “10 Things Artists Can Do To Help Shows Be Better” will come soon. In no particular order, here are my suggestions for a tremendous show:

  1. Provide free parking for RV’s and trailers. Lots of artists drive a vehicle bigger than a van, and most need a place to park it so that back stock is easily accessible. Shows need to understand that not all trailers are 5′ high (Birmingham provides free parking in two parking decks for “oversize” vehicles, but anything over 6′ tall won’t fit). Tempe charged $50 per vehicle for a gravel lot this year — prior years it was free. Trailers and RVs also take a fair amount of space to park. Pull through space is great – even if it means a little longer walk. RV’ers love it when they can park overnight and don’t have to pay to drive 7 miles to the nearest KOA.
  2. Good traffic control for both load-in and load-out. Some shows are great at managing set-up traffic, but the volunteers disappear on Sunday evening at 4:59. Even worse, some shows open the streets to vehicular traffic at a set time after the show close, regardless of whether the artists are off the street or not. It takes time to break down and pack artwork safely — ceramicists and glass artists must pack each piece carefully before they take the tent down. I was at a show a couple of years ago where we had to dolly across a lane of moving traffic to load our vehicles. The drivers were upset at us, too, and most didn’t even slow down. Dangerous, and completely unnecessary.
  3. Don’t insist that canopies be completely broken down before issuing a load-out pass. Some of my more fragile art is large and must be stored on the trailer. If it’s raining, there’s no where to store the large canvas wraps, except under the canopy. If it’s a decision between keeping the art safe and following the rules, artists will choose the art every time. Instead, manage the traffic around the show site.
  4. Knowlegable volunteers add a lot to a show. If an artist has a question, they will grab the first person wearing an official t-shirt for an answer. Train the volunteers so that they can either answer the question or get the answer within a reasonable amount of time. Provide a cell phone number for the show director for those emergency situations, or questions that just can’t be resolved any other way.
  5. Pay attention to your own rules! If you state that buy/sell vendors are strictly prohibited, then make sure no buy/sell gets into your show, especially if it’s a juried show. If a vendor is selling obvious imports, ask questions about the process and materials used. If the artist is vague about the answers, maybe they are just selling stuff made in China or Mexico. If awnings are against the fire regs, then make sure that everyone knows that. Same goes for blatant promotional signage. And if you require the artist to be present for the entire show, get to know your artists. Check IDs at registration, and insure that the artists are around to talk with the patrons. After all, that’s why most folks come to art fairs — to talk with the artist, not some rep.
  6. Free food and drink. Artists love coffee and donuts in the morning, snacks and a nice awards dinner is always welcome, if it’s a bit more than a plate of spaghetti and a cold hunk of garlic bread. Volunteers with bottles of water and fruit and great, too.
  7. Awards judging needs to be more personal. Anonymous judges who rush by the artists’ booths or refuse to talk to the artists are suspect, in my opinion. If they have to hurry to see all the booths in a few hours, maybe more judges are needed. A show with 300 booths is pretty tough for one person to judge effectively, anyway. Don’t let your judges play favorites. I know of one show where the same local painter has won best of show four years in a row. Does anyone really think that everyone else’s work is of lesser quality? Of course not.
  8. Digital jurying has become more popular in recent years, both with show directors and with artists. The burden of managing all those applications and images has been lifted for the shows, but often at the cost of a huge increase in applicants. For a show that once fielded 400 applicants for 150 openings, moving to ZAPP or Juried Art Services may mean double or triple that number. And jurying that many applications in a single day burns out the jurors. The simple solution — add more jurors, and give them enough time to consider ALL the applications and the work fairly from beginning to end. Maybe even spread the jury process over a couple of days, or break it down by category.
  9. Spend time personally with the artists at the show. The best shows are often ones in which the show director takes the time to introduce herself to everybody at the show and to get to know the artists’ work. The artists couldn’t pick the show organizers out of a lineup at some shows.
  10. And finally, publicity. If interested patrons doesn’t hear about the show, they don’t come. If there are no patrons, the artists won’t return. And without the artists, there is no show. The local media should be behind your show, and advertising for several weeks prior to the date is de rigeur. Do all you can to make sure that people will be breaking down the gate to see the show. Try to insure that the target audience is one that not only appreciates good work, but also has the means to collect it. Many promoters just drag in bodies off the street, but numbers don’t necessarily make a show great.

If you have any other suggestions on how to make a good show better, please feel free to comment here. I’d love to hear what YOU think.

June 1, 2008

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1 Comment

  1. One thing that I didn’t put in the original list: Communication! Many shows don’t respond to phone calls or emails. It’s impossible to get in touch with them to have a simple question answered. This is simply unacceptable in today’s linked-up society. 48 hours on an email response or a phone call should be the outside limit. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to contact a show and NEVER gotten a response, on simple questions like: “What time does the set-up run?”, or “When are you mailing artists packets?”.
    Artists have questions on setup, the parking situation, lodging, traffic control, judging, you name it. Don’t make it hard to find out the answers. If it’s not posted on your web site, make sure that SOMEONE staffs your office during normal business hours and is charged with providing answers to artists and patrons alike. Anything less is doing your show a disservice.

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