(If I ever need to create a corporation, for financial reasons, or just in pursuit of world domination, I would name it "MEASURE and PLAN, Inc.")
Those of you who follow this blog, or have read The Hourly Earnings Project, or listened to my episode of The Potters Cast, know that I have chosen art festivals as the primary vehicle for selling my work. This is where I now focus most of my planning energy, in order to make these events as productive, efficient, and profitable as possible.
Ever since I made this choice in 2011, my income has more than doubled. In my wildest dreams, I did not predict that it would grow this much. I think this is a testament to the power of planning. My approach to doing shows has evolved a lot over these years, and now I’m going to share my current approach.
While I sorted out the details in my head, I realized I can’t put it all into one blog post, because it would be too long. So I am breaking it into a series.
I also realized that I might have to break some of my ground rules for this blog, which include don’t complain and don’t criticize. There are lots of people, artists and show organizers, who are doing many things wrong. Including myself, at times. Therefore, in order to talk honestly about art festivals, I will need to mention these things.
There is a recurring theme throughout this whole series: everything takes time. So this needs to be part of anyone’s plan, to give yourself enough time. In other words, if you are new to selling pottery, don’t expect to read these blog posts, then start earning a full-time income right away. If you will lose interest without instant gratification, then this career choice is not right for you. But if your goal is to earn a full-time income, and you have committed yourself for the long haul, keep reading.
Part 1: Picking the Right Shows
Don’t treat every show like they are equal opportunities. They aren’t. I’ve done shows that I would call “world class” and some I would call “complete joke” and there’s everything in between. I have made as much as $9000 at a 3-day show, and as little as $2100 at a 3-day show. So multiply that out for a whole year’s worth of doing shows. There is a huge difference in income to be gained by knowing how to recognize the difference between good and bad shows.
1. Generally speaking, pick big shows. This is one area where the everything takes time theme is clear. If you are new to selling pottery, most of the shows that I consider to be “good shows” are probably not accessible to you, because so many talented ceramists are competing for limited spots at these shows. Or they are too expensive, and therefore risky for a new seller. That doesn’t mean all good shows are unaccessible. Accessible shows do exist, that can still be productive sales-wise. But overall, the more prominent/competitive/expensive shows are where you’ll find the full-time income earners. And it takes years of doing shows before a potter can work their way into that level, so give yourself time to get there.
Here’s a common mistake that I’ve seen many talented artists make … being afraid to venture out of accessible and inexpensive shows. I’ve met artists who think a $100 booth fee is very risky. Or they are too chicken to put their work in front of a real jury. I have done plenty of $100 or less shows, and their sales power only goes so far. I can’t imagine stringing together a full-time income this way. Not that you can’t include small shows in your schedule, but you must also be brave enough for the big-time. The $9000 show that I mentioned above had a total expense of $1600. Well worth it. The $2100 show had a total expense of $250. Therefore it wasn’t a risky show, and I didn’t lose money, but still it was a waste of 3 days. If I only chose shows based on the reasoning “it’s so cheap I probably won’t lose money” then I am signing up for a slow train to nowhere.
2. The show must be artistically competitive. If talented artists from far and wide are applying to get in, and some of them are being turned away, that’s a good sign. It means the artists are having a good experience there. High-quality art will attract high-quality buyers, and vice versa. Look for shows where this dynamic is in play.
If a show organizer is begging for more exhibitors, think twice. Something is wrong. If it’s a brand new show, that might be understandable. If the show has been around for years, run in the opposite direction. Similarly, know that show recruiters will lie about the quality of their show. So don’t just take their word, without visiting a show in person yourself (see #5 below).
Here’s something that drives me crazy … when I hear artists complaining about the quality of work in a show. I’ve been in plenty of shows where I looked around and thought “oh dear.” But I didn’t blame the other artists for my poor results. I blamed myself for picking the wrong show, and I didn’t return. I also can’t stand when artists whine on the internet about buy/sell and imported work at art festivals. It doesn’t make sense to me. You pick which shows to apply to, so take responsibility for your choices. Recently, I was in what I consider a “good show” and realized the booth next to me was selling imported items. I emailed the person in charge, and she got rid of them. Good shows do care about this. It’s your job to find them, and make work that will impress their juries.
3. It helps for the show to be located in an urban area, with a large population of educated, affluent professionals. Why are city-dwellers important? Because the numbers are important. The chances of finding the small subgroup of people who share my aesthetic values, and can afford handmade pottery in their kitchens, are much greater in a large population. And year after year, I can continue to find new customers in these urban areas.
There is a show in a non-urban location that I used to love until I ran out of customers there. It became a parade of previous customers telling me how much they enjoy their pottery, then wishing me a nice weekend. These shows can work well for several years, as long as you are aware of the limits.
I’m lucky to live right outside of DC, where there are several great shows. Right up the road is Baltimore, and right up the road from there is Philadelphia. All great markets for my pottery.
4. “Art” or “craft” should be the first priority of the show. Stay away from anything that is a “Music and Art” festival, or a “Wine and Art” festival, or heaven forbid a “Beer and Art” festival. If the artists are the side attraction, that means the attendees did not go there to see you. If you think it takes another attraction, such as music, wine, or beer, to attract a big crowd, then you are misunderstanding the art market. There are plenty of people who will gladly attend an art festival, intending to buy art. And those are the events and the people you need to find.
5. Whenever possible, visit the show in person yourself. This is by far the best way to evaluate a show. Since most shows are an annual event, this means you should be thinking about the shows you want to apply to a year in advance. Yes, I said a year in advance. The time you spend visiting shows will pay you back, because of the amount of time you’ll save by avoiding the shows that aren’t right for you.
When I am visiting a potential new show, I look carefully at the quality of the art, especially the potters. Will my work fit in here? Do my price points seem appropriate here? Do the logistics seem reasonable, or like a pain in the ass? I also pay close attention to which booths are busy with customers, and which aren’t. And if there is a good attendance in general, and whether they are carrying shopping bags, or just walking their dogs. Sometimes I’ll find an exhibitor who I know well enough to ask how they’re doing, and whether they like the show. Or if I don’t know anybody, I will pick an exhibitor who seems to be working at the same level as me (in terms of quality of work, and business development) and ask them those questions. Of course, I won’t bother an exhibitor if s/he is busy with customers. I find that if I ask these questions discreetly and respectfully, I will get an honest answer. Artists will help each other.
The more shows you do, the less time you need to spend visiting shows a year in advance. Because eventually your schedule will fill up with good shows, and the need to find more will grow smaller. I don’t do it very often these days, but I’m still doing it. There are two shows that I want to visit this fall.
6. Develop a network of art festival pals. This is the second best way to determine if a show you’ve never done is good or bad. As I mentioned above, artists will help each other. We talk about shows with each other a lot. As I also inferred above, you won’t get good advice from random artists. Everyone is working at a different experience level. The only relevant advice will come from artists who are working at the same level as you. It doesn’t have to be other potters, it can be any medium. Your network will develop naturally, the more shows you do. This is another one of those advantages that new sellers don’t have, because it takes time to develop. But with a trusted network of friends, it’s possible to choose a show you’ve never visited, when enough of your friends tell you “this will work for you.”
7. Once I am in a show, I pay close attention to everything. There are lots of factors that you can’t know until you are on the inside. I still end up in bad shows sometimes. Or sometimes a show works out great for a year or two, then takes a nose dive. I care a lot about how I’m treated as an exhibitor. I don’t need to be coddled or sucked up to, but I expect the organizers to be professional and well-organized and honest. You know that show I mentioned above where I only made $2100 in three days? I also noticed the person in charge lied to me twice that weekend. I realized why the show had so many problems, because the person in charge had a discipline deficiency. I notice the behavior of other exhibitors. I can’t stand trying to dolly my booth gear into my space, and finding the aisle blocked by somebody else’s clutter. Or worse, when someone is using my booth space as a staging area for themselves. Or when creepy married men try to hit on me because they are away from home. Or when the artist next to me adopts the “carnival barker” approach to salesmanship, effectively driving people away from the whole section of booths. And then, there are shows where the people in charge are unbelievably gracious and helpful, and running a tight ship. The other exhibitors are well-prepared, professional, and understand the space and time constraints that everyone is sharing. These factors all make a difference in whether I will return to a show.
But of course the most important factor are sales. I can tolerate some annoying behavior if sales are great. I can also tolerate shows with good (but not great) sales, if the overall experience adds up to a win. But I won’t tolerate poor sales. A full-timer can’t afford to. Or if a show has consistently decent sales, and an overall “meh” experience, I might keep doing it, but only until I can find a better replacement.
I told you these blog posts would be long. Here’s a recap: big shows, high quality art, urban location, “art” or “craft” gets top billing, visit shows in person first, and develop a network of artist friends.
I will write the remaining posts in the series throughout the coming months. Next installment: Inventory and Pricing