The fall months are the craziest time of year for potters, which is why it took me a few months to write this next installment. If you are new to this series, you can find the rest of it here. Part 3 is about an aspect of festival planning that I’ve seen many artists doing poorly, and many artists doing fabulously. It’s another area where it is hard to be good at first, but with experience and practice you can get it down to a smooth process.
Part 3: Display and Logistics
All of the examples photos in this post are from an indoor show. So before I get into the details of these photos, I want to talk about canopies for outdoor shows. I personally own two canopies: a heavy-duty one, and a lightweight pop-up. If you are just getting started doing shows, do not buy a $1000 heavy-duty canopy. Too many people dive in for the $1000 canopy before uncovering their deep hatred for doing shows. Start with a $200-$300 pop-up. Don’t let canopy snobs tell you there is anything wrong with pop-ups. There are plenty of pop-ups at the highest-quality shows. You are ready for a $1000 canopy when you are sure you have committed to festival work for the long term, and regularly doing multi-day shows. That pop-up will still come in handy for one-day shows, because the heavy-duty canopies are too cumbersome for that.
As far as $1000 canopies go, the most common ones (and the best, in my opinion) are the Trimline by Flourish, and the Light Dome by Creative Energies. The first one I bought was the Trimline, after another artist told me how it kept her work safe and dry through a hurricane. After several years of using it, I had to admit the steel structure was too heavy for me. It took me 45 minutes to hoist, and left me exhausted. So I sold it a bought the Light Dome, which has an aluminum frame and is designed for a one-person setup. It takes me only 20 minutes to hoist, without any strain. If you are a brawnier person than me, or if you always work with a strong helper, the Trimline is the sturdier and more attractive canopy. But for an average-size female working solo, the Light Dome makes more sense.
Trading my Trimline for a Light Dome is a good illustration of my overall advice about displays: Don’t make it pretty. Make it easy. The evolution of my display over the years has gone in one direction: smaller, lighter, and faster. Why should this be your first priority? Because it allows you to do more shows. If doing one show wipes you out, you’re doing it wrong. And you probably can’t get through the number of shows it takes to make a livable income.
My entire display is lightweight, packs flat, and fits into the middle row of my minivan.
Speaking of the minivan, having the right vehicle is an essential component of logistics. Buying my minivan in 2013 caused an immediate increase in the number of shows I could do, because I can leave my display in it for most of the year. Loading the display in my van (and taking it out) involves 12 to 15 trips up and down the stairs to my basement. When I had a smaller car, I had to do that for every show. Not anymore. I know some potters who have a van for shows that is always packed, plus a separate personal vehicle. Some artists use a trailer for shows that is always packed. The key is “always packed.”
(I remember cringing at another artist who could not figure out how to fit her display and work into her Lexus at the end of the show. That is an entirely impractical vehicle for shows, because the cargo space in those rounded SUVs is quite small. The cringy part was that the Lexus had an automatic back lift gate that made a loud beeping noise as it slowly went down. It would stop and go back up if it detected an obstacle, beeping all the way up. The beeping went on for at least half-an-hour, as she tried repeatedly to rearrange her payload. Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep ….. Obviously she got everything to fit just two days earlier, but she didn’t remember how.)
Here’s is my entire display on a dolly, plus six tightly packed boxes of pottery, in my booth space at my last show.
Here are the walls of my booth. I use the poles from my Light Dome canopy as a frame, plus fabric curtain walls. I love the fabric walls because they weigh so little and pack down into a small box.
Here is all of my furniture in place, unfolded out of its flat-packed state: folding tables, fabric table covers, and shelves
Anyone looking at my booth at this stage, before the pottery has been unpacked, would probably think “hmmm, plain.” That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was easy.
Here it is filled with pots
Hopefully now you can see the utility of the “plain” booth. Nobody looks at my tables and walls. People only see my pots. If I were to add any visual clutter to this, it would only serve to draw attention away from the pots. At the highest level of shows, look closely and you will see that most of the booths are “plain” booths. You didn’t notice before, because your attention was on the work, not the booths. Artists at this level have figured this out.
Let’s talk square footage. My display contains 51 square feet of horizontal surfaces on which to display pots. For me, this is the right amount of display space to give customers enough to chew on, enough to choose from, without overwhelming them. The “right amount” will be different for every style of work. For example, if you make intricate, one-of-a-kind pieces, it doesn’t take many pieces to give your customers a lot to see. Or if you make “stock up your kitchen” type functional work in high volumes, it makes sense to display the high volumes. On the other hand, if you bring 100 super-intricate pieces, your viewers cannot possibly process it all. Or, if you make everyday functional wares, but only have space to display 20 pots, that won’t come across as “serious” to a knowledgable pottery fan. Everyone’s pottery falls somewhere on this spectrum, it’s important for every artist to answer this question individually: what is the “right amount” to display at a time?
I use this arrangement for any show that is two days or longer. The longer the show, the more work I will pack, but I will still only display this much at a time. The rest will be stowed as backstock, and brought out as needed to keep the booth looking full. For one-day shows, I use a smaller version of this, which looks a lot like the next photo.
Which leads to another neat feature about my simple, modular display. It shrinks!
Again, my display can be formatted smaller for one-day shows. But also on the last day of a multi-day show, I may not have enough pots to fill 51 square feet anymore. This means I’ve already made a satisfactory profit, and I start caring more about having the easiest pack out possible. So I start putting away parts of my display. This keeps the remaining display surfaces looking full, and gives me a jump start on packing.
My flat-packable display parts are easy to hide in my “closet."
The back 2.5 feet of my 10x10 ft space is my closet. It is where I store my dolly, ladder, empty boxes, briefcase, coat and shoes, snacks, plus my roll of kraft paper and shopping bags. I also use the spaces under my folding tables for storage. There are lots of shows that will give artists additional storage space outside of their booth space, and lots of shows that don’t. I recommend to everyone to design ample storage space into your 10x10 footprint, because it is nonsensical to expect every show to provide extra storage.
Last but not least, here’s a close-up of the “check-out” area of my booth.
My sign shows clearly what forms of payment I take (all of them), and gives instructions for those who are writing checks. Customers can help themselves to my card, or sign up for my email list.
(The email list signup pad will be the star of my next post in this series, on Marketing and Sales.)
One final thought about my display … at the show where I took these photos, I was the featured artist in the show’s PR campaign, which comes with a corner booth at the front of the show. This made it easier to take these photographs, but the truth is I prefer a three-walled booth over a corner. A corner booth is more visible from farther away. This is nice, but a customer cannot make a purchase from 20 feet away. I care a lot more about impressing those who are standing inside my space. When I can surround a customer with three full walls, I have their undivided attention.