After a 2.5 week break for the holidays, I went back to work today. ACC Baltimore is only 7 weeks away, and I have no pots. Looking back on my 2015 work records, I made just over 2000 pots. Here comes the first one of 2016. Happy New Year to all!
As of 10am on Monday, December 14, my Online Store is open. A limited selection of work is available through December 31, or while supplies last. $10 flat rate shipping for all orders.
Wishing you all a warm and cheerful holiday season!
Good Elephant Pottery's 9th Annual Open Studio
Saturday and Sunday, December 12-13
10am - 5pm both days
There is ample street parking in my neighborhood. The entrance to the studio is behind the house and down a flight of stairs, and will be clearly marked with signs.
I have a few new designs to debut, plus some updates to existing designs. This is my most original new design, the Maryland Platter. It is a medium-sized rectangular platter, impressed with the unique silhouette of my home state. 8.5 x 12 inches. $70
Most of my nesting bowl sets come with three bowls. I decided to try a more ambitious set of Five Nesting Bowls. Largest bowl is 11.5 inches across. $225 for the set.
Bowls, bowls, and more bowls. I've grown very fond of Medium Serving Bowls. So functional! I'm always experimenting with new designs. By now I have several designs that I am crazy about. Prices range from $65 to $72.
The Ahjoshi Hanbok canister that I introduced last year now comes in different shapes and sizes. From 6.5 to 10 inches tall. Prices range from $145 - $175.
I've added a new design motif to my Contemporary Korean line of carved surfaces. The Cherry Blossom Jar is 6 inches across, $110.
And of course I will be fully stocked with my staples: mugs, tumblers, bowls, plates, casseroles, pitchers, berry bowls, and elephants. There will be a "scratch and dent" area full of bargains, and a table full of snacks. I have a fresh shipment of Good Elephant reusable grocery bags. All purchases will be packed into these bags. Hope to see you this weekend!
I’m glad to discover that people are reading these blog posts in great detail. I’ve had a few people tell me, graciously and apologetically, that they hope I did not think they were hitting on me at shows. I promise that if you have enough conscience and self-awareness to apologize for that, I was not talking about you! The people I was talking about are not reading a geeky blog like this. And if they happened to read what I wrote, I guarantee they lack the mindfulness to recognize themselves. That couldn’t be about me, she definitely found me charming. Of course, anyone who tries to apologize after reading this, that will obviously be fake.
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.
There are some things you can only get in the fall, such as Honeycrisp apples. And I recently bought myself a tapered rolling pin at an art festival, and wanted to try it. And because yesterday was a true day off (well except for a dentist appointment) which is rare in the fall, I decided to make myself a Crumb-Topped Apple Raisin Pie.
For a single 9-inch pie crust:
1 1/2 cups AP flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
9 tbs butter, cubed and cold
1/4 cup cold water
Pulse together flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor. Add the cubed butter, and pulse 8 to 12 times, until butter pieces are the size of peas. Drizzle water into the feed tube while pulsing. The mixture should look like wet sand, that sticks together when you squeeze it. Place a large piece of plastic wrap on your counter. Dump out the wet sand mixture onto the plastic. Squeeze it into a ball, then flatten into a disc. Wrap it up with the plastic, then let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Don't put the food-processor parts in the sink yet, you'll need them for the crumb topping.
For the filling:
6 medium sized apples, sliced thin
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tbs AP flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
While the pie crust is resting in the fridge, start pre-heating the oven to 375°F. Slice up all of the apples, and put them in a large bowl. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour this mixture over the apples, and toss together with the raisins and walnuts.
On a floured board or counter, roll out the pie crust. Yes, a tapered rolling pin is very easy to control, and makes a straight-sided rolling pin with spinning handles seem unnecessarily complicated. Gently transfer the crust into a pie dish, and tuck under all of the edges. I like to crimp the edges, but really that doesn't matter. Pour in the apple filling.
For the crumb-topping:
1/2 cup AP flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tbs butter, cubed
Pulse this together in the food processor until it looks like crumbs. Spread over the top of the pie. Use all of it, even if it looks like too much. Much of it will sink down into the pie while baking.
Cover the pie loosely with foil, and bake for 45 minutes at 375°F. Remove foil and continue to bake for 35-45 minutes longer, until the apples are soft enough to pierce easily with a paring knife, and the crumb topping and crust are nicely browned.
You might be asking yourself, is she planning to eat the entire pie by herself? The answer is, it might take me a week, but yes!
If you have read Part 1 of this series, hopefully you have marked your calendars with shows you plan to visit in the next 12 months. Before you apply for them, right? Good. Now don’t get discouraged by what I say next … getting yourself juried into a “good show” does not equal instant success. It’s just the first step. Even at good shows, there are plenty of artists who are bombing. There are still many factors to consider. This post is about some factors that can be managed through good planning and objective analysis. The recurring theme of everything takes time will be apparent again.
(side note: I got a lot of great feedback for my last post, publicly and privately. In the few instances where someone thought my advice was not applicable to themselves, I noticed that they ignored the everything takes time theme.)
Part 2: Inventory and Pricing
In my last post, I mentioned a show that was 3-days long, where I grossed $9000 in sales. I have done this show for the last three years. I grossed $5200 in 2013 (which thrilled me at the time), then $7700 in 2014, and $9000 in 2015. The show was essentially the same for these three years, so why the steady increase in sales for me? Because the beginning of 2013 is when I started using an inventory tracking system. I suppose a business school professor would call it basic market analysis. It’s not that complicated, the tools required for this system are a spiral notebook and a pen.
Years ago I would make a written list of my inventory before each show. This was not in a proactive planning way, it was just so I knew how much work I had. This was the beginning of my system, but as the years went by it grew more robust, and my attitude switched around completely. Now, I am not just recording how much work I made, past-tense. Instead, I decide far in advance how much work I need for a particular show, plan my production schedule to meet those needs, then write down the inventory list before each show to make sure I’ve met my target. And here’s what I started doing in 2013 that turned this into a complete system: At the end of every show, before I start packing down, I make a list of the leftover pots.
Here are my spiral notebook pages from the $9000 show. These are the pots I packed:
And these are the pots I brought home afterwards:
If you were scratching your head at my above statement “I decide far in advance how much work I need for a particular show” here is the explanation. The “before” and “after” lists that I am accumulating over time are telling me the answers. Sales patterns become clear. Bring more of this, less of that, stay steady with this, eliminate that altogether. I use all of the lists together to see general trends. And when planning for a specific show, I will study the lists for that show from the previous year for guidance.
Here’s a specific example: In 2013, I packed only 12 mugs (which seems so clueless to me now) for the show that I’m using as an example here. Based on sales, I increased the mug inventory every year. In 2015, I packed 27 mugs, and brought home 3. At $35 per mug, that’s an additional $420 in sales, just in mugs alone.
Everything takes time, because when you start doing this, you can only make broad guesses. That’s ok. Once I started really paying attention to this, I did maybe 20 shows before I started to feel some clarity. And I am not done with this process. It is an ongoing slow march of improvement.
Now on to the subject of pricing. I know this is a subject that new sellers find confusing and distressing. It’s not supposed to be easy, and there is no “formula.” Just like inventory planning, proper pricing can be figured out over time.
When I am offering a new design for sale for the first time, it will start out with a low “prototype” price. If sales are poor, the item will be eliminated (hey I thought an individual pie dish was a great idea, nobody else agreed). If it sells well, then it will go through a feeling-out process to arrive at the right price. I will keep inching up the price, sometimes even raising the price in the middle of the show. In my experience, sales will screech to a halt when I’ve overshot the right price. Even by a few dollars, it’s funny how sales will stop cold. When I notice that happening, I will back the price down to the last price that sold well, and call that the “sweet spot.” This process takes several shows, sometimes up to a year.
If a new design makes it this far, then it progresses onto another level of analysis. Does the “sweet spot” price match the amount of material, labor, and kiln space that this item consumes? Sometimes the answer is “no,” and therefore the item is dropped, even if it’s a good seller. An example of this is my now discontinued Personal Teapot. It’s “sweet spot” was $48, but that was not enough to make its complicated production worthwhile (the pot consisted of three parts that had to fit together, and one of them was prone to breaking).
Once a new item has made it through all of this vetting, and officially added to my inventory, that doesn’t mean its price is carved in stone. I am always open to tweaking the prices. In fact, the system that I use for inventory planning is also how I make ongoing decisions about pricing. When I notice trends in sales, my first reaction is to “pack more” or “pack less.” But sometimes “charge more” or “charge less” is the better choice. For example, my dinner plates were always selling out. But plates are hard to stack into a kiln, and I did not want to dedicate more kiln space for these. Therefore, producing more was not a attractive option, and prices went up instead.
Are you getting the sense of how long this takes? Just like with inventory planning, it’s ok that you can only make broad guesses at first. WIth time and experience, the answers become clear.
My final point about pricing … everyone has the right to choose their own prices. Respect that boundary, and defend your own. Don’t let anyone tell you that your prices affect other potters. This is complete baloney. Why? Because pottery customers are not shallow people. They shop based on quality and appeal, not by price. When I am figuring out the “sweet spot” prices for my work, I am not figuring out “the going price of mugs in general” but rather I am determining “the appeal value of my mug.” If I’ve done it correctly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if a nearby potter is charging half as much for the same item. Conversely, if my mugs are cheaper than a nearby potter’s mugs, I know that I am not affecting that person’s sales, as long as they have figured out the correct appeal value of their mugs. (And if they have misjudged their appeal value, that’s not my fault.) So don’t spend a minute worrying about anyone else’s prices. It’s much more productive to worry about making the most appealing pots you can.
I combined inventory and pricing into one blog post because these two subjects are two halves of the same thing, otherwise known as a line of work. You’ve probably noticed by now that I don’t make random pottery designs, pack a random inventory, slap on random prices, and shrug my shoulders at the results. I don’t really make individual pots at all. I make a line of pots, which includes about 40 different designs and their “sweet spot” prices. The designs and the prices are developed over a long time. It’s rare for me to make changes to my line, and these decisions are made with a great deal of analysis and proof. All of this time, effort, and commitment means that I show up for every festival with a booth full of proven good sellers, all priced correctly.
I'm not going to pretend that I don't miss teaching. I miss the regular contact with other potters, and I miss the process of teaching. However, in the time since I gave up my teaching gig, my studio schedule has evolved in ways that make teaching a weekly class or two even less realistic. But why should that stop me? I am looking for other ways to include teaching in my business plan, that make sense for me time-wise. Using my own studio as a classroom has always been a possibility, because it means I can control the time requirements.
Some of my former students had asked me to teach them about glazemaking. I see this as a common issue for potters who have come up through a community studio program. Glazemaking is not taught in these studios. For good reason, the results could be disastrous. But when someone becomes interested in establishing their own studio at home, they find that glazemaking is an intimidating hurdle.
This summer, I developed a glazemaking workshop designed for this type of potter. The workshop covered all the basics: how to buy and store the raw materials, how to mix small test batches, how to mix full-size buckets, and how to develop new recipes. The workshop met for three Saturdays in June. Then I held another session on three Saturdays in August, because there was more interest in the class than I expected.
Everyone learned a quick method for making proper test tiles.
They each picked a glaze recipe to start with, then they made two test-size variations of the same recipe.
The batches were sieved ...
... then poured into a six-step line blend. The test tiles were numbered and dipped into all six samples.
It was a lot of work!
And here are the fired results. As you can see, everyone did a very detailed and thorough job of measuring and mixing.
A simple line blend is the basic building block for developing new recipes. With this experience, these students can continue to test new recipe ideas on their own. They spent a lot of time analyzing and discussing each other's test tiles, from which they gained a lot of materials knowledge. How does this oxide/opacifier/flux affect the result? They have a lot of exploration ahead of them, but they know how to find information about raw materials, and how to test their ideas. Plus, you can't learn how to do a line blend without becoming comfortable with measuring and sieving glazes, so they can start working with known recipes right away.
To potters in the Washington, DC area: If you are interested in taking this glazemaking workshop, leave a comment here to express your interest. Or use the Contact Form on this website. If there is enough interest, I will hold the workshop again in the spring of 2016.
To potters everywhere: I am also planning to develop a series of wheel-throwing instructional videos. I have lots of great projects that I taught to my students over the years, that I'd like to share with the world in video format. I think this is another gaping need in adult pottery education ... the number of student throwers who want some expert instruction, but don't have access to it. I think I can fill this need. If you think you'd be interested in these, leave a comment here, or use the Contact Form to let me know.
As you may know by now, my favorite word is MEASURE. My compulsion for measuring is the whole basis of The Hourly Earnings Project. My second favorite word is PLAN. Whenever I choose to invest my time or energy into a project, I want to know that I’m getting the best return for my investment.
(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
It’s been almost two months since my last show. I love having uninterrupted and productive studio time, but I’m starting to feel a little isolated. My next show is fast approaching, and I’m getting excited. I get to take a road trip, see some of my artist pals, and interact with customers. I have regular customers with whom I have great relationships, very respectful in both directions. Strangers compliment my work all day long. It’s great for my ego.
It’s hot, and there are threats of bad storms for the first day of the show. If I can get through the first day, the remaining forecast looks like smooth sailing.
Sales are steady. Every now and then I get those customers, the ones who are outfitting their entire kitchens over time, and buying things in quantities. They say “the pieces I got last year are now my favorites. I use them everyday, and I need more.” This is the kind of affirmation that artists need to sustain themselves. It’s as important as food and air. My energy reserves fill up, and my head becomes inflated with pride.
Oh no, rain! At this point the heat is so stifling the rain brings some relief. But it also means no customers for a few hours.
The second day is hot again, but at least there’s no rain. Extremely hot weather does not stop people from attending festivals. I'm a little sunburnt, and my face hurts from smiling and talking all day. In my usual daily routine, I don’t have to talk to anyone except my cat. Talking all day requires muscles I don’t have. I have done so much sweating, I am now covered in a layer of salt. Dinner with friends (we’re all sweaty, so it doesn’t matter), then shower, fall asleep, and do it again tomorrow.
I win an award! My giant inflated head threatens to burst. The neighboring artists are jealous. That’s ok, I’m usually the jealous neighbor, and it only bothers me for a short time. They’ll be fine.
On the last day, I am running low on pots. So I put away some of my display furniture and condense the pots into a smaller display. It keeps sales going, because my booth doesn’t look picked over. And it gives me a jump start on packing as soon as the show ends. When the final bell rings, this is when I feel really tired. It's been an intense few days, but I still need to pack the remaining pots and break down the display. Once I get everything packed and into the van, I squeeze my tired body and my giant inflated head into the drivers seat, and crank up the air conditioning. Then I head for home, looking forward to a month or two of quiet studio time.
Some very exciting news ... I was interviewed for an episode of The Potter's Cast. If you are a potter and not familiar with this podcast, go to iTunes and subscribe right now. It's one of my favorites, and I listen to a lot of podcasts in my studio while working. It publishes once or twice a week, featuring a different potter each time. It's really fascinating to hear all of the various stories of how potters became potters. The host, Paul Blais, does an amazing job of interviewing and producing. It was really fun to work with him!
My episode focuses mainly on the business aspects of my pottery studio. In particular, I discuss the outline of my "art festival success formula" which I will be blogging about in depth in the coming months. I also talk a lot about The Hourly Earnings Project (which I blogged about in depth in the past) and how it has directed my decisions since. Actually, most of Paul's interviews focus heavily on business development issues. This podcast is a great learning tool for anyone at any stage of business development.
Again, go straight to iTunes to subscribe, or you can listen via The Potter's Cast website, where you can also see photos and notes about all of the episodes.
Mea Rhee, the potter behind Good Elephant Pottery
American Craft Council
Public Retail Show
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