THE REALLY GREAT SHOW THAT WASN’T: Thoughts on Getting Over It and Moving On

My biggest local show to date was last weekend. I’m still recovering. Physically, emotionally, spiritually.

I set up my very professional-looking booth. Those of you who read my sad tale of woe about my pedestal base covers can see that, by staying organized and clean, the lack of covers was not an issue.

Quickest set-up ever, and it looked good!

Quickest set-up ever, and it looked good!

very professional-looking booth.

My display was also clean and simple.

Focus was on jewelry, and featured only my new Ancient Oceans series.

Focus was on jewelry, and featured only my new Ancient Oceans series.

I brought ONE wall hanging, just to give people context for my work. And at the last minute, used these felt pieces as accent pieces. These are from a collaboration I did years ago with another fiber artist. She did the felt, I did all the little artifacts.

These went BEAUTIFULLY with the white/neutral theme of the Ancient Oceans line!

These went BEAUTIFULLY with the white/neutral theme of the Ancient Oceans line!

I had a new cool outfit, on loan from my Santa Rosa buddy Patricia Reilly (also a jewelry artist, who is teaching me to sew my own linen duds!)

Being clueless about outdoor shows, I would have baked to a crisp, if a fellow exhibitor hadn’t noticed and asked one of the show support staff to grab an umbrella for me. (It went right in between my two cases, was exactly the right size and color, and looked great!)

So what went wrong?

Other competing events meant fewer people attending. Those who did attend, were not buying. (It was mostly about the food, the wine, and the music–dancing!!) And I was right behind the band stage. (GREAT music, but also very loud.)

As always, there were small moments of brightness, and gifts. A few people were captivated, and they were invited to my next open studio. The show was extremely inexpensive to do, so I didn’t lose much money. (Fee was $50 and a 20% commission on sales. I sold two inexpensive pairs of earrings, and made $84. You do the math.) Several friends showed up to brighten my day and model my jewelry.

Michele Bottaro, rockin' my Shaman Horse necklace!

Michele Bottaro, rockin’ my Shaman Horse necklace!

So what could I have done better?

Well, for one thing, in my eagerness to get my biz rebooted here in Northern California, I broke my first rule about shows:

Visit the show before doing the show.
Talk to the vendors. Ask about sales and audience-building. How long have they been doing the show? Does it work for them? What are their strongest price points?

Check out the products. Apparently painted baseball caps are a thing. Google it. It’s not awful per se, but I can’t compete with a $15 product.

Look at the crowd. Is there energy? (And not just from the music and food.) Are they actually buying? If so, what? Painted baseball caps??

Of course, I’ve visited shows that looked great, and by the following year (when I do it), something has changed. The economy, the layout, the venue. ANY of these changes can result in the phenomenon known as the first-year show. I’ve learned the hard way never to do a brand-new show.

Listen to your gut. There was a strange dynamic between the person who personally asked me to do the show (and followed up with me several times) and me. I try not to smack-talk people in my industry, so I’ll just say, that dynamic continued throughout the show. It’s hard enough to do shows without weird, slightly-hostile interchanges that go on and on and on. I honestly don’t know what I did to bring that out, but I also don’t care. I won’t be working with that person again, so it’s a non-issue.

The last thing will sound swell-headed, and I apologize in advance for that. But I’m getting the sense that, when you and your work reach a certain level of originality, quality, appeal, recognition, as mine has (sorry!! sorry!!), it’s to a gallery’s/promoter’s advantage to have you in that show–even if it’s not really a good fit for you. And I fall for it every time.

Sometimes I do want to support that person, give them a chance, go out on a limb for them. As I said, there is often an upside to doing a show that can’t be measured in sales and money. And of course, sometimes it’s anybody’s guess what show will be good for you, and what ones won’t.

But the older I get, the harder it is to do these shows, especially when, over and over and over again, it’s clear to me that the magic happens in my studio, and only rarely anywhere else. (The League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair was the only exception, and it took years to get traction there, too.)

And of course, most folks will tell you it’s necessary to keep doing that bad show show that doesn’t work for you for three- to -five years, to build a following. That hasn’t worked for me, and apparently it often doesn’t for others, either, as this excellent article at Fine Art Views by Carolyn Henderson explains so thoroughly. (SO glad it’s not just me!)

Where do I go from here?

Taking a deep breath in. And breathe out slowly…..

I can still experiment with gallery representation, though I’m more interested in wholesaling.
I’ll focus more on this season’s First Friday events, with summer and fall’s long, bright evenings, where local art galleries and artist studios are open to the public. Next one is this Friday!
I’m already putting more energy into my updated Etsy shop. So this week I’ll be putting up all that cool new jewelrythat didn’t sell, as promised.
And I’ll have faith in my process, and give myself time to grow.

It’s always worked before, and I believe it will again.

The metaphor here are those three white felt pieces. That collaboration took place the second year I did the League Fair, 16 years ago, and I’ve never displayed them since. So it felt a little retro (as in ‘going back over old ground’) but it felt right. As does my continuing realization that I may not be starting at the beginning, but I surely am starting over

And the funniest part?

I didn’t realize the guy who sold painted baseball caps was right behind my booth. As we broke down, he asked me how the show had gone. I told him, not well.

He said, “Well, don’t give up, I’ve been doing shows for seven years now. You gotta….” and a litany of the advice I’ve given others for lo-these-past-20-years poured out.

I smiled graciously (I hope) and thanked him.

And then went over to Patty and Jim’s house for beer and Mexican salad, with locally-grown avocadoes and locally-grown artichokes for appetizers.

Beer helps.

So do good friends, and a sweet, supportive partner. Thank you, Ana, Barb, Michele, Patty, Jim, Deb, and Jon. Did I miss anybody? Lemme know!

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19 thoughts on “THE REALLY GREAT SHOW THAT WASN’T: Thoughts on Getting Over It and Moving On

  1. Welcome to the world of the outdoor festival shows. I did it for four years. Did it. Done it. Over it. Wish I would have learned my lesson sooner. I think the best way to make money at the outdoor venues (if you’re selling fine art) is to be the sponsor or organizer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • THANK YOU for confirming what I’ve been experiencing. That’s one future to-do I can cross off my list! Thank you for sharing your own experiences, Tom, you’ve helped many others today as well.

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  2. Sorry to hear about this show, Luann. Your booth looked fantastic (I’m partial to those tawny brown Pro Panels; I have them too), and so did your new work. That rule about not doing a show until you’ve attended it is SO important, regardless of what anyone else (promoter, fellow artist, reviewer) tells you. YOU are the only one who will know if it feels right, but even then, it’s still a crapshoot. And, many of us know that even a show which has been a “good” one in the past may not continue to be so. I wish you all the best in the coming season of sharing your work with the public.

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    • Camida, I’m so glad you commented. Years ago, I did ACC Baltimore, one of the top-rated fine craft shows in the country. And crashed. Another exhibitor’s spouse said the same thing–every show is a gamble, and even one as prestigious as that show is a risk. “Is THAT the gamble you want to take with your art?” he asked. Another talented artist friend said years ago, “I don’t want to hear ‘no’ anymore”, meaning she was tired of the jury process, the people who glance and walk by, the whole thing. It was powerful then, and it’s resonating with me now.

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  3. Hi Luann. I’m a jewelry designer too. Original, one of a kind. I’ve had the same experience too many times lately at festivals all over California and this past weekend at a show in Northern California in a wealthy community that used to be good. Too many baseball caps now. Too many festivals. I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I’m reluctant to blame the economy because lots of people have money that they spend. Just not on art. Just not with artists. The culture has shifted from valuing uniqueness to valuing how cheap something can be had. And so I’m trying to reframe my idea of what I can create as an artist. I’m in that horrible stage where you know you have to do something else but you don’t know what the something else is. So bless all of us artists who are trying to reinvent ourselves again. It takes courage. We have it. But it’s not easy.

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    • Elaine, thank you for sharing your experience. And I think you’ve made an interesting point: There’s a LOT TO DO here, especially in wine country. Shows, festivals, events almost every day of the year. How do we choose where to be? How do we stand out in the throng? How do we appeal to visitors when we are simply part of the entertainment, not a destination for serious shopping and collecting? How do we keep making our highest, best work, when the ground has shifted under us, and it feels like the world doesn’t want what we do?

      I also love your comments on reframing, moving forward, and courage. And as you say, it isn’t easy. Creative folks who actually put their art out into the world are true heroes, in my book. We can’t see the ripples in the ocean we’ve created by our actions, but not even the tiniest wave of creative energy disappears. You’ve got me thinking here.

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  4. Hi Luann, I had a hunch it wouldn’t work for your unique jewelry. Those shows are more about the dancing, free music, & drinking. There aren’t too many good shows in this area for high end unique jewlry. You need to work towards the Sausalito art festival on Labor Day, or either the kpfa Christmas fairs, or the women’s craft fair also in the city. The bodega fisherman aRt festival has quality crafts, everywhere else is a crap shoot to say the least. Remember the least common denominator brings the quality of everyone else’s work down a notch. You are lucky to be part of the Sofa community. Keep going forward with you studio and start checking out good art fairs in the city & Marin. Artfully Caterina

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  5. I am part of a co-op in a tourist area. Our gallery has been around for at least 25 years. Saying this we have to be creative every day to get people to come in. Do not feel it is your art. All artists are struggling. But our inner self says we have to make art.

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    • What I said in 1200 words, you’ve said in a handful. This is part of our journey as artists–much beauty, and power, and joy. But also the heartbreak of being overlooked and underappreciated. Hallelujah for those who love our work and support what we do!

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  6. Well, there’s not the same art show vibe on the west coast as there is on the east coast or in the midwest–they tend to put more “festival” and less “art show” here. And, personally, I think small art shows are getting harder and hard to sell past the impulse buy simply because the web makes it so easy to buy anytime, anyplace. I used to lead big groups of friends and co-workers down to the biggest shows in the NW, but the group’s really dwindled in the past 2-3 years. Most of them buy online instead, and so they don’t have to wait for a show. They search Etsy, Guild.com, Amazon, etc., and can usually find a dozen things close to what they need.

    I have to admit that when I needed my cane (to continue walking), it was three months to the next craft fair that stood a reasonable chance of having a great woodworker with well-made canes. I hit up Etsy. I received a gorgeous amboyna burl cane with copper inlay from a guy in Tennessee about a week later.

    So…I think unless you’re hitting up the really high-end art venues on the west coast (the Bellevue Art Fair, Portland Art in the Pearl, La Quinta, Sausalito), other marketing ventures might be a better bet.

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    • Cynthia, I’ve always been grateful for your insight and wisdom, and you’ve outdone yourself today. Good analysis of the times, and excellent advice.

      I actually started putting more time and energy into my Etsy site, and I’m already seeing the results of that. You’ve helped me focus on what I need to do next, and I am grateful once again.

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  7. I did an outdoor show a couple of weeks ago. While not as bad as yours, it wasn’t great when compared to previous years. A comment was made that sales are always slow in an election year because of uncertainty. This may be particularly true this year.

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  8. First, I always enjoy reading your comments, insights. A big Thank you.
    I did shows for about 4 years 1999-2003. They were a lot of fun and I learned a lot. Like most artists I work alone. I am not able to evaluate my work myself (I only see the flaws and what I would have done differently). So shows were a way to get instant feedback. From a business point of view – they contributed to cashflow but not to profit. I had to travel several hours for all the good ones. Back then I did it by myself as my husband was working – difficult!

    I have had mixed success with galleries. Fortune smiled on me as now I am in a local membership gallery and it has been working for about 6 years now. (But usually membership galleries don’t seem to work for the artists.) One gallery is not enough but that is another subject… Now I will do occasional shows – more for the feedback/exposure than anything else. Also I need deadlines to finish statement pieces!

    If I lived in a metropolitan area I would check out the maker fairs. It seems like they have a lot of energy going on. A younger crowd than the traditional shows and I think your work would be well received. A local “tradition” is a lot of ‘pop-up’ shows all over town around the Holidays. Not a lot of cost involved and it can be fun. It is really more like a small group of artists in someone’s home – almost but not quite an open studio.
    Sorry to be longwinded.

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  9. No apologies needed, Stephanie, an excellent response to my article.

    And I agree with you: There’s always SOMETHING that comes out of a show, even a bad show. And I’ve never made money the only measure of my success.

    In fact, I’ve been invited to do another small show in the fall. And though my first instinct is “never again!”, another artist visited my studio yesterday, and urged me to reconsider. She also gave me good suggestions on how to pare down my set-up even more: Perhaps a smaller, intimate setting, a “trunk show” approach, that would allow people to more fully engage with my work, that I could build on down the road.

    And you’ve echoed another suggestion I heard recently from, of all people, the elderly gentleman who’s even now working on one of my sewing machines! He recently attended his first maker’s fair, as a guest, and was amazed at the energy there. The fact that I’m hearing it again, from you, is something I should explore.

    So thank you for taking the time to share your experiences, and to add to my own–I appreciate it!

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  10. Thanks so very much for your honesty. I just recently did my very first show. Lots of glimmers and a few bright spots, but few sales. I was not prepared for how emotionally draining it was going to be.

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