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!