June 9, 2012
It’s been a busy recession.
The banks aren’t letting go of any money and neither are the regular folks. The poor have always been poor. The recently poor were really never that rich anyway and the newly rich are few and far too “nouveau”. The rich are still rich, but they want to look poor while the poor want to look rich by doing the things the rich do, when they are poor. So to speak.
It’s now an election year and everyone’s waiting to see which of the two most deserving, most qualified, wisest, and so forth get the nod to be President – which means nothing with the worst Congress in history and the country about as divided as anytime since the Civil War. Speaking as an artist trying to sell things people do not need to people who are unable or unwilling to buy them, isn’t all this just peachy?
More importantly, what’s our hero been up to lately? We haven’t seen or heard much from him. Some people celebrate this scarcity, some lament it, and certainly most could not care less.
But we’re all here together in this anyway – so, let’s take a look. Yep, there he is walking down the street. Sun beating down on him like a sales tax audit, and yet he step-slides along in a pollen and Benadryl fog. The recession hasn’t claimed him yet and probably won’t either. It looks like he’s walking from the auto repair place – probably heading back to get the other car, but wait – is he heading into the little corner bar? Yep. Looks like he’s stopping in for a bit – let’s take a look inside and see . . .
“Oh great,” I thought when I saw her slap the hell out of the bartender.
“Nanna! Stop hitting him!” I walked up to the bar and lifted her up by the shoulders and pulled her away from the poor bastard.
“He’s a son-of-a-biiitch”, she muttered through clenched teeth as I barely held her away from another felony conviction.
“Nanna, you really need to calm down. Your eye is all messed up and it looks like it’s gonna float away.
“So?” I replied.
“So?” she said back – and so forth for a few more exchanges before we started laughing.
“Fix your eye, Nanna – you look like a grasshopper or a fish or something.
Still chuckling, she popped her glass eye out and wiped it clean on her house dress before popping it back in. She checked her handiwork in the mirror before scowling at the bartender.
“What did he do, Nanna?” I asked.
“He’s a son-of-a-bitch,” she answered while glaring at him with clenched fists..
“All I said was we don’t open until 5.” said the bartender.
“I tell you what,” I said as I gave Nanna the up-down look to make sure she was ok. “How about a couple of shots of Patron and we’ll forget the whole thing?”
The bartender rubbed his face, “Your granny bitchslapped the hell out of me!”.
I let a few seconds go by, “First of all, she’s not my granny, she’s Nanna”.
“What the hell is a Nanna?” he snapped back – “she’s nuts!”.
I could feel her muscles tighten up from where I was sitting and I heard the all too familiar low growl rise up in her throat as she stared at the bartender. “I’ll do it again too, you no good rotten son of a . . .”
“. . . and a couple of soda backs too?” I interrupted.
We all stared each other down for the next few seconds. “Okay, fine!” said the bartender as he threw up his hands and went back behind the bar.
“I got my eye on you, bitch!” Nanna announced as the bartender poured the shots. She took out her eye again, pointed at it and pointed back to the bartender several times.
The bartender looked at me, “What the hell? Why?”
“Who knows? I am sorry about all this. We’ll keep quiet while you set up for tonight.”
Nanna popped her eye back in and hopped up on the barstool.
“Nothing much, I’ve been pretty busy Nanna.”
“Shows are starting up?”
“Yes and no. I’m trying to stay close to the studio, cut down on traveling and hotels and stuff.”
The bartender brought us our shots of Patron with a salt shaker and some lime wedges. Nanna took the wedges and threw them at the bartender as he stepped away. I dropped the salt shaker into the sink under the bar.
“People don’t like your work? Tell me who, I’ll kill them for you and be right back.”
“No, they like the work Nanna, people are just hesitant to spend very much money these days.”
“Seriously Nanna, people are holding on to their money and taking longer to make decisions.
I held up my shot. “It’s true Nanna.”
“Bull. There’s lots of buying going on. Tablet computers, phones, alcohol, lots of stuff. Drugs too. Lots of the legal and illegal marijuana around too. TV’s, DVD’s, lots of stuff.”
We did our shots, I waited for her to reach for her soda water before I did.
“What are you saying, Nanna?”
“They’re not buying as much at the shows? I think there is something more to this than just blaming it on the economy.”
“Sales seem down, that’s what seems to be the trend lately – by and large. I’m selling, but not like I used to, and more importantly people are not happy out there.”
“You think the recession hit the art shows that hard?”
“What else could it be?”
The bartender had his elbows on the bar with his chin in his hands as he listened. “What things are different at the shows?” he asked.
Nanna flinched at him but he didn’t move. Impressive.
“I suppose there has been an effort to bring more people to many of the shows.” I said to them. “The ones that can afford it are hiring entertainment or consultants or partnering with other events to bring in the bodies. It all looks good on photo opportunities. Good for more applicants each year.”
The bartender shifted his weight, “What is that doing?”
Nanna pointed at the bartender with raised eyebrows and then motioned back to our glasses. The bartender nodded and turned to grab the Patron bottle while talking, “Is that having an effect?”
I thought for a minute. “It does bring in bodies, but does not seem to bring in buyers for most people. It seems to be creating a nice place for people to socialize, the buying seems to be really taking a hit.
“For everyone?” Nanna asked.
“No, not for everyone, but I do not know of any artist on the circuit that has not taken a hit or two in the last few years.
Nanna thought for a minute, Well, if they are bringing people to the show – then you must be at least getting a gate fee portion . . .
“No gate fee at most of the them, Nanna. Besides no shows, not even the big shows that have a gate fee ever share a portion of the gate with the artists.”
The bartender spoke up, “OK, so no gate fee. You can’t be out that much money – gas for travel and a hotel night or two. That can add up, but should be absorbed by sales – just a nut to cover.”
“Well, yes – but there is the booth fee.”
Nanna and the bartender looked at me quizzically.
“Booth fee?” they both said at the same time.
“Well yes, you pay a booth fee as a type of “rent” for the privilege of selling at the show.”
Nanna and the bartender looked at each other and then back at me.
“Of course, don’t forget the jury fee?” I said.
“Of course” they both said. “What is a jury fee?”
“Well, when you apply, you send in a non-refundable jury fee and once accepted you are asked to submit your booth fee.”
“And if you are are not accepted, you just lose that money?”
“Well, yes.” I said.
Both of them were staring at me intently.
“What? What’s the matter?”
Nanna asked very quietly, “So, you pay money to be considered. If not accepted, you lose that money. If accepted, then you get invoiced for the booth fee, which is payment for the opportunity to sell at the show.”
“Yep, that’s about right.”
“And the shows continue to provide distractions to attract people and put on a festive atmosphere. Sometimes beer and concerts. Sometimes a party with wine tasting and maybe dancing. Sometimes fireworks, stiltwalkers, performance painters, and even clowns – apparently in an attempt to bring people into the show with out any kind of prejudice for the artists – do these guys that are not artists have to pay?”
“I am not sure, but I think they get paid if they are not volunteers.”
The bartender and Nanna simply stared at me. The bartender raised his eyebrows at her and she rolled her eye at him.
“What kind of artwork is at the shows – typically what does someone see at an art show nowadays?” asked the bartender as he got out a third glass.
“Oh, all kinds of things from the really kitschy, tacky, crafty crap you see at just about any craft show, to some cheap junk made in China or maybe Mexico and sold by a vendor who claims or infers that he or she is the artist, to assembly-line stuff made in a production studio and sold by professional salespeople, to some mediocre art made by a developing artist to some really good work done by an experienced artist – and everything in between.”
The bartender poured three shots. “Go on.”
“Well nothing much more to say other than there does seem to be a lot more junk at the shows. Every show I go to seems to have at least one guy with a line of about 7 different things he is selling. Some people sell printouts of peoples’ grandkids’ names off a laptop and a printer in their booth for $20. Some painters are selling a boothful of paintings that seem to be painted by 6 different painters. Some photographers are selling the same tired, old, alphabet letters to people to spell their kids’ names. One guy last week was selling an opportunity to have your photograph of your choice printed on a real canvas – all you have to do is pay him and send the jpg file in and pay for the shipping to get your new painting/photograph in the mail. A friend of mine recently wrote in her blog that some people are just into making a quick buck on the circuit because it looks easier than it really is when doing shows.”
Nanna waved me off. “So you are saying there is some really low end stuff at these damn things where you actually pay a jury fee, a booth fee, you pay to make your painting, you think, design, draw, make, revise, revise again, and finish your painting, pay for gas and then you transport, set up, and display the painting at the show, you conduct the sale, collect (and remit) the sales tax for the appropriate jurisdiction, and wrap and/or deliver the painting – all while competing with bottomfeeders that should be allowed to (of course) sell their wares some where, but nonetheless are for some reason juried into the same show as artists – all for a pool of attendees that may or may not be customers, but are in all likelihood slack-jawed locals who do not understand that you are running a business but instead think you are the day’s entertainment for them to taunt, test, and tease you when you are actually trying to sell your work and stay innovative and fresh at the same time?”
Nanna continued, “And you don’t get a cut of the gate, probably have to deal with loud bands, newspaper hawkers, sample hawkers, and drunk customers stumbling around in your booth lamenting that they always wanted to “make some arts and crafts”.
“You’re a dumbass.” she quipped.
The bartender added, “And you are seeing fewer buyers and more people walking their dogs, visiting with their friends, or “just looking”?
“Yep. Sometimes. We also get people taking pictures of artwork so they can go home and copy it or print it or whatever.”
Nanna pushed on, “And you get those lousy neighbors every once in a while who set up in your space, push their crap out into the aisle and block traffic?”
“Yes.” I sighed.
The bartender went on, “And you are noticing smaller crowds. Fewer buyers. Higher costs. Lower returns on your investments.”
“Yes, some shows are better and worse than others, but they are all prone to be tricked or they even just openly allow some of this stuff to happen.”
The bartender spoke up, “That’s because they are not taking a risk. They have the funds from everyone already. All they need to do is make sure there is a crowd and then they did their part. The rest is up to you, the vendor, artist, crafter, – whatever. They have their money already and have no vested interest in changing anything. In the short-term, having manipulative vendors that are not artists in an art show isn’t measurable. In the long-term it provides the beginning of a long death. The show starts to slip, the customers quit buying, and the process continues until the show is taken over by someone that knows how to run an art show, or it dies.”
“The risk is yours, not theirs.” The bartender continued.
“You know,” I said as we all held up our glasses, “there was a review of an art show meant to be a fundraiser for an art school in San Antonio recently. It was written by one of the judges of the show and it was fairly well-written piece. The odd thing was the feedback note written to address the review. The note was written by a director at the school and it was basically a disclaimer indicating the work at the show is not indicative and not the caliber of the work put forth by the students at the school.”
They both looked confused, so I elaborated.
“Basically the director was saying their students’ work is of a higher quality than the work at the show raising funds for the school. Many people interpreted the remark as a slam, an insult to the people doing the show.”
The bartender poured another shot all the way around.
“I think the director was probably right.”
“Why?” Nanna asked as we did our shots and set down our glasses.
“Because I have seen many, many shows. I’ve seen the stuff made from kits, the imported crap, the cheap knock-offs, the “handmade” whatever the hell. The recipes, the “just add water” dips, the aluminum can airplanes, the wood roses, the lousy photography, the xeroxed paintings, the organic soaps, all that stuff.”
“People like that stuff.” slurred the bartender.
Nanna slapped the bartender and was prepared to do so again as soon as he stood up again.
“Not at an art show you idiot.” she said as she wagged her finger at him.
“You’re right, Nanna. That stuff has a place, but just not at a true art show. The sad truth is, the shows are degenerating, downsizing, shrinking, and sinking. When the crap shows up, then the show starts to die because the people are not impressed and they stop coming. When the people stop coming, the artists stop coming. The shows stoop to take what vendors they can, and the people continued to stop coming because they don’t expect to see crap at an art show, but once it becomes apparent, then there is no reason to attend.”
The bartender rubbed his red cheek as I continued, “That’s what I think the director at the Texas school was trying to say. It got a bunch of people worked up, but I think the director was talking about the junk that was probably at that show (like most shows) and wanted people to understand the fact that the school will not teach students to make and sell garbage. Instead of thinking it through, I think people immediately went into attack mode because they were offended when in fact they misinterpreted what was being said.
Nanna motioned for another round. “So what are you dumbassed artists going to do? You pay, pay, pay, pay some more, and then stand around and bitch at those shows. What are you going to do about it?”
“I used to just vote with my dollars. Then I thought I’d write a bit about it. It doesn’t seem to matter. Nothing will happen until more of us come to our senses and hold the shows accountable for a quality standard – something above the system that is not currently working and really never has. Maybe more photos of the shows, more videos, maybe the TMZ approach will effect some change. The shows need to be blacklisted, not the artists. The shows need to clean up their act, get rid of the crap – if they want to be a genuine art show. We need art shows to return, not circuses, not mega-events, not “something for everyone” festivals – art shows – plain and simple. Art. Nothing more. Shows focused on art and the people that love (and buy) art. Mega-circus events can of course still happen and probably should – just not with artists. Someone else should decorate their events for free. ”
The bartender set up the next round.
“What do you want?” Nanna asked.
I took my shot with the others and sipped the soda water. “I don’t want them, the patrons, to shy away from shows, from my booth, from any artist’s booth. I am tired of setting up original work all morning and watching some buy/sell chick show up 8 minutes before the show starts, set up an EZ-UP with no weights, opens up her card table and covers it with a K-Mart tablecloth before putting all her merch on the table for customers to buzz around for 2 days. I want real art patrons to come to real art shows. I do not want to decorate any more concert venues or summertime festivals. I don’t want to talk art theory with the village idiot because no one in the village will talk to him anymore. I don’t want to bring all my work to a venue to have people walk past it double time because they are stampeding for a corndog and a lemon ice . . .”
Then Nanna slapped me.
She “bitchslapped” me really good. The sting was an eye-opener.
“What do you really want?” she asked again while pointing out to the readers. “Tell them.”
“I love painting, I love what my work does for people. I want to continue to make money selling art, genuine original art – paintings – to my customers. I want all artists at the shows to make money. I am tired of the current system stacked against the genuine artist. I want to interact with my patrons, I want my neighbors to be artists. I want my patrons to be at the shows for art, maybe not my work, but the work of another artist. I want art and artists to be the sole, the only focus of the show. No fireworks, no parades, no side shows, get rid of the politics and the people that love them. I love selling art to people that love buying art and we need to return to art shows, that’s what I want.”
We all raised our glasses for all the authentic artists out there this summer trying to really make it happen.
What a huge challenge.
“What else do you want?” asked the bartender as he finished setting up for the evening and Nanna already left for her self defense class. He pointed to the readers. “They’re right there.”
“I really want an opportunity to address the Zapp conference in Chicago on September 6th.”