My most recent show I was next-booth to a guy who only sold one piece all weekend. Still, when people wandered in to admire his amazing work and ask him, as far too many people do, “how’s the show going?” he always lied: “Great” he’d say to them, with a cheerleader’s enthusiasm and a hooker’s smile, only to bang his head against the wall as soon as they wandered off, once again failing to actually buy anything.
It was at that same show that someone came right out and told me that she and her husband “never come out to buy anything, we just treat this like we’re visiting a traveling museum.”
I got snobby early on as an art fair artist and decided I was only interested in doing shows pretty high on the food chain. This was contrary to my nature, as I don’t particularly like competition and I don’t particularly like snobs. Moreover, I’m one of those “support local” types. But I hate — there is no strong enough word for the depth, breadth, and intensity of this hatred — people who sell stuff at art fairs that they didn’t make themselves, and the smaller local shows — at least the ones in the Twin Cities environs — were all plagued with buy/sell. (the “artist” buys his crap from someone else, then sells his crap back to you, the patron. Don’t delude yourself. This stuff is rampant.)
One thing, though, these prestige shows have in common: they all charge admission. Kind of a like a museum. People pay to get in, and once in, they expect to get what they paid for: entertainment. They already shucked out the cash, why should they do it again? In fact, at both the ACC and the Society of Arts and Crafts shows artist exhibitors are repeatedly exhorted to thank anyone who wandered by wearing an “I’m a member” decal. “Gee!” We’re supposed to say “Thanks for supporting the arts!” Nevermind supporting the artist. The message: you’re done here, you shiny special “arts” supporter, you! Let’s not bugger up the beauty with a crass market transaction.
Artists, me included, are driven crazy by this attitude. We’re not at an art fair to help the community feel good about what noble “arts” supporters they are, we’re here to sell stuff. Hopefully enough to cover the duck food bill this month and maybe restock the metal supplies. (and if you think it was expensive for a patron to get in, you have no idea)
Problem is, artists, me included, are wrong. The whole culture of art in America is so warped, its identity so ambiguous, its messages so confused, that we should hardly be surprised that “market” and “museum” are confounded in everybody’s brains. We’ve done it to ourselves. We try to have a foot in both camps:
I’m an artist and art is pure. But I’m a businessman too, and it’s important to pretend there’s no conflict here!
Art and creativity are common to ALL humanity — everybody should express themselves artistically! But you should still think highly enough of this thing I just told you anybody can do to buy it from me, hopefully for a fair amount of filthy lucre.
We help perpetuate this ambivalence and confusion every time we lie and tell patrons that the show is going great when it’s a dog slaughter. We want to preserve the magical image of art unsullied by commerce, at the same time we want to do a few financial transactions. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying we’re not doing it. And we’re hurting everybody — art makers and art lovers — in the process.
Do you think patrons wander into a Walgreens and ask the clerk how things have been going? Why in the world should they care? (note: this is not the conversational equivalent of a “How do you do?” When someone asks “how’s the show been going” at an art fair they mean it as a genuine question and they’re not referring to the weather. It’s not a polite ritualistic greeting, and they want an answer. Unfortunately, as is the case with the ritualistic greeting, they want that answer to be positive.) Anyway, do you think these patrons need assurance from the Walgreens clerk that life is a glorious unfolding of perpetual bliss in which they, the patron, are privileged to be a part, if only for a moment? Do you think they care if Walgreens met its sales quota for that day?
Obviously not. Most people don’t wander around Walgreens for the sake of amusement, and they didn’t pay to get in the door. Walgreens is there to sell stuff and everybody knows it. Don’t buy anything and eventually they’ll boot you for the loiterer you are. There’s a need, though, to deny this truth when it comes to artists at art fairs. This need is expressed by another common remark made by patrons (okay, obviously that word won’t work. What do they call the people wandering around a museum? Attendees?) Alright, another common remark made by art fair attendees that betrays the fact that they are very uncomfortable acknowledging their role (and responsibility) in the material survival of the artist (the real, flesh and blood, starves if not fed artist, as opposed to the rarefied, mystified, abstracted notion of the “arts”) is something in the vein of “obviously you have too much fun.” The message implicit here is: since I decided to have fun playing with paints instead of getting a real job like a grown up, justice demands that I get to scrounge for my next meal.
Doesn’t sound like “support for the arts” to me. Sounds like outright hostility.
While the role of the shopper in the Walgreens is unambiguous, so is the role of the attendee in the museum. Nobody expects them to walk out with a painting. In fact, there will be serious repercussions if they try. Art fairs have have tried to walk in both worlds, and the market has been subsumed by the entertainment experience in people’s minds. For this I mostly blame show promoters, who long believed (as do too many artists) that the only goal of putting on a show (and note, most people do call them “shows” not even “fairs” anymore) was to get traffic through the gate. When that traffic is paying an admission cost, and when artist applications are actually on the rise, there is no incentive for the show organizers to do anything else. Many, many shows are actually advertised as a cheap, wholesome way for the family to get out and have fun.
Both art fairs and the artists who do them are conflicted in the PR department: businessman or artist? That would be problematic enough if it weren’t for the fact that, while shows go one way, leaning more and more toward an identity as an entertainment venue, artists are actually pulling the other way, feeling more and more like merchants. Artists, who used to be counted on to tell even those truths nobody necessarily wanted to hear, find themselves positioned as side-show barkers at a dog and pony show.
I asked another artist why we lie when an attendee asks how the show has been going. She pondered for a minute and finally said she thought it was a psychological trick: Shoppers are a timid lot, and if they think other people are spending money, then they can assure themselves that it’s okay for them to spend some money too. So we lie: Party party party! It’s an orgy of spending around here! Let’s get crazy! Let’s have FUN!!
Smart answer from a good merchant. I’d tell you who came up with it but she might not like being outed as a liar (or reduced to a merchant.) Not that this sets her apart, I’ve never met an artist who doesn’t lie about how shows are going: mostly to attendees, often to show organizers, and even to other artists.
There’s only one problem with this theory, and that’s the fact that it doesn’t work. This is because, while the people answering the question may be thinking like merchants, the people asking aren’t thinking like shoppers (remember, they’d never ask the Walgreens clerk.) Occasionally, but not often, a patron will ask this question after she has purchased something. Usually during the transaction. Often this person is genuinely hoping you’re not suffering. I’m more than happy to lie in these circumstances, because this patron has done her bit to make things work. There’s nothing else for her to do, so why make her feel bad? But this very rare. Overwhelmingly the question is asked by someone who has no intention of buying anything, anytime, ever. Orgies notwithstanding. They’re asking, I think, to be let off the hook. Things are terrific! We tell them. Which they translate into Praise Jesus I don’t have to buy anything. Somebody else has taken care of it. Now I can get on with the heady business of being a civic-minded arts supporter while I wander around looking at all the pretty pictures. Where’s the beer booth again? We can keep on lying to them, compromising our own integrity as truth-tellers. So we’re still broke, but now we’re genuinely compromised too. Not by the harsh realities of business or the market, though, but by the betrayals of the art fair industry and our failure to respond to it properly.
It’s customary to end any extended social criticism with the author’s opinion about how to fix it, so here’s mine: Art Fairs need to be framed as the retail market operations that they are, not as traveling museums. They shouldn’t charge admission because stores and galleries don’t charge admission. They shouldn’t be advertised as entertainment because stores don’t advertise themselves as someplace fun to go with the kids. They shouldn’t, in fact, be kid-friendly because kids only get in the way of shopping for art. They shouldn’t offer musicians and jugglers and other forms of free entertainment, because the artists just get lumped in with them. Food should be available to keep tired shoppers from leaving, but it should be as far removed from state fair food as possible. Demonstrations should not be permitted, in fact, artists present should not be allowed to work on their craft on site, this isn’t Colonial Williamsburg. The idea that somehow just showing up at an art fair makes you a supporter of the arts has to stop, which means a lot of that civic stuff has to go: offering free kids classes, big displays of community art projects, that sort of thing.
Finally, there is a conflict of interest between a nonprofit arts organization that styles itself a civic institution and a for-profit artist who needs to make sales to survive. The non-profit can do its civic stuff elsewhere and in other ways. If one of the ways they choose to make money is by throwing an art fair, then they need to leave their civic identity at the door.