Craft Boston Review Spring 2012

Posted by on May 17, 2012 in art in tents | 3 Comments
Craft Boston Review Spring 2012
boston booth front 225x168 Craft Boston Review Spring 2012

My booth from the aisle

Part of my genius plan this spring when I first decided to try a few well known indoor fine craft fairs was to approach this as a learner. Well, Craft Boston turned out to be quite the learning experience. In fact, this one show ended up costing me about a semester’s tuition at my local land grant university. Ah, the school of hard knocks!

As always, this is a long review. Feel free to skip around to the parts you find useful.

This was only my second long-haul show, my second indoor craft show, and my second show in the eastern US. The choices I made were a product, therefore, of the most profound sort of ignorance. I share them with the world not because I want to open up my most embarrassing wounds and bleed all over you, the reader, but in the hopes that some concrete information may help prevent you making similar mistakes.

I drove to Baltimore in the middle of what can be some of the worst weather in my part of the country. Blizzard driving is nightmarish. Blizzard driving for two days each way is a kind of hell that I have absolutely no enthusiasm for. So this trip rather than play blizzard roulette I opted to fly to Boston and have my booth shipped by Art in Motion. I knew this would increase the transportation cost tremendously, but it would cut the lodging, dining, and parking costs by a significant amount too, and would ease the stress — or so I hoped — by a substantial enough amount that I thought that alone might make it worthwhile.

I forgot to mention in my Baltimore review that load-out was nightmarish. Cars were still in line around the block to get to the dock at midnight. Since Art in Motion was picking up my stuff and hauling it away for me, I didn’t have that particular headache. Likewise, when I got to Boston, my stuff was sitting there on a palette in front of my booth space just waiting for me to set it up. It was perfect and painless — Josh and his crew are real pros. If you can afford them, use them.

The Nitty Gritty

Like Baltimore retail, Craft Boston is a four day show, with Thursday being a “preview party” for members of the Society of Arts and Crafts. These “parties” are art-fair-as-museum-experience at its worst. Neither I nor anyone in my vicinity sold anything Thursday night, but we had to pay for the privilege of being there to thank Society members for “supporting the arts.” That’s an extra day of lodging, parking, and dining that we have to carry, and which does its part to make Craft Boston a very expensive show for an out-of-towner to do. I’ve written before about the conflict of interest between a non-profit show organizer that exists to fulfill a civic arts function and the artist who does these shows strictly as a means of generating income. These organizations need to find a way to thank their donors and members that doesn’t require the artists to stand around the entrance to their booths like the girls at the Mustang Ranch, hoping they get picked and maybe make a buck, while a handful of Boston’s art supporters wander around with wine glasses in their hands.

Like most shows of its kind, Craft Boston cuts a deal with a local hotel for group rates. The hotel — The Seaport — was right across the street and as such was the easiest hotel-to-show hike I’ve ever done. It’s a pricey place — staying in Boston anywhere is expensive — and I wasn’t able to get the group deal for every night of my stay because, evidently, they didn’t set enough aside, but lodging was still cheaper than it would have been otherwise. The Seaport is an easy bus ride from Logan airport, and it is a gratuity-inclusive hotel, which means no tipping. They should all be this way. The view from my room was of the city and the harbor.  The hotel is right across from a Dunkin Donuts (breakfast!) and a 7-eleven (green tea and snack nuts!), with many restaurants nearby, which means easy eats. I enthusiastically recommend J Pace and Son Seaport. Wow!  And the Siam Bistro will deliver fantastic Thai food to your hotel room.  (Good thing too, because the food vendor at the show sold me a half-cooked, fully-inedible panini that I had to throw away.) As far as show accommodations go, this one gets five stars.

boston view3 225x168 Craft Boston Review Spring 2012

View of the city from my hotel room

 

If I were a patron, I would feel the same way about the show itself. While Craft Boston 2012 didn’t boast some of the galaxy-class artists who were at Baltimore, overall the show was, I think, more consistent and the quality of work uniformly high. It’s a good size — about 200 artists — which makes it big enough to offer a lot of beautiful work, but not so big as to be completely exhausting for shoppers.

boston view1 225x168 Craft Boston Review Spring 2012

View of the show site, with the harbor behind it, from my hotel room

 

I had virtually no interaction with any member of the staff, not even a booth sitter, so all I can say about them is that at least they’re not intrusive. I’ve found, in fact, that show staff pretty much never have anything to do with the artists unless it’s the artist who seeks them out, regardless of the show. That seems too bad to me.

Wireless internet access was free at this venue, so I was able to conduct credit card transactions using both Square and Go Payments without difficulty. Thursday night lots of artists were watching TV on their phones. Not much else to do.

Layout of this show was your basic aisle set up. Why do it any other way? I don’t know what the organizers did for marketing, not being from the area, but whatever it was it didn’t work. While there was a steady stream of people throughout the weekend, it was never particularly busy, and the people who were there weren’t buying. I never got a sense of high energy. The woman selling clothing across from me did what appeared to be a brisk business, likewise the jeweler next to me reported good sales, but the four decorative artists in my vicinity all suffered bad to marginal sales, me included.

The Numbers

So here are the grim details:

Who Took The Money

How Much They Got

What It Was For

Society of Arts and Crafts

$80.00

application fees (2 media)

SAC

$1050.00

10×10 booth fee

Art in Motion

$1,969.85

transport — this includes the very high drayage fees charged by the facility to load/unload anything larger than a pickup truck, even if you do it yourself. See more in the review.

Seaport Hotel

$1,336.91

lodging, including dinner in the hotel most nights

Continental Airlines

$523.20

flight

Duluth Airport

$41.50

parking

Gas

$25.00

to Duluth airport and back

Electrical

$125.00

booth electricity

Food

$160.94

eating

 

 

TOTAL EXPENSES

$5,312.40

 

TOTAL SALES

$1,163.25

 

LOSS

$4,149.15

 not including my time, materials, taxes, etc. etc.

Ouch. So how does this show compare to the one I did a month earlier in Baltimore? And what if I had decided not to fly and hire transport, but to drive to this show as well? Let’s have a look:

Expense

Baltimore

Boston

Hypothetical Drive to Boston

booth fee

$1425

$1050

$1050

app fees

$60

$80

$80

membership

$25

$0

$0

electrical services

$106

$125

$125

lodging, parking

$1221.47

$1378.41

$1600

tolls

$124.80

$0

$125

gas/transport

$610.48

$2518.05

$770

food

$306.77

$160.94 (dinners in hotel bill above)

$300

Total

$3879.52

$5312.40

$3950

Difference

 

$1,432.88

 negligible

As I did it, Boston cost me $1,432.88 more than Baltimore. Had I driven, round trip to Boston adds 600 miles to the same trip I made a month earlier to Baltimore. Using Baltimore as a base for calculations, accounting for the extra miles, the extra days lodging, parking, and eating on the road, and deducting the airfare and shipping costs, estimating in round figures: driving to do the show in Boston would have cost me almost exactly the same as Baltimore.  Unfortunately, every artist I spoke to who does both shows says Boston never has the sales Baltimore has (or had, or could have, or whatever). Several told me that they only do Boston because it’s local for them and they never recommend it to their out of town friends.

Looking at the comparative expenses another way: a couple of extra days at home, not having to do four eight hour days of driving, and depriving myself of the worry about dealing with blizzard conditions, cost me $1,400. This seems like a bargain, so I can see why so many artists choose this route, but without the sales to support it it’s just another debt, however you look at it.

boston booth jewelry corner 225x168 Craft Boston Review Spring 2012

The jewelry corner of my booth at Craft Boston

My sales at this show were so dismal that it would not have been viable even if I lived right next door. So what was up? I think showing in two media didn’t help my cause, either here or in Baltimore. My next experiment, should I find myself overwhelmed by the urge to burn money, would be to try one of these shows with only one medium. I suspect in Boston that medium would be jewelry, as decorative works for the wall did not fair well in my aisle. A woodworker guy a few booths away from me, who was selling very striking pieces, went the whole weekend without a single sale. The clay artist across from me who did large wall pieces didn’t make much more than her booth fee, although she kept saying she was fine with that. Maybe she was being Zen.

This in contrast to that anonymous fellow who drove the forklift with my pallet on it. The drayage fee for the Boston show alone was $477.85 (included in the Art in Motion bill). Meaning that’s what it cost for the union guy to drive my pallet about 100 feet from the Art in Motion truck to my booth and back again. To put it in perspective, it cost nearly as much to trundle my pallet about 200 feet as it did to fly me from Duluth to Boston and back again (and if I’d bought my ticket earlier, the flight would actually have been cheaper than the forklift ride).

In both Baltimore and Boston the union workers have a contractual right to unload any truck bigger than a pickup. Once again the artist finds herself the victim of a business model that was not concocted with her in mind. This sort of extortionate fee may be something a product vendor can swallow, but I’m not a product vendor. I’m not even a production studio, which may be one of the clues that I don’t belong at venues like this. My admittedly limited observations at these indoor craft shows is that production designers have the advantage and theirs may be the business model best suited to these events. That and possibly those galaxy-class high-end conservative crafters I mentioned earlier (you know, $30,000 silver holloware, $20,000 faceted stone necklaces, that sort of thing). I am not in the least surprised that alt-crafters and young artists are not finding a home at these events.

Do-Overs

You know the question: if you had to do it again, knowing what you know, what would you do differently?

1.  Well, I now know that Craft Boston has a hosting program. I somehow missed that until after I had already made my plans. This could save a person some money, although host programs are a mixed blessing and often turn out to be a bigger problem than they’re worth. As an art fair artist stress reduction is as critical an issue as cost reduction, and when the two are pulling against each other it can be a hard call knowing which should get priority.

2.  I think flying and shipping are valid options. I did them in the least efficient way imaginable and could have done better if I’d had more time to plan and more experience. This show, for example, was terrible for wall work (at least in my aisle). Had I only been doing jewelry I could easily have rented my booth furniture and flew the rest of my stuff with me (and shipped any excess to the hotel via UPS) This isn’t cheap, the rental of drapes and table alone would have run around $500. These shows also make it clear they want you to have carpet, so I would have had to rent that. I can’t find the Boston services pricelist, so I’ve attached the one the ACC uses for Baltimore: Show Services Pricelist  (and note that in Baltimore, also, you can’t unload a box truck or even a trailer yourself, the union has to do it) They’re all more alike than different, and it will give you an idea how these charges run. On top that,  I would have had extra baggage fees  since Southwest doesn’t fly out of Duluth, which would have added another $50 to $100. Less if I’d shipped some stuff UPS ahead of time.

3. Even had a I used my own booth, shipping would have been much cheaper if I hadn’t had all that wall work and the propanels with me. I also could have been much more streamlined about my choices if I had been planning my booth with shipping in mind. Bottom line though, this show didn’t make enough money to cover expenses even if I had pared them down to the bare bones. But at least the pain would have been minimized.

4. If I was going to drive all the way out there anyway, I might have done better to try to fit in more shows. There’s a Paradise City show the weekend before Craft Boston, for example, that might have made for a good double header.

5. Plan further ahead. I could have gotten a cheaper flight (not by much, but by some) and maybe could have gotten the group deal for my entire stay if I’d made reservations earlier.

Conclusions

So far my sample of three established craft shows (ACC St. Paul review coming up next) has me wondering:

What is it about these events that seems to favor such conservative tastes? Is it the entrance fee? Does that put off a younger crowd? I’m far from young myself, but my buyers tend to be professionals in their 20s and 30s. The crowds at these craft shows definitely leaned older and — even among the young ones who were there — conservative.

Is the middle-ground artist doomed to the same death as the middle class generally? From what I could tell, the most successful exhibitors at these events either cranked out production work (or were in some way a mini-factory — I saw lots of pattern work — lovely, great design, but still pattern work — as well as stuff that relied heavily on commercial components, etc.) or were at the opposite end, creating very expensive (usually conservative) one of a kind work. That middle-ground artist who does only one of a kind but sells in the three- to four-digit price range seems to be taking mortal body blows. Are we collectively okay with this? I think it would be too easy to say that this is just a result of market forces so too damn bad for us. Shows organizers have to take some responsibility for it too. They’re helping create the environment that selects for production designers (i.e.: high booth fees, convention center venues, union charges). If they’re going to do that, they ought to at least do it consciously, not just sort of fall into it and then act surprised when it happens.

Are convention centers really the best venue for these events? For creative enterprises, renting convention centers shows a surprising lack of creativity. I think convention centers also have the wrong public image for what we’re doing. Convention centers are for conventions. Convention centers are for the conventional. Maybe we should leave them to Comic-Con and the Annual Digestive Diseases Conference. (Seriously. One of the biggest medical conventions in the US. Look it up.) So where could we go? Well, you’d have to know your city — they all have architectural wonders sitting around being ignored: Old factories could be cool. Or abandoned strip malls. Or fairground pavilions. The venue in Boston looks really cool from the outside, but from the inside it’s just another convention center, with all the attendant fees and with no great advantages in either parking or loading/unloading.

3 Comments

  1. Chelsea
    May 17, 2012

    I really enjoy your insughtfu,l and comprehensive, show reviews! I look forward to reading about St. Paul.

    • felicia
      May 17, 2012

      Thanks Chelsea! — if there’s some aspect of show reviews you (or anyone else) would like to see covered that I’m neglecting, let me know.

  2. Mary
    June 15, 2012

    Thank you so much for posting this! I was thinking about applying but wasn’t sure if the high booth fee would be worth it. This was very helpful!

    PS: the Sowa Open Market is every Sunday in Boston. It is always packed with active shoppers, and the booth fee runs around $100/day.