Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Lessons Learned From (About) Ten Years of Art Shows

Fresh when it gets here from Julie Barrett
Thursday, October 18, 2018

I participated in my first convention art show in 2009. I did it on a whim, and I sold out. Completely. This is a feat I have never duplicated since. But hey, these art shows have helped through some tough times.

Over the last few years, though, it's become evident to me that I need to get more businesslike in how I handle things. Oh, I've kept track of sales and paid my taxes, but the nuts and bolts of deciding what to show and how to price have always been by the seat of my pants. It's well past time I got beyond that, which is why I've just finished up a project to catalog as many of my art show sales as possible. 

I say "as many" because I seem to have either lost the bid sheets and my notes for some shows, and/or I never got a complete sales report from some shows. I got better (but was not turned into a newt), over the years at keeping more precise records. There are only a couple of shows where I don't have complete records, and they may still be lurking in the black hole of a filing cabinet, so I haven't yet given up hope. In the meantime, I've learned some things:

  • Better recordkeeping is good. 
  • I've made mistakes.
  • So have conventions.
  • I have  LOT of room for improvement.

One thing I don't have control over is how conventions keep records and pass those along to artists. This isn't a complaint, but a data point. I've noticed that, over the years, conventions in general got a LOT better at providing useful data. One thing I've tried to do at the end of a con is update my copy of the Control Sheet as I check out. I'm tired at the end of a con, and so are the people running the art show. Mistakes happen all around. But I think the big thing I need to do is to try to reconcile at least my minimum bid with whatever the con hands to me, if possible. I found one con that (long story) snuck in a sale under the radar. I had an item with a minimum bid of $30 and they sold it for $10, according to their paperwork. I should have caught it on checkout, and I didn't. That particular con died after that year, so I really didn't have any recourse. $20 (less commission) owed me was nothing compared to what they were undoubtedly in the hole. I chalk it up as a lesson learned. There's another con where the checkout paperwork showed an item sold (and I didn't bring it home), but the final paperwork didn't show the item at all. I followed up, but this was during a family crisis, so I failed to continue to follow up. My fault. The lesson learned from this is to take the time to double-check all of the sales against my minimum bids, and then to do it again when the check arrives.

Checking out of an art show is chaos, which is why I'm not placing the blame anywhere except on my shoulders. It's up to me to verify this stuff. 

The next lesson is entirely on my shoulders. My pricing is all over the place. This is something I've always done by the seat of my pants. I need to find someone to sit down and give me some advice.

I need to do better targeting of pieces to conventions. Okay, sometimes selling is just pure luck. But I should have known some things would very likely not sell at a Steampunk con, for instance. 

On the other hand, few artists sell out (or mostly do) on a regular basis. There is  bit of a lesson from retail, here. You walk into a store and there is a ton of stuff. Most of it you don't need or don't want. But you may see an impulse item. And the management doesn't know if the next person through the door is looking for diapers, or a potted plant, or a flat screen TV. They have to put a variety of goods out there and see what sells well and what doesn't. I have data, now! Still, I believe there is a bit of an element of luck involved, but maybe I can mix in a little science and see what happens.

I need to expand my product line and keep producing new stuff. This is a no-brainer, but the data really hammered it in.

I'm going to look at expanding my reach and mailing art to some cons. I would love to attend more conventions personally, but it's not possible right now. 

I need to (gulp!) get out there and promote my work some more. That's going to be the toughest part for me.

What can conventions do? The first thing is to provide useful data. I can think of a few shows that I've done over the last few years that have excelled in that. For many, I'm on my own. Or they provide a decent report one year, and just a check the next, depending on who is running the art show. Hey, I'm not going to turn down "just" a check, but it's good to know exactly what sold and for how much, and if it was a minimum bid, quick sale, Sunday sale, auction sale, etc. 

Some conventions can do a better job of promoting their art shows. Yes, I help run a con, and one thing I'm discussing with the leadership is how we drive traffic to both the art show and the dealer's room. In the end, if the artists and dealers are making money, the con is more likely to make money, and those artists and dealers are more likely to come back. 

As an artist (and a dealer at some cons), of course I want to make All The Money. And if I'm doing it in the art show, then the con is taking more of a commission, which is better for their bottom line.

Is this all of any use? I would say "I dunno," but the data is useful, and now that it's in a database I can run all sorts of reports and get a better feel for what items do well and what pricing may work best. We shall see.

Filed under: Conventions   Art Shows         


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