Marketing Mondays: “Should I Do an Artists’ Fair?”

A vignette from William Pittman Andrews' room at the Pool Art Fair during Armory Week in New York City last week

A couple of years ago I got an email from a young out-of-town artist: “I’m wondering if it would be worth my while to do the artists’ fair in New York City during Armory week. If I sell two paintings, I’d recoup my investment. What do you think?”

Basing my response on the unimpressive artists’ fairs I’d seen in Miami, where there seemed to have been no system for vetting and every booth was crammed with a more-is-more approach to installation—and more to the point of my young friend's question, there were not many red dots in evidence—I suggested he take the $2500+ he would spend (fair fee, transportation for himself and his work, meals and in-town transportation) and use it to do one or more of these things instead: visit the fairs for pleasure and to familiarize himself with the exhibiting galleries; take the occasional trip to New York City to visit the galleries and familiarize himself with their programs; or produce a brochure or small catalog of his next show.

At the recent Pool Art Fair, held at an East Side hotel during Armory Week in New York City, I took the time to talk with some of the exhibiting artists to see if or how their assessment differed from my own (as you know, I can be opinionated). I went on Sunday afternoon, the fourth and last day of the fair.

My question to a dozen or so artists: “Do you think this fair was worth your time, money and effort?”

“Yes,” said Xanda McCagg, who had a nicely installed selection of colorful abstractions. This was her second fair; she had exhibited at the Pool venue in Miami in December, too. McCagg is based in New York City so expenses for hotel and restaurants were not a part of her budget, and art transportation from her West Side studio to this East Side location was not unreasonably high. For her, the value of the fair was not in sales—“though I have sold a few small works,” she said—but in “the contacts.”  

Xanda McCagg, New York City artist, showing at the Pool Art Fair

“In a word, yes,” said Bernard Klevickas. "I did it without high expectations.  I was happy with being in Pool, but I've heard of others who were not. I had many friends and some collectors visit me, and I sold a piece. Some of the network connections I've made may lead to opportunities. In the sense of time, money and effort, I spent more than I immediately gained but I don't regret it."

Klevickas's advice: "I think it is best to share a room."  He was exhibiting in a two-room suite with six other artists—his is the sculptural installation below—so fees and being-there responsibilities were shared. He also lives in the city, so was spared the additional travel and shipping expenses. Also, he says, "The camaraderie was nice."

Bernard Klevickas's installation, above  
With exhibitors forbidden to make holes in the wall, Klevickas needed to find an alternative way to display a heavy grid without hanging it. He created a freestanding structure on which to suspend his work.  Klevickas exhibited in a two-room suite that he shared with other artists.  . . . 

. . . including Liz-N-Val, above, who organized the artists . . .

. . . and Jeffrey Allen Price, who installed a lively salon-style hanging of his work

“Maybe,” said William Pittman Andrews, also bringing up contacts rather than sales as the value of the fair. Standing in a room gridded with elegant geometric drawings in ink on paper, he mentioned that several curators had stopped in and that one had invited him to participate in a group show in New York City. An artist from out of town, he felt that meeting the curator was a connection he would not otherwise have made. Several critics also stopped in, and a blogger urged him to look into flat-file opportunities in Manhattan and Brooklyn, providing contact information.  As many artists (and dealers) do at the hotel fairs, he’d stashed his bed in the closet and pulled it out at night to sleep, thereby keeping his expenses from escalating. (Another money saver: "All of these drawings fit into my suitcase," said Pittman.)

William Pittman Andrews came up from Mississippi, where he directs an academic gallery, to exhibit his drawings at the Pool Art Fair

“I don’t know. Ask me at the end of the fair,” said an out-of-town painter, dodging the question. “It is the end of the fair,” I responded. There were four hours left. He shrugged.

“No,” said another artist, who asked not to be named. “It’s not always easy to see the immediate benefit, but in terms of cost/benefit analysis, I did not make any sales and was not approached with any serious offers to buy my work or show it in the future. I was not impressed overall. I really tried to have an open mind about everything, but after thinking it over I didn't find it worthwhile.  While I don't have any regrets about it, I certainly won't be a part of the fair again.”

Several artists mentioned anecdotally the dejection of a European artist who had come to the fair with high hopes only to see no sales. International shipping can easily exceed the cost of the exhibition fee, here $1650, as can airfare and travel expenses, so figure a net loss somewhere south of $6000. (In fairness, this is not a situation unique to artists’ fairs. I spoke with a Korean dealer who had incurred tens of thousands of dollars in expenses to participate at one of the smaller, less esteemed dealer fairs. He had sold only one sculpture—which the buyer decided to return the next day.)

An emerging collector with a small budget and a good eye could have walked away with three or four good works for $1000, and an ambitious curator could have put together a cohesive small show of small works.

Some Pros and Cons
Several artists were disappointed with the extras they found they needed to get when they arrived. “Lighting!” exclaimed one exhibitor. “You’d think we would have been told ahead of time that we needed to provide our own, but when I got here the director made it sound as if I should have known. How would I have known that?”  A different artist was not pleased with the condition of the room, which he cleaned himself before installing his work. (Veterans of the art fair circuit come with all kinds of extras: bowl reflectors and bulbs, extension cords, tools, a carpet, furniture. "A prep list would have been nice," said the artist who had to go out to buy lighting.)

One plus, noted a number of artists, was that the fair’s hours (3:00-10:00 pm) allowed them viewing time at the other fairs. The hours also allowed die-hard fairgoers to stop in after the other fairs had closed for the night. At least one well-known critic stopped by—and posted about it on Facebook —“though he never made it into my room,” said one disappointed artist.

My personal observation is that while the artists were gracious and welcoming, many of the offerings in general did not fare well in comparison to the work I’d seen at the other fairs. Still, an emerging collector with a small budget and a good eye could have walked away with three or four good works for $1000, and an ambitious curator could have put together a cohesive small show of small works.  Attendance was slow when I was there, a few other visitors per floor, and many of the artists I spoke with reported no sales. I wish it had been otherwise.

If you are thinking about participating in an artists’ fair in Miami, New York City or elsewhere:
. Read the application prospectus, paying attention to issues like insurance. (The Pool Art Fair for instance, absolved both the organizer and the hotel for any damage or loss, putting the insurance burden squarely on the shoulders of the artists, who were also paying a $1650 participation fee) and required each exhibitor to remain liable for “space rental and any additional charges” even if the fair needed to be shortened, postponed or relocated
. Ask the producers for a list of participants from previous years. Most artists have a website, and most websites have an email address
. Ask the participants about their experience, most pointedly: “Was it worth your time, effort and money?”
. Better still, visit one such fair before you make the decision to participate. Chat with participating artists about sales, contacts and attendance. (A dealer friend, preparing to participate in a hotel fair in Miami a several years ago, flew down a few months in advance to stay in the room in which she would be exhibiting. She measured the walls, located outlets, took photos and observed the light so that she would have no unwelcome surprises. Her subsequent installation was rated by one art publication as "the best" at at fair.)
. If attendance is good, observe: How long does it take visitors to get an elevator? Is there stairway access between floors so that they can start at the top and walk down? Is there a bottleneck at the entrance? If so, you’ll see people leaving before they get in; if they get in and feel claustrophobic, they;ll leave as quickly as possible
. If attendance is low, ask exhibitors if the lack of visitors reflects a lull in traffic or if the numbers have been low throughout the fair
. Less tangibly, what’s the energy level? Are visitors enthusiastic? Are the producers available if they're needed? Are exhibiting artists engaging with their visitors or are their eyes clued to their laptop monitors?
. How well is the fair organized? How was it promoted in print and on line? Is the signage good? Are names spelled correctly? Were the promoters ready on time? I’ve been to art fairs where the dealers have complained that the paint in their booths was not yet dry!
. See for yourself if the quality of work on display is equal to your own. In a group show at a gallery, the best work can raise the level of the entire exhibition, but I’ve seen that in small art fairs—including dealer-participating fairs—marginal work can drag the whole display down, and enough marginal work in a fair can sink the entire event
. "Be proactive," says Bernard Klevickas, if you decide to participate. "Pool provided the location and some draw of people, but each artist needs to do their own outreach. You get out what you put into it."  That's true whether you're doing an artists' fair, a dealer fair, or even an open studio
. Present professionally. Don't cram everything onto the walls—but if you do, make it a fabulous salon hanging. Use a laptop to show additional work. Have takeaway materials available: business cards, postcards, a statement with contact info. Offer a brochure or catalog to the visitors who show interest in your work. 
. Pay attention to the online comments during and after the fair. If enough people are saying good things and posting pictures on Facebook, for instance, their comments could drive traffic to the venue. On the othe hand, if they're saying negative things—and your FB friends can be quite candid about their experiences—don’t think you and your work can change that. You’ll go down with the ship.

Present professionally. This is another installation view from William Pittman Andrews's  room. The artist made good use of a laptop to show installations of his work

Comments? Artists and fairgoers, please join the discussion.

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Larry said...

As a collector, I have mixed feelings about art fairs. It's fun to see so much work at once, but the fairs are exhausting to walk through and they're spread so far apart around the city that you can't get to more than one or two in a day.

The worst thing, though, is that with so much art on view (300 exhibitors at Armory, each with 8-10 artists, each artist with at least a few works, it all tends to blend together after a while and I can't tell what's bad or good, dull or interesting any more. I just want to make it through in one piece.

I tend to think the smaller fairs are best for this reason.

Joanne Mattera said...

Larry, Thanks for weighing in. As a collector, do you visit the artists' fairs? Pool was smaller than most of the others which makes it an enjoyable visit. Did you see work that interested you?

Larry said...

Hi, Joanne. Unfortunately this year I only had time for Armory on the Saturday. There was some interesting work (I'll have to check the camera for specifics) but with all the crowds and the huge size of the place, it was a less than satisfying experience. Didn't know about Pool.

marc said...

I naive about who gets to show. Are there applications or invites?
Are some of these a spin on the vanity exhibition premise?

Joanne Mattera said...

As with most art fairs, Pool has an application process (

All dealers and artists must pay to show. In that sense, it's a "vanity" project. But since payment is the norm for everyone, it's simply the way business is done at art fairs, where an entrepreneur secures the space financially and then allots it via selection and payment.

Vanity galleries, on the other hand, are NOT the norm. The artist takes all the risk: making and shipping the work AND paying to show it, often having to pony up a commission as well. (With bona-fide commercial galleries, the artist makes the work and the dealer shows and sells it, each retaining half of the agreed-upon retail price when sales are made. Both parties take an equal risk and share equally in the sales.) Also, vanity galleries are not respected; some are reviled. Neither scenario provides a useful option for a serious artist.

Suzanne said...

Those are all great points, and wonderful that you got the opinions of artists who were there. I wonder about the promise of "contacts." Just how many contacts can you get? A contact at one show tells you about another show. That show leads you to another contact. But how about leading to a sale? I'm personally tired of being asked to donate a piece of my art for an auction, hoping it will lead to "contacts=sales," (and I know the whole donation thing is a completely other story). But I also do "pop-up" one night shows, hoping it leads to sales, only to just get more contacts. These are just my thoughts, although I am nowhere near the level of artists showing in NYC or Miami.

Joanne Mattera said...

One never knows about "contacts." We are in a business where everyone is looking all the time--artists, dealers, critics, curators, collectors.

Recently, a dealer told me how he came to offer a particular artist a solo show in his gallery.
. He was on her postcard mailing list, so he had seen about three images of her work over the past 18 months
. Her work was curated into a group show at a local non-profit gallery, which he saw and liked ("The work in the show confirmed what I'd seen and liked in a postcard image.")
. Her work was in one of the regional editions of New American Paintings, which he saw
. Several people mentioned her work to him in conversation, confirming that his interest in her work was shared by, in this case, other dealers and collectors
. He invited her to participate in a summer group show
. Critical response to her work, along with sales, prompted him to take the next step with her.

It's unlikely that any one thing will lead to a big break, but the cumulative effect over time of visibility--and a name popping up in conversation--can make a difference. Or not. You never know.

barbaramink said...

I'm currently debating on art fairs; I signed up for and then withdrew from one in Canada, based on responses from artists who showed there last year. I appreciate your balanced approach; and will subscribe to your blog.