Leveling with Labels
Conventions Pt 2: The Art Show
August 2006; Water
Heraldry, Pt 4: Charges
Conventions Pt 2: The Art ShowWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
Okay, boys and girls, this month we're talking about the convention art show!
Let us establish right now that I'm not going to tell you what sells, because bugger if I know. Nobody knows. At best, you might figure out what sells for you, and even that'll change over time. About the only rule of thumb I have established is that if I've whipped it out in an hour and think it's just filler that'll go for minimum bid, there may be a bidding war for it.
To register for an art show, you generally have to plan things well in advance. Six months isn't unheard of, for a big con. Go to the website of the convention you plan to attend, read the info, order an art show packet, and pay attention to when the deadline for submission is.
Generally what you'll do is reserve a number of panels before the show. "Panels" are just that - sheets of pegboard, either 2 x 4 feet or 4 x 4 feet. (2 x 4 feet is the standard, to my knowledge, but check your packet to be sure.) Pegs with little hooks go in the pegboard, and little clamps go on the pegs, which then clamp on to the top of your art. (You can also hang wires from the hooks themselves.) You can reserve panels in both the General and Mature sections of the show—what goes where, however, can depend strongly on the convention. I have been to cons where bare breasts are considered General, cons where they're General but they need post-it notes put over the nipples, and cons where if there's a hint of wrongdoing, it's in the Mature section. If you have any doubts, ask the nice art show volunteers.
Also, don't grumble about what's considered mature and how the art show directors are prudes. Nine times out of ten, this has absolutely nothing to do with the art show staff opinions, and a lot more to do about the rules of the hotel or convention center, which are set by a corporate office or local law, and totally not under their control. Gettin' pissy at the con staff about something like this is bad form. Be professional, be accommodating, and most of the time, the con staff will bend over backwards to find a way to accommodate you.
Now, in order to hang your art, you'll need to at least mat it, if it's on paper or illustration board, or whatever. If it's canvas or wood panels, you've got other options. The easiest way to mat art is to do the art initially to fit to pre-cut mat dimensions from the art supply store. If you didn't do that, then you'll need to get a mat cut, but take pity on your buyer and try to arrange for the exterior dimension to fit a standard frame size, like 16 x 20. (If you can't, you can't, of course.) Regardless, you'll need to mat it.
You may want to frame it. There are varying schools of thought here. Some people swear that sales are a lot better if something is framed, because then the buyer doesn't have to consider how much to frame it for. Me, I haven't seen that actually pan out, myself, but it may work for you. However! Be warned, many art shows won't let you have art up with glass, because if the art falls down, the glass breaks, and the hotel's insurance gets involved. Read the rules before you frame everything!
Now, how much art fits on how many panels?
I determine this by the age old method of handing the art to my husband and saying "Hang this, I'll be at the dealer's table." Forty-five minutes later, it's done. This is a neat trick, but perhaps not practical for everybody.
So whatcha do is you get a big clear chunk of floor, and you use your tape measure, and you mark out one or two or ten 2 x 4 feet spaces - how ever many you reserved - and then you play spatial jigsaw puzzle laying your art into this space. Bear in mind that the panels may not all be next to each other! If you have more than three, there is a strong chance there’s a corner. Remember to leave space for bid sheets - little sheets of paper, maybe 3 x 5 inches, that go with each painting, so people can bid on the art.
Once you have this layout, grab a sheet of paper, draw out the layout in little squares, label each square, and life is good. Take the paper with you to the art show, and use it as your master plan.
So you've got the art there, and you're hoping people will buy it. What do you price it at?
Price it at whatever won't make you cry when you sell it for that.
Seriously. Not all your art will sell. Half of my art usually comes home with me at any given time, and usually the expensive half. People will, occasionally, drop several thousand dollars at art shows, but the odds are pretty good that they will not be dropping it on your art - such sales are a rare and exciting event, not necessarily something to be relied upon. Do not fool yourself that every painting will have a bidding war, and that the minimum bid won't possibly be what it'll finally go for.
The absolute most likely scenario for a first art show is that most of your art doesn't sell and some of it goes for the minimum bid. This is not a sign of failure. This is quite normal. If you beat those odds, wonderful! Fabulous! But if you don't beat the odds, and you set the minimum bid too low, somebody walks off with a great painting for five bucks, and it breaks your heart. Don't be afraid to take a painting home again. This doesn't mean the painting will never sell. A painting isn't a loss until it sells for the cost of the frame. Don't sell yourself short.
Now, my experience - and yours may vary! - is that it's best to offer a wide range of prices. You put up your big, showy, amazing painting. This is an anchor piece. You want a thousand dollars for this painting, and frankly, you have almost no chance of getting it at a con unless you’re a big name with fans with deep pockets, so don't go to the con expecting it to sell. This painting is not to make money, it's to draw people in and go “WOW! That's an amazing painting!” and make them look at the other stuff. And here's where you offer a big range. You have teeny little 5 x 7 inch piece for $25 and 8 x 10 inch pieces for $35 and $45, and 11 x 14's for $50-75, and maybe a couple big pieces for a few hundred bucks. The big ones probably won't sell, but occasionally you get lucky. The little ones are where you make the money, so it's good to bring a lot of the small, reasonably priced ones, which people can pick up on impulse, without guilt. Then they go buy prints of the big piece.
Art show sales, in my experience, are not going to be the huge money-maker that table sales are. On the other hand, sometimes they work hand in hand with the table sales. People see art they like, they bid on the original, they get outbid, they come to the table and buy the print. Likewise, at the last con I attended, print sales were down for me. But the art show turned around and made more than double what I expect to make on an art show, so the end result was actually a pretty standard con for me, despite the slower print sales. Things go in waves—next year, I may clean up at the print sales, and the art show may have all the life of roadkill. Some years, everything tanks together. I don’t know. You’d need to be a chaos theorist with an art history degree to predict these things.
Over time, as with table sales, you will tend to make more on the art show, as people get to know you, you get a fan base, etc, etc. I wouldn't say that the art show is necessarily worth going to a con for alone, if you’re not working a table as well, but if you’re attending a con anyway, it's absolutely worth it to get in the art show.
Plus, hey, you get the experience of someone coming up and saying "I saw your stuff in the art show! I love it!" and that's a warm and fuzzy glow that never gets old.
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