Monday, July 12, 2010

Why I do craft shows and art fairs ... why do I?

When someone asks me how I sell most of my pots - and people do ask that question a lot - I usually say, "Well, we have a gallery at our place, but I don't see many people there, and that's OK. And I have things in a few shops around Falmouth, but that's not a great amount of sales. Ummmm ... mostly I do craft and art sales from June into the autumn, Falmouth, Marion, Welfleet, Chatham, Charlestown, a few others. That's where most of my income comes from."
That seems to satisfy people, though I suspect it doesn't sound like enough income to make up much of a "living." The kind of living people expect of a working person, anyway.
Any working craftsperson or artist who sells at art fairs knows that most of them are a roll of the dice.
1) Economic times may be bad and people may not be spending money (like the past couple of years, for example ... ).
2) The weather for warm weather outdoor shows is a constant worry; the second day of the Wellfleet Oyster Fest last year resembled a hurricane more than anything other than an actual named hurricane. Most of us broke down Saturday night and went home in the wind and rain, giving up on a usually lucrative Sunday.
3) The crowd might not be your crowd. Last summer's three-day art and craft fair in Chatham drew thousands and I did pretty well, but the stunningly wonderful prints of the New York man opposite me never moved off the walls of his tent. He wasted his time, his entry fee and his meal and living expenses for about $200 in sales. You just never know ...
Which brings me to this past weekend in Marion, a small and relatively wealthy yachting center on Buzzards Bay, across the water from Cape Cod. The one-day annual show in a lovely little town park is run by and benefits the local art center. Nice people running the show, lots of nice people wandering the paths of the park, looking at paintings, pots, plaques, carved fish and birds, jewelry, felted sweaters, wooden bowls, the usual assortment of handmade work.
I've done this show for the past three or four years, as long as it's been going on. And I've usually done reasonably well. Not this year, though. At least, not income-wise. And that's why I'm writing this.
With expenses to get to the show, time spent packing, unpacking and traveling, chicken salad sandwich for lunch, breakage (lately I've been breaking pots ... ) entry fee and 10 percent to the art center after sales, I just about made money. I'm used to that happening now and then, but it always makes me wonder whether I should continue to do a show when there seems to be so little ... ummmm ... inventory movement. Especially if other potters at the show are doing well.
But here I go back to Reason 3 - "the crowd might not be your crowd." There were two people who came to my tent Saturday who were, I think, "my crowd." One woman spent a half-hour comparing one small irregular-rimmed poured-Shino bowl to another wildly irregular and unbalanced faceted poured-Shino bowl which I almost didn't bring with me. She would hold one up, then the other, then the first, then the second ... on and on like that for 30 minutes. "I love these. I LOVE these," she said. "I have the perfect place ... " Finally, she decided on the smaller of the two bowls and reluctantly left the other behind, but very happy that she had bought the smaller bowl.
A short while later, I saw another woman come into the park and recognized her as someone who had come to my tent each of the past three years. She worked her way clockwise around the tents and finally arrived at mine. We know each other a little now, after talking a few minutes each year for the past few. She always picks up many pots, spends long minutes looking at the glazes and the shapes, asks many questions about how they came to be, and always buys something. Usually, it's a bowl. The same thing happened this year. She was in my tent for about a half-hour, looking at and asking about Shino- and ash-glazed pots. Why was the rim uneven like this? How do you get the iron-red spots on the gray glaze? What is this glaze? Why did you start making pots? She smiled the whole time and genuinely wanted to know the answers to her questions. "Your pots just have a ... feeling," she said. And I took that to be a good thing.
She ended up buying three pots, my biggest sale of the day. But believe me when I tell you that her purchases were the least important part of her coming into the tent. For 100 people we get who walk in, sweep their eyes across the pots and then leave, mumbling, "Beautiful work ... " we might get one woman like these two, people who seemed to truly connect with the pots. As I was packing up in the sudden downpour a short while later, I knew I hadn't made much money, but I was thinking to myself that that kind of encounter with a buyer or two who clearly just love what I do is probably enough to keep me doing the show.
(Above, a few of my pots from recent years, just to have some photos on this post ... )


brandon phillips said...

We've opted out of doing shows since last summer except for a couple small semi-local shows. We did 3 in a row where we lost money and it was a blow to our finances. I'm applying to the ACC wholesale show this year, whether or not I get in is a different story. I'm just really tired of busting my a** on the weekends to break even. I'm also really tired of the crap that people say to you, and the crap you have to listen to. You probably know what I'm talking about, I won't use this as a forum to vent.

The only thing I miss about doing shows(besides the almighty dollar) is the connection with those few and far between customers who get it. They can make a good show great and a terrible show tolerable. I guess we all just need to put our big boy pants on and suffer through the next couple years and hope things will come back around.

Anna said...

I've only just started selling at shows. I have actually only done two. The first went well (I even won a ribbon!) For the 4th of July...definitely not my crowd. Only made $17 over the entrance fee (that was only $50!) and my biggest sale went to someone who asked first "Would you take $35 instead??" Grrrrr. I wont be returning to that show.

potterboy said...

The worst comment at the last show I did was a guy who said he was going to buy a mug from me, but decided against it because he couldn't come to terms with contemporary pricing. He then proceeded to stand there and talk crap to me for about twenty minutes. What an arse.

The best was some chap who turned up and just said 'has there been any improvement in clay since pre-biblical times?' - what a question!

I'm yet to cover the entrance fee on any show (only done two so far.) Think i won't be doing any next year.

There are some lovely pots in those pictures.

Mr. Young's Art said...

I believe that it's a combination of our passion for what we do, and the desire to pass on that passion to others. That desire is fulfilled when those few "get it", and feel - even in the smallest way - what we try and put into our work.
Sorry for waxing philosophical - just my two cents worth...

Linda Starr said...

A few good comments and a few folks appreciating the work are worth it in the end as Mr. Young says. Been a while since I've done shows but about to get back into it, we shall see. Love the red of the first pot. Hopefully the economy is turning a corner ever so slowly.

cookingwithgas said...

Hollis- it is like having someone read my mind. I am spending hours trying to figure out if we can continue to make a living selling pots.
We have done so for 30 years and now I am not sure if we can survive the economy.
we made it through a fire but this fire is harder then the other one.
I love when someone gets what you are doing and tells you- but I do hate the jackass who just wants a deal.
Where is my deal on electric, gas, insurance dental, doctor------
I love your pots and so many other pots I have seen on blogs these past years and I want us all to make it!
I want people to want to eat, drink and sleep handmade.
gee- I can dream can't I?
It is my hope that by this time next year(month) we are all making and selling pots!
I love that mug!

Anonymous said...


ang said...

that's what we all need hollis great patrons that just love the work...and speaking of that mug is gorgeous i'd head straight for it but then i am biased when it comes to shino...
having said that i suppose thats from a past show and its gone???
hehehe big boy pants brandon.. i just love reading colloquial language that conjures up all kinds of imagery...:P

Kings Creek Pottery said...

Oh, how I can relate to you. I hit my wall a couple of years ago when I had to set up my booth next to a kettle corn/cotton candy booth...I started crying!! Lost money on that show and vowed to never put myself in that position again.

I, too, stick with a few local shows. I find that folks who are close enough to "know" me appreciate the concept of buying local and handmade. Maybe because I live in an agricultural area...?

I set up a small shop in an old garden shed on the property and also work hard to establish an on-line presence (etsy). Frankly I did not think it would be possible to sell pots on line, but it's a new world out there and people are more open to it than I expected.

Best of luck to you!

cindy shake said...

Great post. We do expose ourselves when we work a fair, market or show. Being new to a Farmers Market this year, I've been making the rent, so to speak by selling my "garden art." I didn't realize how much I miss by just taking my sculptures directly to the Galleries and not seeing or knowing who my customer truly is. It's done my heart good to connect on the front line with the customers -good and bad. I've learned a lot, especially to have thicker skin and I've enjoyed not having to pay a 35-50% commission! Hey, if it was easy being full-time artists EVERYONE that envies us would be doing it -ha!

Hollis Engley said...

I could hardly have ordered up more relevant comments to this post. Good responses, all, especially Brandon's double-"crap" references. These blogs are sometimes like hanging around with other potters behind the tent, out of view of the buyers. Pretty cool. Yes, Meredith, we can dream. And Ang, unfortunately, that mug was sold a couple of years ago. Wish I could make 50 of them.

Lori Buff said...

I know what you mean about the ideal customer. Having good people who really get it makes the show worth while. My favorite show was the ArtFest at Georgia Southern University not for the money I made but for the enthusiasm of the students and other attendees. I even wrote about it on my blog:
To me, it's worth it to do shows just to connect.

gz said...

I've just stopped doing one Craft Makers' Market (monthly) in Brecon and another (Abergavenny) is improving slightly.
My best is Hay on Wye (of bookshops and Book Festival fame) weekly ordinary market (going since 1300).
The difference is that although people anywhere are more careful with their cash now, there is more money there, and even better to go with it, an appreciation generally of what goes into any item produced using a heritage skill.