Monday, September 30, 2013

Why You Didn't Get Into That Craft Show: Installment #1

I’ve been jurying craft shows (mostly the Bloomington Handmade Market, but on occasion other guest jury stints) for about five years now, and attending them for my whole life in many different roles – as an artist/vendor, as an artist helper, as a customer, as an organizer, and as a juror. While I don't claim to be The Definitive expert on craft shows, I have noticed certain trends and tendencies on the parts of both artists and organizers.

DISCLAIMER: Please know that the opinions following are totally my own and do not reflect the views of any show I have been affiliated with or may be affiliated with – this is me speaking as an independent juror. Please also know that any examples I provide are generalized examples that apply to trends I’ve seen over the years – if an example I provide describes you, rest assured I am NOT singling you out anonymously. It means I have noticed many artists doing exactly the same thing and this is why I mention it.

After every application cycle, there are invariably two things that happen in regard to artists who are outspokenly unhappy that they weren't admitted into the show.

1)       Some of them email the organizer and ask what they could do to improve their application next time.

2)       Some of them do not email the organizer but waves of discontent reach the organizer through the usual gossip channels.

Following this, either the artist does or doesn’t apply again next year.

So here is my letter to you, artists who weren’t accepted to the show. These are all the reasons why, for this juror anyway, you might not have made it. But here’s the thing: I really want you to get in! I truly do. I wouldn’t have helped start a craft show if I didn’t want to see talented, rising artists get help making a sustainable living doing what they love. When people reapply year after year, I notice. When artists’ work grows over time – or doesn’t – I take note. When artists are persistent and truly take an interest in bettering their work, I file that away. Everything about your presentation goes into the craft show experience. So artists: here’s what I’ve noticed about your collective presentation, and my advice as to what you can do to improve your chances, at least with this juror.

This will be in installments because you don't want to read this whole thing in one sitting.

Table of Contents

1. Research the event.
2. Focus!
2a. Reconsider sharing a booth.
3. Quit with the Chevrons and Triangles.
4. The Whole Package is important
5. Navigation
6. Don't Apologize!
7. Be nice / be professional
8. Talent Is An Asset (But It's Not Everything)

Part 1: Research The Event.

It is glaringly obvious when you submit artisan cake toppings to a show that is not covered by its insurance policy to sell food, that you didn't research the show.

Before you apply, if you've never applied to the show before, you really need to spend a minimum of 10 minutes researching the show. Ideally, you should attend it if possible, but at the very least you need to be looking over the website and checking out a few of the artists who have sold there in the past.

The four main things you need to note are:

- What is the overall feel of the show?
Is it a contemporary craft show? Is it a fiber-based show? Traditional or modern? For a contemporary craft show, your rustic Amish-style quilts, while no doubt beautiful and very well-constructed, are not going to be a good fit.

This may all seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how many applications I've seen that simply don't fit the show. It's not that the work isn't good – oftentimes, it's quite good. But if you make quilted Vera Bradley-style totes and most of what the show features bag-wise is recycled vinyl purses and cigar box clutches, it may not matter how well-crafted your bags are.

- Consider the audience.
For the jury, if it's a show that's been going on for a while, they have this pretty well nailed down. In my experience, most shows break down into a set list of categories something like this:

• prints and illustration
• plush toys
• sewn adult clothing & bags
• sewn children's clothing
• ceramics and pottery
• jewelry/metalworking
• soap
• bookbinding/leatherwork
• knitted and crocheted accessories
• woodworking and furniture

 How many artists are typically accepted from each category? Locate your category and check out some of the artists. If your category isn't in there, is it because you're looking at the wrong kind of show - or is it because you're doing something really unique that the show could use?

See what other artists in your category are making, how they're marketing it, what their level of expertise is. Don't copy them. But know your colleagues and be familiar with their work. If you're just beginning, and they've been at it for 20 years, you might not be applying to the right show. Or maybe your work is really incredible and you do belong in the show - but be honest with yourself. You can always improve, but where are you now?

Additionally, are the participating artists' price points similar to yours, or do they differ wildly? Your work might very well be work $500 a piece, but if everything else in the show is between $5 and $20, the customers are likely not going to be prepared for a booth where most of the items are out of that target price range. A few show pieces are great and can add a lot to your booth, but overall your price point should be fairly similar to other artists of your medium at the show.

- Tailor your application to the show.
Just like when you apply for jobs, you don't send a canned resume out to 40 different companies – or, you're not supposed to, anyway. You tailor each resume to the job description. The same goes for shows. You don’t have to overhaul your whole website, but treat each application as its own entity. Don't submit the artist's statement you wrote for the state fair art show last year or, if you do, read over it first to make sure it makes sense.

- What time of year is it?
This too may seem glaringly obvious, but I can't tell you how many times I've seen artists apply to a spring show with winter hats and scarves. If you make items such as clothing that have a seasonal component, this goes along with tailoring your application for the show – make sure the items you feature match the shopping style that's going to be happening at the show. In the spring people are looking to spend their tax returns on fun things for themselves, and to purchase Mother's Day gifts. In the fall they're going to be looking for warm accessories and holiday presents.

Next post I'll talk about focus and why it's so crucial in your show application.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Awesome handmade game

I'm working on a board game exhibit right now (for a class, but hopefully it will be real someday!) and came across this image while doing some research on the game "Sorry."

Jamaican game

This is apparently a hand-made game that has some similarities to Sorry -- found on this blog about traveling in Jamaica. I would love to see this game in person and play it. Notice that the counters appear to be rocks and bottle caps. Too amazing!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

strangers on a plane

hello friends. I have been super busy with school (I'm in the last year of my Masters in Public Administration/Nonprofit Management at IU, focus on museums) and have been thinking about blogging but not doing it. Luckily, school deadlines provide the perfect fodder for procrastination. And this is related to school anyway.
I have been thinking a lot lately about audience research, and in particular the problem of how one reaches infrequent or non-visitors of cultural institutions. For a while, I was really anxious about reaching the “non-user,” but after some thought and some good discussions with professors and colleagues, it occurred to me that maybe more relevant -- and slightly easier to reach -- are the people out there who might actually be museum visitors or arts event attendees, but because they are infrequently present and/or not highly visible (i.e. rich), they tend to not be noticed.

I found this being echoed in my fundraising classes, where we focus a lot on cultivating the Major Donor, that magical being in the sky who will give us money and hopefully not care what we do with it. While I understand the practical concerns inherent in this strategy -- more money with less work -- I think it undermines one of the greatest things about nonprofit organizations, also known as voluntary associations. It neglects the “association.”

This is something we’ve seen a bit of a return to with crowdsourcing. Amanda Palmer is a whiz at it, and so have been many others. In an age where your voice seems to be increasingly silenced or at the least unimportant, I think it’s good to know that even if in a very small way, you can still “speak” via where you put your money. It’s not an ideal system, but it’s a powerful one. We saw how powerful it can be when Wikileaks donations were blockaded by pressure from the U.S. government.

That is a conversation for another time, but my point is that the combined efforts of the many can be strong and this is just as true for museums as any other institution. Museums in particular seem to have to balance a fine line between providing public programming and cultivating high value donors.

Which is all just a lead up to discuss Clayton.

I met Clayton on a plane from Chicago to New York City. I had been thinking a lot about arts audiences and how to find those people I mentioned above -- infrequent or non-high-profile visitors. I blearily sat down next to a congenial looking older man dressed inconspicuously in sweatshirt and jeans, and noticed that his carry-on bag was a tote from the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

I’m not normally a chatty airplane person -- in fact, I kind of hate it -- and it was a 6 am flight and I’d had no coffee, but something on that morning told me to strike up a conversation with the man in the window seat. 
Clayton, it turns out, is a single, working-class man who in the past few years has discovered a passion for classical music and opera. He described it to me as being similar to one of his other major interests -- attending ball games -- but just a different part of his personality. Clayton works first shift at a low-paying job for 40 hours a week and spends his free time and money making trips to see his favorite music live. That night, he was going to Carnegie Hall for the first time to hear his favorite pianist. He would be flying back to Chicago the following morning.

He told me that by making such quick trips and staying just outside the city, he found that he kept his costs down. Although he didn’t have a lot of money, he found that he really enjoyed putting what he did have toward his new interest in classical music. He found that people were friendly to him and was even introduced to one of the performers by a board member at a performance in Cincinnati.

This conversation was fascinating to me. First of all, this man pretty much presented a totally different view of what the opera and classical music world felt like to him than any I have heard in my life. He felt it was a very open and accepting community, and recognized that while he wasn’t exactly like many of the other people in it, that didn’t seem to matter to him or the people he met. This isn’t a community I usually hear referred to as “open” and “welcoming.”

Secondly, here was the guy I’d been thinking about - the non-high profile arts guy! The guy I’ve never heard mentioned in any of my textbooks or literature about nonprofits (though if you have a great article, send it my way.) Here is a person who is maybe never going to be a major donor. But he has the tote bag. He attends performances whenever he can. He is willing to spend what free money he does have on this art form that he cares about. Luckily for him, some people in the community seem to have noticed. If there is one, there are others.

I understand the desire to cater to the wealthy, high-profile donor. They have money and influence. But this is the power of public institutions, or it's supposed to be... they can reach people in different and exciting ways other than what the market or government provides. And they can attract Clayton. Clayton, who told me he had no college education, but loves classical music. Who has a blue-collar job and spends his weekends at Carnegie Hall. How do we attract more Claytons to cultural institutions? How do we pick them out of the crowd and steward them as audience/donors? It was luck that put me next to him on the plane that morning, but now that I’ve met him, I know that he and others like him are out there. They are a small, nearly invisible, but important part of the audience.

I want to know how to reach these people, how to make them feel welcome, how to get them as involved as they want to be (if they want to be), what brought them in, what might bring them back. I’m too green to have the answers to these questions now, but this is where my interests are taking me - toward answering these questions. In the meantime I welcome any reading suggestions or real-life stories. And I promise I'll try to be nicer on the plane from now on.