Have artist-led art fairs had their day?

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This is the question raised by a few people I know who have taken part in art fairs this year. So here are my thoughts. As ever, my opinions are my own but they are based on my own experience and conversations with other artists. 

I am not talking here about the grown up art events like the Affordable Art Fair or Fresh Art Fair. I believe there will always be a place for these shows, which are more like trade fairs. You cannot apply to take part in them unless you are a business, gallery or similar entity; they do not deal with individual artists. They are brilliant fairs to attend and you will see some amazing art, selected and curated by gallerists who have been at this for years. Also I am not talking about local art groups some of which have been running for over one hundred years. These groups are essential in allowing artists to share their work with the world.

The type of art fairs I am talking about only emerged a few years ago. In fact, I had a conversation back in 2013/4 with the marketing manager for Sandown Park racecourse, who said that his job was to find ways of making the stand work outside of race meetings. I suggested that he could offer his sites up to host art fairs and very soon after that’s exactly what happened. I like to think that I may have been a little part of the inspiration for the fairs taking place there but I may just be delusional.

However, these art fairs need closer inspection. Yes, they were amazing when they started, back when people had money and were buying art. Since then we have had the Brexit crisis, Covid-19 and war in Europe. The economy is still in the toilet, interest rates continue to rise and people are understandably more concerned with paying their heating and food bills than they are in buying art.

Yes, there are people who will always buy, because they have moved house or because they are interior designers who buy for projects they are involved with, and there are people with money to spend, but in general we are still all playing it safe. So have these artist only fairs had their time? I think for now, maybe they have.

Let me break it down for those of you who do not get involved in these events.

The cost of taking part in one of these types of fairs is £200 per linear metre. What does that mean in real terms? Well, the cheapest stand you can get at most of these fairs is £750 and that is little more than a shoe box. I have paid between £1,000 and £1,550 for a stand giving me a Friday night Private View, all day Saturday (10.00 a.m.-5.00 p.m.) and Sunday. That’s a maximum of 17 hours possible viewing time or about £45-£75 per hour. But the cost to the artists doesn’t stop there.

We are kind of caught in the middle. We have to pay upfront for our art supplies for which, like everything else at the moment, prices are going through the roof. We pay for the stand up front without any guarantee of a sale. We buy the hanging systems to make it easy for us to show off our work. Literature needs to be ordered and paid for, card reading machines are required to take any payments and we then spend time and money getting to and from the shows and/or paying for accommodation in the hope that someone will by more than a greetings card off us.

So why do we do it? And are these shows any different to vanity galleries? For those who don’t know, vanity galleries are similar to these big art fairs in that you hire an area of a gallery, or even the whole venue, to show your work to the public. You pay the gallery for the space and you often, but not always, have to do all the advertising, stewarding etc. and be responsible for sales. Some galleries will offer the stewarding as part of the deal; there are variations on the theme.

At the end of the day, a vanity gallery makes its money from the artists and not from making art sales. Why? Because artists want to see their work on the walls of a gallery and are therefore prepared to pay to see it there. Sometimes you can get lucky and your work will be seen by a gallery who will ask to represent you but there are no guarantees and, like the art fairs, you pay out a lot to be seen.

The alternative is getting gallery representation. This in itself can be very difficult simply because there are so many artists wanting to sell their work. Some representation is good with honest, decent gallery owners selling your work and passing your cut on to you as soon as they can. Others will only pay you when you ask for the money as they are struggling to keep the wolf from the door so your sale could be paying the rent before you get what is yours.

As an artist showing with a gallery you pay commission – which you don’t with art fairs – and those fees can be as much as 75% of the price of the artwork plus you have to pay the VAT (sales tax) on top, too. The reality is that the artist sits in the middle of this market being fleeced by everyone else. The whole thing is exhausting but for those who don’t want to attend shows and talk about their work, that is their best option. There really must be another way.

I run an artist group called Ginger Cactus Art (GCA) and we put on exhibitions at venues where we pay to hire the space and share the cost equally. A chunk of money is spent on advertising to let people know what we are doing and all sales go directly to the artists. But again this is hard work; you have to set up, steward the event and take down the work yourself.

So why do we do it? We do have fun, most of the time. You meet some amazing people, sometimes you can strike up great friendships and you can even make some fabulous business deals. None of those would be possible unless you were out there at these events.

I have spent more money on these shows than I am prepared to admit (my husband reads my blogs and I don’t need to give him any ammunition) and I have in no way covered my costs. Over the years I have very much enjoyed taking part in them and I am not saying that I would never do so again, but for now, until the market is more buoyant and public confidence is high, the only people who are really making any money at these fairs are the organisers. In some instances even they are not making much of a profit.

What is still working really well, I believe, is the model of Open Studios or Open Houses. The events are often artist-led but also local authority-led. Here in my little corner of the world, Surrey Artists Open Studios (SAOS) has been running for over 20 years (though I still meet people who have lived in the county all their lives and haven’t heard about it). Artists can open their homes or studios for a far lower cost than the art fairs, they are able to chat to their visitors and make real connections with them.

Obviously, the more the artists put in in terms of advertising the better it is for them, but you are not relying on someone else doing their job properly and you dictate what happens within your space. I have taken part in quite a few now over the years and have had great success as the more people are aware that you are there, the more likely they are to visit you year on year.

Last but not least people are getting used to buying online. I sold a painting through an online gallery last month. The client didn’t see the work until it was bought and paid for. They did have the opportunity to return it had they really not liked it, but I have been paid so clearly they were happy. Personally I haven’t bought much in person over the last decade. I buy most of my clothing, shoes, cosmetics, plants, gifts and art supplies online. That being the case I intend to focus on how I can get my artwork seen by more people who might be interested in buying from me direct.

I won’t have massive fair fees, so I can use that money on targeted advertising and I don’t have to leave the security of my own home, which with Covid-19 still about, makes me feel safe and happy. I will report back in the coming months to on how successful this change in direction has been.

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