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171st Blog – Art Fairs

My corner at Denbies

Having just taken part in two art fairs, I am reporting back my findings from both events. Other people who took part in the second event may feel differently so please understand this is very much my personal view.

The first event was at Denbies Wine Estate just outside Dorking, Surrey.

I have been arranging a couple of events every year at this venue with mixed results. The first thing to understand is that Denbies’ primary business is nothing to do with art! Their core business is (obviously) wine production with the sales of that wine being hot on its heels, which is done via their shop and numerous other outlets such as supermarkets.

Stephanie Thompson and Deborah Waters

They have a huge venue which forms their secondary business: letting out space for weddings, conferences, and all sorts of parties. They do it well.

As artists we can rent the gallery walls and display our works for sale. Denbies don’t get involved at all other than to deal with issues like replacing light bulbs.

They do have a section on their website where you can advertise an exhibition, but this is not easy to find. If you would like to find this section, it is under ‘events’ listed at the bottom under ‘art gallery’ or you can use the following link  

Debbie Tearle and Carol Gillian

So, when using this gallery space, you need to remember that you will have to organise all the advertising and marketing yourselves as Denbies do not do anything like that for you.

The week was slow. Really slow. The war in Ukraine may or may not have had an impact. Either way, there were only 391 visitors through the door over the seven days. That is considerably fewer people than we normally would have over that period. Total sales were down, too. Last time we were at Denbies we had group sales of over £5,000. This time it was just over £2,000. There are eight of us who show there and at the previous event last September we each sold at least one piece of work. This time five of the eight artists sold nothing at all.

Gwynne Penny and Deborah Waters
Becca Clegg and Anna Clarke

With low footfall like this, another knock-on effect is that of no referrals. Quite often when you take part in an exhibition you will get to chat to people and get leads to other events, recommendations about different venues or commissions for work. In the past I have picked up a lot of teaching work via this kind of event, not that I am looking for any teaching just now, but if I were I would have been greatly disappointed.

Shared stand with Gwynne Penny

The second event was held at Sandown Park Racecourse in Esher, Surrey and was organised by Contemporary Art Fairs (CAF). CAF sold the business to Loxley Arts just before the pandemic hit. The business was very well run by the previous owners and, whilst it was expensive, they did a good job advertising and marketing this and other events they ran.

That is no longer the case with the new management and frankly I think they are a complete shower. It costs a lot to exhibit with them; about £200 per linear metre depending on the size of your stand but the cheapest is around £700. Under the old management, everyone paid the same regardless of when they applied to take part, and no one was able to negotiate a discount. Sadly, the new management team not only started phoning people offering them stands at £50 per linear metre but some others were able to negotiate the price down by offering services such as giving demonstrations.

Gwynne Penny

Worse still, some stands were empty and were therefore split between the people either side at no extra charge. So, they were able to obtain another two or three linear metres for nothing. One person I know who complained about the reduced price of stands was told that in future she might like to wait until the last minute to apply for a stand which she could then get for £50 per metre. Everything was just so unprofessional!

Another artist paid for a five linear metre stand and was hugely disappointed, and understandably angry, that when she measured it was over a metre short. You may be asking why she measured her stand. Many artists work out the exact layout weeks, or even months, before the event. It means they know exactly what to do when they arrive on site, anyone helping them install the work can see exactly what the plan is, and it takes a lot of stress out of the situation. So, having worked out exactly what was to go where, she had to change everything.

Alison G Saunders

Footfall was a huge problem. When paying for a big-ticket event like this, you rely on the organisers to do the advertising. I checked CAF’s Instagram feed and one post per day simply doesn’t cut it in my opinion. Facebook was no better, and I couldn’t find them on TikTok.

Advertising on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok isn’t expensive and there should have been at least four posts a day in the run up to the event. Why did they not do this? I suspect they simply don’t care. They have had their money through the sale of stands, so why bother? They have always charged an entry fee to the public, which personally I find unnecessary and greedy, so I make sure that anyone I know gets one of the complementary tickets given to all exhibitors.

I know that some artists did well, but most did not which is sad when I also know that a few of them had driven from all over the country, stayed a couple of nights in local hotels and faced the additional expense of currently over-inflated fuel prices. 

The lovely lady I shared my stand with sold one large piece and another of the ladies showing with me at Denbies sold over £2,000 worth of work to people who have bought from her before. That’s a fantastic result for her.

Overall, though, it was not a great week, but I know that I won’t be driving anywhere until this madness is over, so I am not surprised that other people didn’t come out and I do realise that there is an element of luck with this kind of thing.

Our work

However, I will not be taking part in future CAF events until they have sorted themselves out and I am not alone in that. Their behaviour overall has been unprofessional, and I personally had a seven-month battle to obtain account information which I still believe leaves me out of pocket.

I will be taking part in the annual Surrey Artists Open Studios event and if you would like to visit me for that, please sign up to my monthly newsletter because that is where I will give out details nearer the time. I also have another exhibition arranged for Denbies in December this year, details of which will also be in the newsletter.

Next year I have several exhibitions planned with other artists across the UK, which is all very exciting. Fingers crossed the war will be over, Covid-19 will have faded into non-existence and public confidence will have improved. Let’s just hope and pray that interest rates do not rise too high or will have come back down by then.

Stay safe everyone.

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