Rob's Hand Made Sign

Art Show Beginner

Business

Taking the business to the next level involves taking my prints to the people. So far I’ve had pretty good experiences, but I’m only three shows into my print career so I have a lot to learn. Nonetheless, here are my experiences at the Claremont Art Walk and the OC Weekly’s Artopia in Downtown Santa Ana.

Chronologically Claremont came first. It came to me by way of a friend-of-a-friend who has taken over the Art Walk. I’m not sure exactly when the whole thing started, but when I jumped onboard it was the first time that Rebecca had run an Art Walk. It was also the return of the walk from a brief hiatus. As I wrote about a month ago in my previous article the Art Walk had shakey beginnings. Now under the guidance of Janelle Rensch and Rebecca Ustrell it is on track for the first Saturday every month.

When I think about my night there it makes me think of a club house. A hangout for your friends where you can feel free to joke, share new experiences, and wonder about the future. Since the Art Walk is just getting back on it’s feet there wasn’t much fanfare to attract visitors. Although I did notice that between the time I lived near the area and now, a difference of four or five years, that the Packing House filled in it’s empty store fronts. That led to steady traffic throughout the night and since you have people waiting for their tables at the hipstery Whisper House restaurant, you have a chance to catch a few eyes from there. Passers by from other eateries like the amazingly delicious Eureka! Burger helped fill in some of that foot traffic as well.

Considering it was a free, juried* show the amount of cash earned that night was strictly profit. After three shows at this level my average sales seem to float around ten prints at a very, very reasonable price point. You can do the math on that, but until the show earns some more notoriety I would imagine that earnings for someone like me will stay kind of low. The other people participating that day didn’t seem to do as well (a guitarist, and high-end French gift basket vendor).

The Claremont Packing House was one of the first renovations to take place in the area and is one of the nicest places to visit. It’s had a hard time attracting business in the past, but when I visited for the show it was buzzing with activity which is good to see. Downtown Claremont is a little hidden from the world, which is how I believe the residents prefer it, but I’m seeing signs of growth. The venue itself is pleasant with reclaimed wood floors and dim lighting. It was suggested that I bring my own lighting and I’m glad I did. It was nice to be indoors too and while it looked like it might rain that day it luckily never did. During the summer months it can get really hot out there so I imagine that being inside will be helpful in future walks, but there is talk of expanding to the outside courtyard between the parking structure and the Packing House.

Overall the Claremont experience was nice and people were a lot friendlier than I have experienced in the one previous show that I’ve been a part of. Not that people were rude, just less engaging. Quite the opposite in Claremont. The Santa Ana art show on the following weekend would have some parallels.

When my wife sent me an ad from the OC Weekly hosting an art show the second week of May I was cynical about it. The annual Artopia, also held in LA and a few other cities I think, was a vote-for-your favorite kind of marketing scheme. If you’ve ever participated in a Pepsi school fundraiser where you have to get as many people you can to sign up on a website and vote for your school then you know what I’m talking about. It’s a way for the OC Weekly to build email lists and send you junk mail. Normally I wouldn’t go for this sort of thing, but I thought I might be able to piggyback off the OC Weekly’s promotion efforts and at the very least get my name out in the open.

I didn’t ask anyone to vote for me. I’ve tried my hand in a similar promotion years ago with the tee shirt company Threadless and met with awful results. Personally I don’t like being marketed to and I will walk all the way around something that smells a little bit like advertising, so I get it. People don’t want to go on Facebook and see that shit. No problem.

However, my wife is my biggest promoter and jumped on that wagon quicker that you can say “hold your horses”. That’s probably what got me through the door because she convinced a lot of friends to sign up to vote which got into the top ten out of thirty pre-approved artists. I’d love to know what the vote looked like because I’d be willing to bet that there weren’t that many votes and I probably defaulted in because I was one of the few that got votes.

In any case this was a pretty good operation. Plenty of communication, parking maps, wristbands, club lights, dj… the whole loft party package. Which gave it the feel of a mid-sized, exclusive event. The staff, led I think by Jenna Moothart of OC Weekly Marketing, was incredibly friendly and helpful. I really felt like they were there to cater to me and there were a lot of OC Weekly shirts to provide manpower. So even when there were some kinks, which I later found out was caused by unfamiliarity in a new venue, they were fast to respond, and really accommodating.

Although typically rented out as a wedding space the venue itself, The 1912, was nice. A contemporary upstairs take on the hipster packing house trend that is slowly taking over southern California, the wood floors and beams give it a warm feel with the old style warehouse windows letting in nice light during the day, and antique edison style lights with some small, moving, track lighting type dj lights and gobos (or patterns) for the night. It was really dark in my corner and my neighbor, by the end of the night, was living in shadow. So I was glad that I packed my lamps.

When I first set up next to the bathroom, the kitchen (or storage room of some sort), and a cocktail table there was pretty good lighting in that spot, but I was bumped for a photo-booth (maybe paid for by the event) and sent to the corner. It was a little odd, but it was better than being isolated in the alternative space, a room hidden around the corner that another artist briefly sat in until it she realized that no one would see her art. Also, I didn’t have to worry about someone hanging out by the cocktail table and spilling their drink on my prints or the terrible bathroom smell oozing into the space.

As details rolled in from Jenna I took note of certain things: one thing that I thought would have an effect on sales was the cover charge. Tickets were $30 online pre-sale with a discount code I could hand out lowering it to $20. At the door prices went up to $35. Toward the end of the event I talked to the staff who said that total tickets sold were about two hundred fifty tickets sold out of three hundred available. This is different than past Artopia events which the staff said had twenty artists (instead of ten) with around one thousand attendees. They wanted to go smaller, more intimate this year. Maybe to cut costs?

Who knows.

If you’re tracking the event’s numbers that means they’re getting between $5,000 and $9,000 before expenses which probably included bartending, dj, venue rental, staff wages, table rentals, etc, etc. All told they probably took a small loss on the event.

The only problem I had was trying to talk over the sound of the dj who always wants to get the party started by blasting beats. I liked the music he played, but having conversations with people who are interested in buying your art while there is a rock concert going on behind you is a pain in the ass. You only hear every other word and have to piece together their meaning through chunks of conversation that you repeat several times.

With somewhere between two hundred fifty and three hundred people attending I did a little better than my ten print average. Again it was a free show so one hundred percent of the profit goes to me and with a slightly heavier wallet I’m happy.

Between the Tustin Art Walk, the Claremont Art Walk, and the OC Artopia here’s what I’ve gathered about running a booth at art events:

As I mentioned, my average sales are around ten prints per show. This tells me that I need to offer a few more options to get people interested in what I’m doing. The price point seems good (you can visit my Etsy site if you want to see) and with a few lower price point options I think I’m catching a few people that might have walked away. One thing that I want to play with is raising prices. Claremont, for example, is a pretty wealthy community, so I can probably bump my better selling prints up a few dollars without scaring people away. Make a few more bucks.

I would guess that half of the people that stop by my booth are attracted to the display. The dark stained wood and slick orange lamps are all part of a package and I think eyes have been drawn to the light and overall aesthetic as much as the art it’s trying to sell. I’ve received a lot of compliments on the display and I like to joke with customers that it makes my crappy art look even better than it really is, but with the packing house architectural style being so popular right now I fit in really well among people with style. Which I think helps my art stand out even more.

Overall sales are a lot lower than I’d like and that might be a combination of things. One thing that I’m ready to try is to get into a paid show like Patchwork (which incidentally is going on this Sunday in Santa Ana). The Patchwork Show has notoriety and big crowds. I figure I can probably triple my profits by signing up for a half-booth ($150) on these one-day craft fairs. That’s totally doable right now and at minimum I figure I can break even.

On the other side of that coin I need to get some more product up. Some people like to say “Develop a style”, but right now I’m not seeing people demand that. With a couple of different series running people are choosing from all of them. Since these are things that I like, there’s a good chance that people will have similar crossing interests. What I’m not seeing though is that “Oh I have to have this” reaction from people yet. The closest I get is a long, smiling stare at my Yosemite print which is probably more the name brand than anything. I’ll take the compliment, but I’d rather have the money.

I have a few other tweaks that I want to do to the display – add more signage, build out as more product gets developed, make it more visible from a distance, make it easier to transport, and so on. There are a couple of questions that I get asked frequently, like “What is screen printing” and “Are you the artist”. Some signage could be helpful with this, but at least for now it helps me refine my pitch. The bottom line here is that art shows like these already make up the bulk of my sales.

Right now I’d say that compared to online sales, shows make up three quarters of total sales. That’s something that I’d like to change and I’m hoping to grab more show goers and pull them over to my Etsy site. But I think that just comes down to offering more and better product online. I did see a microscopic bump online from the OC Weekly event, but no sales to speak of. Yet.

If you are considering any of these shows I’d say that they are good testing grounds for newbies like me or maybe just trying out new ideas. All the shows I participated in are minimal in cost and if you have a winning product you only stand to earn. I can’t say what it’s like from the other side of the booth – the customer side. I think that one problem is that it’s hard to find out about these events. Other than everyone being so pleasant and curious, even if they are not handing over their hard earned cash, you are with your people at these events. Everyone that shows up is into what you are doing and probably has similar backgrounds to you. That makes it fun, like hanging out in the neighborhood club house with all your friends. So at the very least you get plenty of instant feedback, because people always have opinions – not always a bad thing – and you get to meet cool people.

 

*I’ve only learned this year that “Juried” and “Unjuried” shows make a difference. Juried shows are selective of the people who participate and are generally better in service. Unjuried tends to be a free for all.

 

 

Copyright © 2016 Robert C. Olson

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