I recently did my first art show! It was part of the organization RAW (rawartists.org). I want to give an honest, hopefully balanced takeaway from the experience so others can know how to well utilize the event.
The after-the-fact impression was feeling a little duped. I felt like I hadn’t made a wise choice - hadn’t seen the signs on the wall, but there was still some good that came out.
RAW found me through Adobe’s Behance a couple months back (yay, putting stuff online actually did something!), prior to which an art show was not on my immediate radar. I have always wanted to try to sell work that I enjoy doing, but never really had enough pieces that I actually liked, or just hadn’t felt like I was “there” yet. This time around, I actually had some stuff, so I figured I’d give it a shot! I read several reviews and they seemed to be either artists loving RAW, or those embittered because it was a “Pay to Play” event. To which I raise an eyebrow and ask, “Isn’t everything? Were they expecting something for free?” Attendants have to be hired, venues have to be rented, ad space must be purchased, etc. So all that aside, here’s how RAW generally works as a business.
RAW goes to a city, and finds local artists, musicians, and performers to create this one evening art show extravaganza. Each artist must sell 20 tickets to join the show, either selling them to people they know, or buying them up themselves (or some of both). RAW takes no commission, but makes their profit off of the ticket sales. They offer a couple other perk details, but those are more peripheral.
I had grown up with my mom doing art shows for a few years and attending some my self. The general impression from those shows is that most people are out walking around at a free event to simply have something to do that day. So RAW’s model seemed like a great idea to me - an evening full of people who were there because they have interest in the arts and wanted to support local artists, right? And many times, when you go to an event that you’ve spent money on, you are there with the intent to buy something to remember the experience.
Then the evening commenced. I saw the sea of about 1000 attendees and started realizing where I had gone terribly wrong in my assessment. These weren’t art enthusiasts; these were family members and supportive friends of the artists showing. They weren’t there to buy stuff; they were there because of love or guilt. Person after person, they all stopped by, fascinated with what I had to show, but I made no sales. And it wasn’t just me: I rarely saw anyone carrying anything as they left (I was near the exit). I talked to a few people who sold a couple little things, but product really wasn’t moving.
Was it a failure though? Am I saying to NEVER do a RAW art show? Not necessarily.
While I was planning my exhibit, I still had enough of my pessimistic side to know that A) this was probably going to be an event with lots of undiscovered artists, or as a colleague put it, “artists who have not yet discovered themselves”, and B) that my work isn’t really the stuff you hang over your mantle. So I approached it from the perspective of just getting people connected into my little art-world, and exposure to the story telling I have been working on over the years. My two highlight features were that I brought the silicone rod puppet that I had made for my ongoing short film, and printed out 150 3-page comic books to give away for free. So the monster pulled them in, and the comic gave them something to take away. I saw a ton of people walking around with my comic. The vast majority left the show with only the comic in their hands. And I also got to learn about the type of people that like my stuff. My wife and I were a little surprised to see that women seemed to really connect with my artwork. I typically think of guys as being the major consumers of history and fantasy, but women appeared to like the strength and dignity I give to the ladies I draw.
At the end of the day, I was out about $150 for the show, $150 for the cost to print the comics, gas, and a baby sitter. For that, I gained some wisdom.
So if you’re considering being a part of one of these shows, realize this:
Most people are only doing one, maybe two of these shows possibly because they aren’t successful for the artists involved.
RAW doesn’t take commissions off your work. That seems positive, but it’s likely because they realize you aren’t going to sell anything.
It is a nice look at how a general audience (that isn’t biased towards you) reacts to your work. It’s helpful to actually see faces light up when they see your work. Not to glorify yourself, but to be affirmed that your artwork is somehow being a blessing to others.
They’re on Wednesday evenings! Who goes to events on a Wednesday?
If you’re cool with the above, then go for it! And may you gain much from RAW!
As an aside, here are a few things to be aware of that were a bit annoying that may have been specific to the show venue that I was a part of:
Music was way too loud. It was too loud to talk to and hear attendees. That's a big deal. If you can’t tell people your story, you may as well just sell online. There’s not point in trying to make that personal connection.
Everyone was told they’d have a 6’ wide grid to show work on… but we all got grid maybe 4.5’ to maybe 5’? That wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but many of us had pieces hanging off the sides of our grids.
Super early call times. Artists were asked to be there at 2:00 for a 7:00 event. If I were to do it again, I’d probably show up at 5:00. Set up in 30 minutes, and tweak, meet artists, and get going. To wait around a long time can exhaust you before you need to start to talk to guests. Keeping that energy up and in the right place is important. Now I’ve done enough with film to know that it’s better to have people wait around a little that to show up late… and we are dealing with artists, but 5 hours is unnecessary.
I certainly hope this inside look is helpful, insightful, and fair! Thanks for reading. Please follow, share, like, all that!