Watch Out for the Art Show Police

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The following essay was sent me by an artist who has made a living at shows for the past 20 years. It's going to ruffle a lot of feathers but even more people are going to relate to it.
If outdoor art shows pay your bills, be concerned. There's a trend afoot which could severely impact your ability to make a living, and I'm not talking about just the economy. I'm talking about the expanding powers of the art police to restrict what you can sell. And for some of us, our art show income has paid health insurance, mortgage and supported our families for years.

This new trend also speaks to the very question of why art shows exist in the first place. Should they be for you to sell your work and make a living? Or should they be more for exhibition and occasionally winning an award from a judge because your piece has made some profound statement about the human condition?

What's happening now seems to be the latest installment of the historic conflict between art and commerce. The evolution of the art show business over the past four decades has allowed many of us the luxury and satisfaction of doing these shows for a living. We've not had to be waiters or cab drivers or Wal-Mart greeters to finance our art habits.

How did an art show earn one of those top 20 national rankings in the first place? It happens because a ton of people came and bought our art. The problem is the traditional cat-and-mouse game between many artists and the jurors who select them. Big show jurors tend to be academics and museum people inclined to select on the basis of "artsy" work that few show visitors would typically want to purchase. But you, the artist, cannot drive 1,000 or 2,000 miles to a Cherry Creek or a St. Louis only to lose money. So what do you do? In addition to the work which you juried in with, most artists produce work that they know is saleable and not jury pieces. Up to now, youíve been able to include that sales-worthy work in your booth.

There's a big buzz in our business these days about this new art police incursion. Many bigger shows and even some middle-range ones are dispatching the typically stony-faced art police to your tent with a copy of the jury image of your display. Anything they see in your booth thatís not in the picture has to come down on the spot. You're left only with the pieces the jurors liked, those which tend to be non-sellers. So you mostly just twiddle your thumbs until teardown on Sunday evening and hope your credit card still works on the way home.

Some shows are firing warning salvos to accepted artists in advance, advising via e-mail that you darn well better limit your display to what got you juried in.

Disclaimer: This new restriction will not affect all of you, certainly not those few fortunate enough to produce work that is both jury-worthy and sales-worthy. But you are a small minority. And, I'm not suggesting shows should not have rules. I'm just thinking this trend could have a big impact on the way many of us have run our businesses.

We have here an intensifying of the Catch-22 we've worked with for years: If you can get juried in or win something with it, you can't sell it. If you can sell it, you can't get juried in with it.

Most artists would not go to these shows only to lose money. And if a whole bunch of artists can't go to a top 20 show and make money, how long might that show continue to be a top 20 show? Perhaps show directors should consider the possible long-term implications of their new restrictions.

Typical big-show jurors come from a different universe than you. They have their weekly college or museum paychecks. I sense they don't really understand that many of us do not enjoy the safety net of that regular check. Whereas these people can afford an elitist perspective, most of us have to be more pragmatic in order to finance our art except perhaps for those among us who enjoy inheritances or trust funds of a spouse who makes a bundle. Or those rare talents mentioned earlier, able to produce work that can both jury in and sell.

For better or worse, the art show business has become about money. The shows make money. The artists make money. The visitors are able to buy something and go away happy.

I'm not suggesting this new art police initiative necessarily is wrong. I'm just saying it could impact the way many artists earn a living. It could severely limit sales at traditionally big-selling shows. And this doesnít come at the best of times, considering the economy which already has put some of us out of business. The rest of us may have to buckle up for an even rougher ride.

comments - e-mail Larry Berman at larry@bermanart.com

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