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Art Show Jury and
Marketing Tips
A Conversation with
Bruce Baker
jeweler, juror and artist consultant

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Picking your jury slides
There are a couple of things that come to mind when it comes to artists picking their slides for the jury. First and foremost, what artists do is create work, and over a period of time they “cherry pick” that work to make their selections to be photographed for jury slides. They have their photo session and when they are done they usually have a grouping of work that does not hold together as a cohesive body. It is “a little of this and a little of that”, potentially all nice pieces, but they don't work together to create an artists identity.

A much better way to approach the challenge of jury slides is to conceptualize a body of work that works together as a group, fresh, imaginative and impeccably crafted. If you take the time to create a body of work and then photograph it, POW! Now when your slides pop up in front of the jury there is a relationship. They see the connection between the pieces and the palate and the story of what you're trying to say to the world with those objects, be they two-dimensional or three-dimensional. When you do this you make it easy for them to decide if you are in or out of the show. Juries tend to reward artists that make it easy for them.

Another challenge that artists face when choosing slides is knowing how to get the juries attention. When I am conducting a workshop I often ask: “What are you trying to say to the jury when you pick your slides?” Most artists respond with “look how talented I am!” Or “pick me!” Problems occur if this is what you are telling the jury. Artists end up showing a range of talent rather than a theme and focus. Jurying is a very hard job. When you make this job easier by showing amazing work, easy to understand, with theme and focus, you just got their attention. I have seen this happen when I have been on a jury and a slide set with strong visual impact and a relationship (theme) is obvious. There may be an audible “Whoa” or “Wow” reaction. Otherwise, it’s just one more set of slides that pop up and some jurors score them up, some jurors score them down and they landed right in the middle. You don’t get into shows from the middle, you have to be on top or you will be rejected. When you create a body of work, jurors take notice and it makes their decision easy, that’s what gets you into shows. If an artist shows a range of talent in their slides, usually it just looks confusing and results in more rejections. Make your work and slides impressive and easy to understand and you will get into more shows consistently.

Another common problem I see is that artists cannot get customer comments out of their mind when they are selecting pieces to be photographed and sent to the jury. The customers and the jury are very different. To be more specific, an example is if you use dragonflies or hummingbirds as a motif in your work, many customers will likely react positively because it’s familiar. The jury on the other hand, is always looking for cutting edge and artist identity. If images have been assimilated in our popular culture, a jury will generally view it as negative; they perceive it as commercial and have already seen it in so many slides before. In general, if the customer likes it the jury most likely will not. So when you pick your slides you cannot rely on what your customers are telling you.

Two things that are really important for artists to understand is the importance of a body of images that work together visually. (In fact, you might even create two or three bodies of work to see which one is the most photogenic, sometimes even though it might be excellent art, that doesn’t mean it photographs well.) Based on what the jury wants to see, leaving what the customers wants or says out of the equation.

The current economic climate
Artists are really struggling as a demographic for a myriad of reasons. Yet, I keep running into artists who are telling me they're having the best year ever, simply because they have embraced change and done things differently. Some of them are working larger, which is a smart way to go. When I go to shows and galleries these days, almost everything on display is small scale. Too many artists are working small thinking they're going to increase their sales because money is tight. The success stories are artists who are working bigger and making their work more expensive and more impressive. People who can afford to buy art live in large homes and often have more than one. These successful artists, in these tough economic times report to me that they are selling large scale art at higher price points over smaller pieces. It really makes sense that people who have money to buy art do not want small scale. The people who used to buy small art are so financially stressed they can no longer afford it.

The message is for artists to embrace change, some are changing their scale and others are changing the types of shows they choose to do. Certainly, fine art isn't going to sell at a farm market, but I encounter a lot of functional potters, for example, who have shifted some of their marketing over to farm markets Success at a venue like a farm market would not have been possible a decade ago.

Change is in the air, and artists who are embracing change seem to be doing better than the people that think the ‘90s are coming back. These are interesting times. We suffer from the fact that our government pays so little attention to the arts. The arts are always the first thing to go from any budget. We have lost so many craft organizations and galleries in the last few years it is a crime

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The booth
Many artists are coming to me because they know their booth is not very good and they want help to make it better. Ultimately, there’s no cheating, the merchandise must match the merchandising and the merchandising must match the merchandise. That simple rule is where many artist start to go wrong. It is common to find incredibly contemporary pieces of art that an artist has displayed on unpainted pine furniture, so wrong. You can't fool customers. When the merchandising and the merchandise work together that is where sales magic happens. Visual merchandising isn't rocket science, but it does go from the floor to the ceiling, which at most shows the ceiling is your lighting system or your canopy. Many artists go to the shows and have no floor covering. Just for the visual alone it’s a huge mistake, without floor covering the booth is not finished, not to mention the comfort factor. Customers hang around a booth that is comfortable to stand in.

Fabulous displays do not require spending a lot of money. Creativity is so much more important than spending money in a booth. I've seen absolutely fabulous displays completed for a couple of hundred dollars and they work brilliantly; work being the operative term. So many people turn their booth into a work of art and that can be very detrimental to your sales. Your customers should not be talking about your display they should be commenting on your art and wanting to touch it. The booth should virtually disappear and let the artwork pop out. If the display makes people want to touch your work then all the better.

Large format photos in the booth
Large format photography displayed on the walls of your booth does more to pull people in than just about any method you can use to attract customers attention. In the case of jewelers, it’s so easy for two or three customers to block off jewelry cases from customers in the aisle. They walk by and don't even notice what the product line was. Any photo is better than no photo but the image should focus on lifestyle and image. These photos should speak to your target demographic. When they do they get pulled into your space. If you go to any mall most mass merchandisers use large format photography as a marketing tool, but it often isn't about the product. It’s about who you will become when you wear the product or how it will make you feel if you own this object. Never underestimate the lack of imagination on the part of your customers, they need these images to show them how something will look on the body or displayed in a kitchen. When my business partner and I were doing shows we would always use large format photographs prominently displayed of models wearing earrings and necklaces, which we sold multiple times at shows. When we would sell out of that style, we would put up a new photograph. As soon as we did, the jewelry in the new photograph would start to sell. It was so predictable and so immediate; I realized quickly that people could not imagine how a particular earring looked being worn without the photos!

A picture says a thousand words, and for example if you make functional pottery, you can show a table with all your dinnerware and tabletop accessories. The fine linen, the place mats, etc. and then have it photographed. Every time you use that photo you are telling the customer exactly what your line looks like on a table and you only have to do the work of setting it up once, yet you reap the reward of that effort every time you hang up the photo.

Booth design is always thinking outside of the box and being creative. I find it very curious that artists are the most creative people on the planet. We think in ways that blow most people’s minds. But when it comes to booth design or merchandising, most artists want to do whatever is the easiest, whatever is the quickest, and whatever is unfortunately, the most commercial. A lot of the display systems that are available work, but they have no individuality, every booth looks almost alike. So, be really creative and break the mold, the one thing that you always want to keep in mind is don't make people work to see your work. You need plenty of light and the product needs to be at or near eye level. It needs to be really touchable.

Merchandise for high touch; that is a thousand dollar tip! If you display your work in such a way that it makes people touch it and not just stand and look at it, that will fill your cash box. Getting people to touch the work is ultimately the key. I see booths that are overcrowded or there are things that are barricades, keeping people from being able to reach and touch something. They are displayed too low so people can't see it or don't feel prone or promoted to touch it. Or they are displayed too high where it’s out of reach. Getting that touch response in your visual merchandising will do wonders for how it creates sales.

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On 2D work
For those who are 2-D artists, most want to work small because it’s easy to handle and it’s easy to transport and this scale brings the price point down. But, ultimately, that’s where the problem begins. If you are making $175 or $450 art, the customer that this price point appeals to have a million choices of where to by art in these price parameters. I think smart artists are working more modularly. For example, three pieces that work together as a triptych to create one large vertical rectangle. As an artist you don't have to deal with huge canvases but several smaller ones that fit together as one. With this method you can create art that is impressive and will appeal to upscale customers. Modular art is working well for a lot of the artists I am in contact with. There might be one large, two medium and three small pieces that all work together as a grouping. The pieces can be purchased individually in some case for a customer who is looking for a smaller piece or a lower price point. That’s one direction I see 2 D artists going. I also have been impressed by the diptych; two paintings side by side; each available individually, but they install in a corner, which is a very cool thing. I’m also seeing two-dimensional art and three-dimensional art that works together as a set. This is accomplished by either one artists working in both of these formats, or two artists collaborating or finding someone whose work is very similar in a three dimensional context and showing the two dimensional piece in the background and the three dimensional piece in the foreground like a diorama. Another technique to sell 2-D art is to include the installation in the purchase price with the agreement that you can photograph the work once the installation is completed. What I always tell artists is they need to ensure the collector’s anonymity, but in this way you can start building a portfolio of your work in collector’s homes or offices. Then, when you show your work, have a media presentation with a digital projector in your booth. It is a constant and changing portfolio of your work. The more homes that your work appears in the more people are going to want it. This presentation can show a variety of different kinds or architecture, from corporate to traditional or contemporary. Digital projection has a lot of visual impact, the projectors are very small and with the right technology you can run one from an ipod.

Using digital projection
I'm seeing it more and more, but it’s still happening very slowly. I can't figure out why because though my first digital projector cost more than my car, now you can get one four times brighter and 1/3rd the size at any “big box retailer” for a reasonable price. The expense is seriously outweighed by what it enables an artist to do. I hear all the time from artists, “I can only show six large pieces in my booth.” You can show six pieces in your booth, but you can have 130 pieces on your iPod that you can project for the customer. At the opening I went to recently, they had a 24-inch monitor and I sat there and watched the entire presentation because I couldn't stop. Then I went and got my wife and we both stood there and watched it. This type of presentation has a lot of power to keep people in your space giving you much more opportunity to sell to them.

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Wrapping up
I think that one of the biggest problems we face in the Art/Craft industry today is that artists are not happy and they are not having enough fun. I realize it is hard to put on a smile when you are under financial stress but being gloomy will only cost you sales. I go to a lot of art and craft shows where there’s a lot of unmet expectation. People are just sitting in a chair looking really bored or miserable. Then when customers come into your space they pick up on your bad vibe and it doesn't make them want to buy art. I would tell everybody out there, “As much as you can, go to shows with no expectations and declare your booth a “happy space” and project successful energy! You will be amazed how the good vibes you send will attract more people in and create more business potential.

Some shows I attend, I go from booth to booth, “How’s it going?” answer: “Really terrible!” Then I go to another booth and say, “How’s it going?” answer: “Fantastic! I've almost sold out” is what a woman said to me recently. The difference was, she came there with a good attitude and everybody wanted a little piece of her success. I know it’s hard, it’s been tough times for people at a lot of shows, but if you make that obvious to your customers, your business will only go down the tubes.

Ultimately, the way to create better business is to know how to greet people, learn how to sell, and show them a good time. What they're looking for is honesty, sincerity and integrity. And when you project those qualities more and more people will want to buy your work.

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Contact Bruce Baker through his web site for a one on one consultation about your jury images. He also sells CD's for artists on the following topics:
Your Slides and the Jury
Booth Design & Merchandising for Craft and Trade Shows
Dynamic Sales and Customer Service Techniques

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