The Booth Experience
How art, presentation, and personal encounters keep the Art Fairs ahead of the Internet.
by Jan Schlain
From the July, 2017 issue
At 10 a.m. on Thursday, July 20, more than a thousand artists will open up booths all over downtown. Over the next four days, hundreds of thousands of visitors will wander past them.
For fairgoers, it's a casual summer outing. For artists, it's their living. Unless people stop, enter their booth, and find something to take home, they'll earn nothing for the long hours of work and miles of travel that brought them to Ann Arbor.
So they turn their booths into miniature art galleries, then wait patiently, eleven hours a day Thursday through Saturday and six on Sunday, through heat, humidity, and (almost certainly) rain, for the chance to tell people about their work.
In that sense, being an art fair artist is also performance art. The booth is their stage. What they wear is their costume. Their goal: to engage visitors in what Sharon Tesser, the featured artist at Ann Arbor's South University Art Fair, calls the "booth experience." It's what draws customers in and brings them back again. And it's what the artists are counting on to keep art fairs viable as online sales disrupt every other kind of retailing--the belief that people will always need that sensory, live experience and person-to-person connection.
Tesser, fifty-two and the mother of seven kids in a blended family, was a stay-at-home mom for twenty-one years. Once the kids left home and her husband retired, she hit the road to sell her fiber art.
Though she has a website, an etsy.com account, and an active presence on Facebook, she says she hardly ever sells online--her art is so much about texture and color that people need to see it in person. So she and her husband hit the road twenty to twenty-five weekends a year to do art fairs--the Craft Shows at Chautauqua in Fredonia, New York, the Boardwalk Art Show in Virginia Beach, and the Old Town Art Fair in Chicago, among others. At
each, she says, she wants to "create a memory" for visitors--a "felt moment."
She says her clients run the gamut. "I had a twenty-year-old who emptied her bank account to own one of my pieces, and an eighty-year-old couple I'm doing a commission for" based on a photo they took on a trip to the Galapagos.
She says other art fair artists have told her that you "need to know your target audience," but she's not found that to be the case. "I have a strong background in the arts," she says--a BFA with a specialty in illustration--and calls her textile mosaics "brave." Her original pieces range from $99 to $4,000, she says, "and everything in between."
One reason her audience is wide and sales are constant, she thinks, is because "I do everything--food, landscape, people, places ..." Each is one of a kind, but they share a personal quality--she calls them "a celebration of life's small moments." That feeling--and her presence--create her booth experience.
Andy Anh Ha is from Los Angeles, but he was raised in Nashville. "My parents were Vietnamese refugees," he says, reached by phone on his way to an art fair in San Francisco. As one of the few Asians in Nashville at the time, he says, he dealt with "hands-on racism" growing up. But he "stayed with positive people who made me comfortable with myself."
He started studying international business at the University of Tennessee ("my parents wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer"), but he was happiest in the art studios. As soon as he graduated he moved to L.A., where he felt more accepted. But he still speaks with a Nashville accent, has a gallery there, and makes the city his hub when he does art fairs east of the Mississippi--he ships his mixed-media paintings there from his Los Angeles studio and returns there between shows to restock.
At thirty-seven, he has been making art full-time for twelve years. He paints on wood, not canvas, intuitively and spontaneously. "I just build layers, scrap pieces of wood, with sharp edges of tools," he says. His prices range from $300 to $3,000, and he has buyers in every age group--"college kids who buy with credit cards and retirees who have cash." One marketing tool that always pays off for him, he says, are postcards (with his name, website, contact information), which he gives out freely. He does an email blast before each show and has a list of about 1,000 potential buyers across the U.S.--"and if they don't go themselves, they tell their friends."
He says that he promotes coming to art fairs in general, because "we're all in this together." But he also has a keen eye on his competition, and it disturbs him when other art fair artists come into his booth to figure out why he's selling so much and they aren't. That's also why he doesn't put his newest work on his website.
He gets to make those choices. "What makes art fairs so great is the artist is in complete control," he says. "You have complete control of your space, the price, what city you choose to go to."
When he decided to come to Ann Arbor, he chose to apply to the State Street District Art Fair. "When I looked at a map of Ann Arbor, it was the one in the center," he says. State Street made him this year's featured artist.
Ha says that Ann Arbor's fairs are great because "of the sheer number of attendees." He's met people here from Chicago, New York, and Canada--"it's the show to go to in the Midwest," he says.
He considers his booth a huge part of his success. He and his fiancee, who travels with him, spend at least six hours setting it up, and it's so grueling that they joke that they "need new bodies" when they're done. But they love it that in Ann Arbor, unlike many fairs, they have a whole day ahead of time to set up and then get a good night's sleep before the fair opens--they stay in a hotel, for maximum quiet time.
For all the effort they put into presentation, Ha says, it isn't people's response to the work itself that tips the sale. He believes 95 percent is the connection between buyer and artist. "They're already drawn to it, but then they make that connection--it doesn't matter if the connection is business or personal--it's like they're investing in you."
Sarah Goodyear, twenty-eight, is the featured artist at the Guild of Artists and Artisans' Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair. She lives in West Virginia, and though she's shown at other Guild shows in the past, this will be her first time in Ann Arbor. "I've never done a show with 1,100 artists," she says. "I'm interested to see the logistics."
She often paints female figures, mostly from her imagination, though she once did a series based on old photos of herself. The figures are frequently nude and often seem to be in despair.
"A lot of times the darker emotions drive me," she says, and her paintings serve as a release. That doesn't sound like work that would get a person chosen as a featured artist, but, she says, her acrylic on canvas paintings are "eye-catching, despite the dark content--and colorful. That kind of balances it out."
On her website, Goodyear recalls how she started making art as a young child: "My mom handed me some washable markers and said 'now don't draw on the wall.' As I began scribbling, while intermittently pausing to enjoy some juice from my sippy cup and ponder my piece, I realized this: Art feels good."
She's relatively new to the art fair circuit. She started about five years ago, first selling at music festivals, then adding art fairs, then dropping the music shows. She now does about fifteen or twenty art fairs a year, all over the country.
Her original paintings run anywhere from $800 to $2,500. She also sells prints for $20-$30. She keeps her booth display "pretty neutral," just a lot of paintings--"no extra bells and whistles."
She says her customer demographic is people her age--both men and women--"a pretty even split." But she disagrees with Andy Ha that 95 percent of the sale comes from connecting with the person.
"It depends on what you're selling," she says. "I just sit there and sometimes say, 'How are you?'
"I don't talk much to people. If you talk too much, it scares them away, I find. You don't want to overwhelm people." That understatement may function as a counterbalance to the intense emotion of her pieces--another kind of booth experience.
Cali Hobgood has been doing art fairs since 1991, and showing her black-and-white hand-painted photographs at the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original, since 2006. This year, she's their featured artist.
She doesn't do much marketing. "I applaud the people who send out email blasts," she says by phone from her home in Urbana, Illinois. But when we spoke she hadn't yet, and wasn't sure she was going to. "I'm looking out my window into my backyard," she explains, "and I see new peaches on the trees that I want to photograph ... and that will win out."
She agrees with Sharon Tesser that the booth experience is what creates the connection and the sale. She says she can tell when "someone's been through the other art fairs first," because their eyes look glazed. She likes it best when someone comes to her booth "with fresh eyes."
She makes her photographs the old-fashioned way, first as negatives, then prints, in a darkroom and then hand-colors them with oils. She came to this art from her own childhood memory of old, hand-tinted photos that her grandmother hung on the wall outside her bedroom: "the sky was a little blue, and Aunt Edith's cheeks were pink ... and that stuck with me."
She went to art school at the University of Illinois, where a "post-feminist professor taught me how to make my mind harness my ideas ... how to make [her thoughts] translate into an image on paper."
After college, she realized she wasn't good at wedding photography and didn't like to work for other people. Frustrated with galleries, she had what she calls "a light bulb moment" and decided to make art fairs her venue.
She started making "kitchen art"--"green peppers and tomatoes, blown up, and colored. I liked the way it looked." Twenty-six years later, she's still at it.
When she comes to Ann Arbor she doesn't stay at a hotel, but at the home of a man she met at an oyster bar in northern Florida. They struck up a conversation, and when she told him that she shows here, he invited her to stay in his guest cottage. She's been returning ever since, usually reciprocating with a piece of art, either her own or one by another fair artist.
When she started, she says, she was the young one among the fair's older artists. Now fifty-four, she's happy to see younger artists and feels inspired by them. "They're the way I used to be--optimistic, energetic, needing less in terms of creature comforts," she says. It also warms her heart when she sees an excited sixteen-year-old fairgoer with a film camera around her neck.
She says people who find her work at the fair sometimes contact her later through her website. But she doesn't see the Internet ever replacing art fairs. "We still need hands-on art, connection," she says. "The looking and touching of real things."
[Originally published in July, 2017.]
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