Many conventions have art shows. This is most often like an art gallery set up for the purpose of displaying genre related art. This art can vary from from jewelry, to large or small sculptures, up through automobile sized objects or wall sized tapestries. The majority of pieces are typically paintings and drawings, most sized less than 20 x 30 inches. Often the art is for sale.
What’s an art show?
It must contain art. Everything else is optional. The art is usually for sale by written bid and a voice auction, though neither is required. Art shows at conventions usually consist of work by many artists, obtained from the artists (or their agents). Most of it is for sale and sales are usually handled by the show. It may be original work, prints, or both. There is seldom very much editorial control. Other types of shows – beyond the scope of this article – include theme shows or historical retrospectives.
Art shows are labor intensive before, during, and after the convention (hundreds of staff-hours for a medium size show). Why have one at all? Even standard “convention type” art shows vary in their purpose. Some common reasons for having an art show include:
1. You just like seeing art. A good reason on a personal level, but not convincing to the convention committee.
2. Prestige. Running an art show will enhance the prestige of you and your convention. However, this requires a good art show. A bad art show is worse than none.
3. Audience draw (i.e., other people like seeing art). Having an art show will draw more people to the convention. This is a major reason conventions hold art shows  ("the audience expects it" is the same reason in reverse). This also requires a good art show.
4. Make money. Alluring, but many art shows don’t make enough to cover the cost of their function space (it’s hard to say how many, because few conventions publish their budgets or allocate the cost of function space back out to the individual functions). On the other hand, achieving reasons 1, 2, 3 and 5 at no net cost is good.
5. Fulfill nonprofit, tax-exempt status. Many conventions are run as nonprofit, educational organizations (in the U.S., organizations exempt from federal tax under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code). An art exhibit is a way to educate your members and thus fulfill your exempt purpose. This is especially true of retrospective or themed exhibits. (Note, however, that too much unrelated business income from an art show or other sources can threaten a convention's tax-exempt status.)
- * It says “a major” rather than “the major” only because I suspect it’s outweighed by force of habit.
A convention art show has three sets of customers to satisfy. In order of decreasing obviousness, they are artists, buyers, and convention. They want different things and you must satisfy all of them. Fail to keep any of them happy and your show will fail.
The art show requires artists. Without artists, you have no art and nothing to show. You must keep the artists reasonably happy. But you can't please them at the expense of the buyers. Artists won't display work if no one sees and buys it. All the money for the show comes from buyers. The show receives money from artists, but this money is built into their prices - they pay because they expect to receive the money back from the buyers. No buyers means artists lose money means no artists which means no Art Show.
The convention provides the buyers. It expects to gain something in exchange, which could be money, publicity, audience draw, or prestige. It wants the Art Show to make the convention look good. It may or may not care how the show is run – as long as it’s run well. It does not want to hear complaints or lose money. If the convention decides it no longer wants the art show, you won’t have one.
(The Art Show is part of the convention. Doesn't calling the con a customer tend to separate the two? And isn't that a bad thing? (Yes, and usually.) On the other hand:
- Remember your management-speak. The con as a whole is an internal customer of the art show.
- Many cons don't have Art Shows (especially gaming cons). The Art Show is an optional part of a con. Some cons decided they had better things to do with the function space and dropped the Art Show. The Art Show has to justify itself to the con.
- There are cons where the Art Show is a separate entity - not only with its own budget, but also where the person(s) in charge of it get(s) to keep profits from the Art Show without regard to how the rest of the convention did financially.
- also see Art Show - Who Should Run )
What each customer says they want:
|Many buyers||Few buyers||Many buyers|
|Few artists||Much art||Much art|
|High sales per panel||Bargains||High overall sales|
|speed and convenience||speed and convenience||minimize expense and effort|
Notice that each of the three customers wants something different. It's your job to keep them all happy. You can't do that by favoring any one - you have to balance their desires, which are listed below.
What each customer tends to want:
|More money spent on art||Equitable ways to buy art||More dollars spent at the Art Show|
|Diverse artistic styles||More art to spend money on||A full Art Show|
|Good return on investment (increased sales/exposure/contacts)||Good return on investment (art value received)||Good return on investment (revenues exceed costs)|
|Speed and convenience (check-in/out and payment||Speed and convenience (bidding and pick-up)||Meet and exceed expectations|
Art buyers look for quality first ("Do I like it?") and then price ("Can I afford it?" or "Is it worth that much to me?"). While that's solely between a buyer and their wallet, Art Shows can help the artist and the buyer understand each other better. The buyer -- not knowing about differences in between oil and acrylic painting or the value of an original versus a reproduction -- may not see why the artist has priced their piece the way they have. If you inform artists of the idiosyncracies the convention's membership, such as a preference for television and movie art or a recent downturn in the local economy, they can more easily send pieces that will find more receptive buyers. The more an Art Show does to educate each group about the other the easier it becomes to sell art at mutually beneficial prices.
Many conventions now offer tours of the Art Show guided by displaying artists or experienced art buyers or both (docent tours). These are a marvelous way of bridging the knowledge and expectation gap between artists and buyers as well as helping a convention to fulfill its non-profit mission (if it has one), to increase its prestige, and to offer additional programming.
The last row is a common source of conflict between the convention and artists or buyers. Each prefers their own convenience. Convenience for artists seldom conflicts with convenience for buyers, but increasing convenience for buyers or sellers often involves more work or expense for the convention. Look for ways to optimize your time and resources to create solutions for all parties. Some examples:
- Many artists and buyers don't get to the convention until after work on Friday; be open in the evening and you make your Art Show more accessible to everyone.
- Dealers are buyers, too - One group of people with disposable income that are perpetually under-served by Art Shows are dealers as they have to tend their tables. The easiest solution to this is to keep your Art Show open past the close of your Dealer's Room. It doesn't have to be long; if your Dealer's Room closes at 5pm, keep your Art Show open to 6pm.
- Returning all mail-in art the day after the convention - This requires an Art Show staff person to do on Monday (and two people are better than one), but that should be possible. This can be an excellent means of satisfying your artists.
Remember: the more mutual benefits you can present to artists, buyers the convention and yourself the more your Art Show will benefit. Always remember to factor your time, effort and inclinations into the consideration. Does your art show need to attract more buyers and artists? What staff and financial resources do you have to draw upon? These all contribute to the decision of how many services you can or want to include. "More" is only "better" if people benefit.
The cost to the convention of providing extra services is obvious; the benefits might not be so easily perceived. Do those extra services significantly increase sales or the quality of art displayed? I can't prove it - I can only say that when MileHiCon increased services for buyers and artists, their art show sales rose steadily from $3,000 to $13,000 over a period of ten years. On the other hand, MileHiCon has few local buyers or artists . If your convention has many buyers in an area with many artists, you might see little increase.
On the other hand, I know cases where an artist refuses to send art to a convention where they sell well, just because it's so difficult. Removing these barriers isn't really an extra service and a lot of them can be removed at little to no cost to the con; the con just keeps doing it that way because that's the way they've always done it.
An art show can absorb a nearly infinite amount of labor. There will always be something else that might be nice to do, if only you had more help. But there's an essential minimum without which you shouldn't run an art show at all.
- Art shows require space. This generally costs money. Often times it is hard to calculate the cost of function space for an art show because your hotel contract can have some event rooms billed at no cost. If you want to be incredibly precise figure out the total area of your function space divide it into your hotel space cost and then multiply that figure by the area of your art show room. Example: YourCon has rented 30,000 square feet of function space at a total cost of US$90,000; the size of your art show room is 2,500 sq. ft. Therefore, the cost of your art show room rental is US$7,500 ((US$90,000/30,000 sq. ft) x 2,500 sq. ft).
- Panels and hanging hardware cost money. The good news is you incur these expenses once and then spend smaller amounts of money on repairs and replacement hardware each year. Additionally, if several conventions are in the same vicinity they can share the costs and the use of art show panels. A tip: if the panels are owned by multiple conventions, use different color zip ties to make pegboard sandwiches for ease of sorting on teardown.
- Expenses for mailing, printing, and consumables.
- Money paid for art must be passed on to the artists and may not be diverted for other purposes. If you can’t guarantee this, don’t have an art show.
- For most shows you should have insurance.
Time and help (and money)
These are to some extent interchangeable. With lots of money, you can arrange for as much time and help as you need. As cons seldom have lots of money, they will instead ask you to minimize the time the art show uses its room. How much time you need depends on how much help you have. One person working alone can set up a huge art show - but it would take months. A well-coordinated army of 500 trained art show staff could set up the same show in an hour or two . When setting the function space schedule, conventions may assume that there will be plenty of help for setting up the art show. This does not mean there actually will be. You must ensure that the time allotted corresponds to the amount of help that will actually be available. You must also limit the size of the show to what you have staff and time for.
- * And all the oxygen molecules could suddenly rush to the far corner of the room. The resulting hypoxia would explain expecting 500 trained art show staff.
Further Art Show topics
and many more to come