The following is pretty much the text of Banister Pope’s remarks to the collected representatives of Arts Festivals from around the country at the IFEA convention in Montreal in October, 1997. Banister and Larry Oliverson were invited, as representatives of the NAIA, to speak on ” What Artists Want From Shows”.
In late April of 1995, there was a disquieting incident at Springfest in Charlotte. Springfest is a downtown music and arts celebration that attracts a couple of hundred thousand people. On Saturday evening, some kids in the crowd set off firecrackers and yelled “gun,” sparking a stampede of frightened people. In the panic, artists’ booths were overrun. Pots were smashed, displays were trampled and whole inventories were looted. Regrettably, the police on hand were unprepared and by some reports, unresponsive. Many artists packed up and left. Others stayed and the show went on Sunday as planned. There were no more disturbances but a question of “who’s looking out for us?” hung in the air.
Six weeks later, a group of about 25 artists, most of whom were in town for the Old Town Art Fair, met in Chicago to discuss the state of affairs. Discussion focused, naturally enough, on artists’ safety at shows, as well as on the decline of some major shows, the need for new ones and on the need for opening channels of communication between artists and show committees.
I wasn’t at that meeting and I don’t know exactly what was said but the atmosphere was apparently charged. A handful of artists decided to pursue the idea of an artists association. I was recruited by Rick Bruno at Atlanta that year.
We formed a steering committee and decided what we thought our association should be. The idea of finding some consensus among artists who are by nature independent sorts seemed unlikely but it happened easily. We said, “don’t you think it’s time we had a collective voice?” And they all said “yes.” I won’t torture you with the details but a lot of people worked hard, so here we are.
The one thing I hope all of you know is that the NAIA is made up of artists who care about this industry. Like you, we want your events to be wonderful. Your success and our success depend on one another. We want to erase the “us and them” division between show directors and artists and replace it with a sense of partnership. I hope you’re with me on this.
I won’t spend but a minute talking about these surveys. In order to know that we were speaking for the majority on these issues, we conducted several surveys, the last one published in our newsletter being the most extensive.
Most, if not all, directors solicit feedback from the artists who participate in your shows. Some are very basic while others are quite comprehensive. You must experience some degree of frustration in realizing that for reasons ranging from indifference to fear of some sort of reprisals, the artists are often less than forthcoming in their responses. It’s understandable that an artist who depends on participation in an event for a portion of his or her income will be reluctant to offer information that is less than complimentary.
Because the likelihood of any backlash is removed from a survey that is not affiliated with any event, the NAIA survey elicited plenty of uninhibited responses. The most interesting thing about the survey results was how unified the artists were in their thinking. On many of the issues, 80 and 90 and even 99 percent of the artists agreed. Copies of the surveys are available in our newsletter.
My job this morning is to stand up here and tell you what artists want. So I’ll try to do that.
Recognition: – I don’t mean pats on the back. I mean recognizing who we are. Art festivals are not just something that happens on the fringe of the art world. Our industry is an art world of its own. We are ot dependent on the blessing of the museums, nor on the sanctioning of academia, nor on coverage from a handful of art magazines for our success. Over the last 30 years, we evolved into something quite distinct from all that. Beyond the artists at its core, our art world includes everyone who contributes. The directors, their staffs, all the volunteers, the media, the patrons and the communities that host us. The festivals and fairs are our institutions.
There is something artists would like to see set straight. There is the ugly misconception that street fair artists are somehow less credible than gallery artists. What a joke! I don’t know an artist on the street who isn’t approached by a dozen galleries every year, and while many of us do participate in museum shows and work with select galleries, the artists who exhibit at outdoor festivals choose to do so. We choose festivals over galleries because we enjoy interacting with our public and knowing who our collectors are. We choose festivals over galleries because we’re better at representing our work than they are. We choose festivals over galleries because we see a larger audience than they ever will and we choose not to give them 50 percent of our earnings. We’d like to see this publicized. Galleries have their place, but they’re no benchmark for us.
Another thing that goes largely unnoticed is the tremendous educational impact artists have on communities. Where else can a family see two hundred artists who are each willing to spend a minute with them discussing the nuances and techniques particular to a variety of mediums. Kids learn the possibilities of expression, students see a standard of consistency and quality against which to measure their efforts. Adults gain confidence to explore the museums and exhibits that may have intimidated them before, and the crowds already comfortable with art are beautifully entertained. With public arts funding being axed at every turn, what community could afford its citizens an opportunity like that? No other group in the United States does more to educate the public in the arts. We do it gladly, in exchange for a 10 by 12-foot space in a weekend market. This should be publicly recognized.
Representation: – Maybe the single most important thing festivals can do to solidify good relationships with artists is to afford them the same respect you do any other arts professionals. Do this by making them a visible part of your process. Include at least one exhibiting artist on your slide juries. Employ them as peer jurors on-site at your events and seek their input as advisors. Involving artists in this way sends a big message, it says you recognize their expertise, you value their experience and you trust them. Consider the message that excluding them sends, when eighty-four percent of the artists responding to our survey were in favor of having artists on the juries. The argument most often given against this is a concern that artists will favor their friends or sleight their perceived competitors. It is far more likely that they will exhibit professional impartiality and integrity equal to anyone’s. Nothing else you can do will generate better word of mouth promotion of your event among artists. You not only get respected and savvy jurors, you gain instant ambassadors.
Several shows have put together category advisory boards and we encourage you all to do this. Shows in every region can find artists who have national experience doing shows and who would be willing to serve as advisors. They can be sounding boards for your ideas, problem solvers and your best recruiters. Several of our members serve on such boards and would be willing to provide you a good model of how they work. We are currently discussing the formation of a national advisory board comprised of NAIA members from each discipline that events could access through telephone or e-mail.
Information: – Our surveys gave us lots of feedback on the information artists want from shows. Most of it could be provided on your prospectuses. To facilitate this, we assembled a guideline for an “ideal” prospectus/application, (call for entries, whatever). We have copies of this for all who are interested. Most notably, artists want to know how many spaces are actually available through the jurying process and how many applicants you had the previous year. They want to know the compositions of your juries and how their work is projected. Lots, and I mean lots, of artists feel that jury results are manipulated after jurying so that directors can accommodate enough local artists or adjust the balance within categories. In order to quell this suspicion, we suggest that directors just reserve a few spaces to assign at their discretion and put it in the prospectus. You probably all need the leeway.
Here’s some information that artists feel really strongly about receiving. They want feedback from the jurying process. Twenty or twenty-five dollars is a lot to pay for notification saying only yes or no, no matter how politely it’s done. They want to know at the very least what their score was and what the cutoff score for their category was. The NAIA fully supports this idea. We realize that the different jurying processes you employ make this easier for some shows and nearly impossible for others, but we encourage any show that can manage it to begin doing it, and we encourage you to share your methods with others. Just a note that says “you’re in, you’re out, or you’re wait-listed. The cut-off score for your category was 50 points and you scored 49 or 51 or whatever. Please do this.
Protection: – Artists want protection. They want great security at shows. We assume that shows have a crisis management plan. We also assume you’ll let us know about the weather so that we can protect ourselves and our work. During the hours an event is underway, we all pretty much watch out for each other.
Where security really matters most is after hours. Can you safeguard our booths? Are we safe going to and from parking areas and are our vans safe? Jewelers appreciate a lock-up for their inventories. Artists rated security as a top concern. It should be a priority as you plan your events.
The other form of protection that concerns us most is what we do together to protect the perception and integrity of our events. We want you to feel confident in using superlatives to describe us and our work. You have rules and guidelines to govern what’s exhibited and how it is presented. Make them clear. We accept the parameters when we sign on. Ninety-nine percent of the artists returning surveys said they felt it was important to enforce your rules, so we encourage you to have a mechanism in place for doing so. This protects everybody.
Understanding: – Here’s what artists want you to understand. It’s a tougher way to make a living than most people suspect. Because there are so many good artists competing for spaces in so few really worthwhile shows, there are no guarantees that we’ll win a space anywhere. Artists who choose to exhibit in festivals must, like farmers, make hay while the sun shines. They can’t afford to take a week off. So to fill their schedules, artists are forced to apply to more than one show on a weekend. If they’re accepted at only one, no problem, they go there. If they are accepted at both, they must choose the one that makes the most sense to do. Which means they must cancel the other one. When artists are confronted with policies that say “acceptance is a commitment to show, no refunds,” they shake their heads. Who can afford that? Some shows do, but all shows need to consider the artists’ dilemma. Cancellation and refund policies should allow the artist the time it takes to finalize their schedule. It’s reasonable for shows to withhold 25 or even 50 dollars to cover the costs of calling in someone from the waiting list and making a new sign, but if the space is filled the show should return the artist’ booth fee. After all, the wait-listed artist knows he’s too late to be included in the program or benefit from publicity, but he steps up and pays the full fee. What does the show lose? Some shows give the argument that they don’t want to encourage cancellations, especially for the artist to accept another invitation elsewhere. We think they should change their policies to show more confidence in their venue and more consideration for the artists they hope to attract.
The best solution we’ve come up with is for shows, all shows, to make the booth fee due upon acceptance before a certain date. Space requests should accompany the fees and be honored in order of the postmark date.
It would be helpful if shows which are locked into conflicting dates would work together. They could agree to notify artists by a given date and in doing so, eliminate much confusion.
For a lot of artists, money is tight. It’s hard to have several 250 and 300 dollar checks in limbo. If you can design your policies to ease the financial burden on artists, you can bet they’ll appreciate it.
Amenities: – Obviously, artists want more than amenities but we can’t say enough good things about the shows which continue to show increasing consideration for their exhibitors. Their efforts to provide us with easy access during set-up, close in parking, electricity, bathrooms and booth sitters are wonderful, as are the pre-negotiated hotel discounts.
Some shows really go all out to make us feel appreciated. – Volunteers who bring ice water, rest areas out of the heat, really attentive staffs, big parties and great food. – What we want to say on behalf of artists is “Thank you,” “Way to go and “That’s the spirit!” Artists realize, of course, that not all shows have the same resources. The point is that we recognize the quality of the effort. We like to know that events value our participation.
One artist on our survey said that he didn’t care how bad it was, ” if the sales are good, I’ll be back.” I guess that’s a viewpoint that can’t be totally overlooked, the nicest thing you can do for artists is to be sure you attract plenty of the right people.
Note: since returning from Montreal, we’ve been encouraged by the calls we’ve received from shows indicating their intentions to implement our suggestions but the convention’s tight schedule of seminars left us little time to engage event representatives individually. A fact of effective communication is that people usually need to hear things several times, so we ask that as the opportunity arises you make these points again and again.
In addressing artist’s concerns, we limited ourselves to those areas in which we were able to present a consensus of opinion . I know there are a lot more issues out there and that there are some unique perspectives as well. We’ve got a great spot on the net for continuing dialog. Please send your comments to the NAIA Open Forum ( for URL) or e-mail and snail-mail addresses are in the front of the newsletter.