Evolving Convention Art Shows

[Editor’s Note: I’m basically somebody who walks through art shows, and doesn’t know much about how they’re run or why cons might change sales policies, so RedWombat’s comment about art shows was very useful to me. I asked to reprint it as a front page post.]

By RedWombat: Art shows! Yes. I have discussed this in the past, I think. Nevermind, I have a mojito, I shall discuss again!

Art shows are, depending on who you ask, either dying the long lingering death or finding a new equilibrium. I was just at a con, the art show was…errm…well, they meant well. I have a con in the near future, and it will be a large and epic art show where I shall very likely make money…but less than I used to. And the art show will not make money for the con, it will cost the con money, it has cost the con money for the last fifteen years, but the con chair says, with a shrug, that people are used to it and it’s an institution and getting rid of it would be hard.

Myself, I can tell you that the adult section is dead as a doornail, that the all-ages section has gone from “pieces will go for over a thousand” to “most pieces go for minimum bid.” My husband does auctioneering at the con, and last year, they got an auction where literally no one bid. They worked their butts off on stage, they had patter, but nobody was bidding. Every single piece went for the last price on the bid sheet. (Why even show up?! I ask at this point.) I took them to the bar afterwards. You’ve never seen two more crushed auctioneers.

I bucked the trend for a few years by virtue of being, well, me–I have a small, wild fan base whom I love, and who love me in return–but the money slides down every year from an easy thousand in the art show to $800…then $600…then $400…and now it’s basically just a habit. I could, were I so inclined, focus my efforts on ways to extract more money from said fan base, but my books make enough to live on and this is my convention I do mostly for love, so I am not currently so inclined.

And that’s a furry art show. Furries spend money on art like you would not believe, it’s a community amazingly supportive of its artists. I’ve gone to ONE general SF/F con art show that was not a going-through-the-motions thing in the last ten years, and it was near Santa Fe, which is a major art market.

Honestly, I think it’s the internet.

This makes me sound like Old Wombat Yelling At Clouds, but back in the day, if people saw a piece of art they liked, and they wanted to see that piece of art again, they had to buy the print. So we had this whole culture of people buying prints and having print books that they could flip through when they ran out of walls and so forth.

Now, of course, if I saw a piece of art I liked and wanted to see it again, I merely have to remember enough details to google it and I can look. It’s a rare piece that I love so much that I will take it home and put it on the walls. So as our people who were used to buying prints aged, we didn’t get a new pack of consumers to buy prints, we got people who wanted merch. Merch is what is currently selling–or wee little prints that people can buy for $5, or postcards, because that’s a thing you can store easily and enjoy and isn’t the commitment of Buying Art. Everybody’s out of wall space, everybody’s trying to de-clutter, nobody has room, and that’s just how life is right now.

I’m honestly philosophical about it all–I moved to selling lots and lots of mini prints, to printing postcards and so forth, I write books, I do fine–but every art show I’ve been involved with has slid down, down, down over the years, and that’s how it is. Que sera, sera…

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25 thoughts on “Evolving Convention Art Shows

  1. It’s not just looking at things online. If you want to buy something, it’s also more convenient to do it online, you can take your time deciding, look at a greater variety, and not have to worry about transporting it.

  2. It is, indeed, the internet. But most artists would rather sell off their own website than have to deal with hauling a bunch of stuff (which may or may not sell), fill out a ton of paperwork, risk theft and damage, and pay for the privilege.

    Over the years I’ve seen the decline of most of the northeast art shows, with two exceptions: IlluXcon and Boskone. Boskone was due to my hard work: I went out and solicited artists and begged them to come. (Now that I’m no longer art show director, I expect it will decline, too.) And IlluXcon operates on a different model, where artists sell out of their own booths (no paperwork). As Jane Frank says, why should she go to Boston in winter when she can make 20k in Altoona?

    I’ll only do the art show if I’m driving to and attending the con; even then, it rarely makes economic sense. My sales were good at Balticon, but with the space fee, didn’t even cover my gas and tolls (never mind hotel!). And I find it’s the pottery people buy, not the 2D art, and everything either goes for the minimum or Quicksale. Bidding is rare. (I’m interested in seeing how Arisia’s new one-price model goes.)

  3. Is there also some element of people seeing something on the net, downloading it at the highest resolution available, and then getting it printed at the friendly neighbourhood store?

    I’m still bed bound, due to the invasion of smaller life forms which are proving annoyingly difficult to kill; I’m not exactly firing on all four cylinders so that may be a totally silly question.

    I must confess to a somewhat unethical first response, which was to exult in the possibility of RedWombat being able to do a commission sooner rather than later…

  4. I’ve gotten out of the habit (mostly) of buying art (even prints) at art shows. One of the reasons is cost. Not for the art (for the most part, imho, prints in art shows are pretty reasonably priced), but because the cost of getting the things framed and ready to hang on a wall usually costs more than the actual art did. If Hilde and I got all our unframed purchases over the years framed, we’d probably be looking at two or three thousand dollars. Ouch.

    (I have a mat cutter device and framing clamps, for DIY framing eventually when I have time. [breaks into hysterical laughter] )

    But I find buying the annual SPECTRUM art anthologies pretty much satisfies my art jones these days.

  5. I don’t think it’s the internet that’s impacted convention art shows as much as it’s the economy, especially for younger con-goers. As we old pharts already have lots of art (I too have pieces that have yet to be matted and framed) we’re not buying like we used to, so sales at every show I know of have slowed. But it’s not just that, there’s also a growing lack of interest in fine art itself that’s affecting the art market in general. I see it at art shows, I see it at renaissance faires, I see it at galleries too. Oh well. It may turn out that the period from the mid-1970s to latter 1990s when sales of art were good was an anomaly and now it’s the new normal. But it could be worse. You could be a musician…

  6. I was recently at a fairly large regional anime convention where the art show has been withering away steadily for years. However, the Artists Alley – i.e. a place for artists (or, often, their proxies) to sell prints, tchotchkes, and so forth – gets bigger every year, to the point where it’s the same size as the convention’s dealer’s room, by which I mean they both fill their own exhibitor hall in a fairly large convention center.

    Obviously, this isn’t to say that anime fandom doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on visual culture because, come on, anime and manga. However, the audience for anime conventions skews pretty darned young – my guess is that the average attendee at the local con is, oh, maybe 18 – and, assuming they are even aware of the art show in fan culture (which they aren’t, even though the art show is located as a sub-section of the Artist’s Alley immediately as people enter the room) I’m doubtful that many of these fans have the spare cash to spend bidding for original artwork. Not that the artists filling Artist’s Alley often put their work into the art show, mind you.

    Obviously this is all anecdotal but, from the anime fandom side of things at least, it looks like fandom’s interaction with artists and artwork is incredibly popular – but that these fans aren’t interested in original artwork or a structured art show and auction. Instead, they want to buy prints of the original work – which seems to be keeping a lot of artists in business, more or less. It’s just that the culture has shifted to a marketplace rather than an art show. Call it the work of fanart in the age of mechanical reproduction.

  7. Is there also some element of people seeing something on the net, downloading it at the highest resolution available, and then getting it printed at the friendly neighbourhood store?

    No point in even bothering with the second step. Flatscreen HDTVs have been around long enough that many people are on their 2nd generation (and some on their 3rd, 4th…) Take one or more of the old HDTVs you have lying around (or buy a used one cheap off of Ebay), hang it on the wall, stick a flash drive in it, and have it cycle through all your favorite downloaded art. Effectively infinite art supply. Each screen possibly will cost you a similar price (or less) than buying a single art print. Print sellers may be becoming buggy-whip makers.

    I’m still bed bound, due to the invasion of smaller life forms which are proving annoyingly difficult to kill


  8. Great comment, RW! I think some of the problems of declining sales in the Art Show isn’t just about the Art Show itself but also that there has definitely been other broader factors affecting the sale of art itself at conventions. Part of it has that the last decade(ish) of recession has taken it’s toll on people and there have definitely been years where people were verrrrry careful about what they spent their spare money on, so that in other years they might buy three prints but this year they carefully consider before just buying the one they like best. Another element is the rise of celebrity-autograph-driven conventions, where whatever extra money people bring that they’d normally spend in the vendors area or artist alley or art show is now being completely used up getting a bunch of autographs or photo ops. FanExpo has definitely been a convention where that sort of swing has taken place and I honestly don’t hold it against anyone for wanting those autographs/photos and I know it’s tough to decide whether you really do want to shell out $100 for Shatner’s signature or not, there’s been a lot of grumbling about the prices of those autographs/photos/packages yet they still do buy them.

    Will these factors always have an effect or the same effect? It’s hard to say! This year at AnimeNorth I did much better than I’ve done in like the past five years, and I’ve been selling mostly the same stuff in that time, so I’m hopeful that it means something is changing for the better. It’s a tricky game, trying to sell art. People are fickle and unpredictable at the best of times lol I love it though! Making art and talking to people about art and meeting artists at conventions is my jam, man!

    @Stevie – there is definitely an element of people downloading web images and printing them, and that’s even an issue at conventions as people have been known to take a picture of a print with their phone and print THAT instead of forking over the ten bucks and just buying the print, it makes a lot of artists understandably very irate and if you ever had an artist at their table ask you not to take any pictures of their art at the table, that’s usually the underlying issue. But sometimes people don’t even print art, they are just happy using it as their phone or computer/tablet wallpaper.

    @Bruce Arthurs – I hear ya about framing costs, I mostly just get the cheapest but nice frame I can afford from whatever department store or even dollar store for smaller stuff. There is a local art store where I get some of my supplies who also does framing really cheaply but they are definitely an outlier in the framing industry.

  9. The Internet does bear some responsibility. In the olden days, at least at large conventions, artists had, as one motivation, the fact that their work would be seen by art directors and others who would commission works. That made the monetary tradeoff of the costs of transport, hanging fees or commission, hotel, etc. more favorable to participation. Now that submissions are largely online, that incentive is not there. So the sales have to bear the entire weight. There are still artists who make a living mailing their art to numerous conventions, but fewer all the time.

    Worldcon art shows have been declining in quality for years, though Loncon had an excellent one. WFC, a juried show, is also having problems. My husband and I ran the 2014 DC show. We pushed for incentives for artists (which cost the con money) — a special Finlay exhibit with extra insurance, a $1,000 prize voted on by the artists, a special tour of the Kelly Collection of Golden Age illustration — and we got a very good show, but it was a lot of work and made possible by putting the arm on a lot of our friends who are artists.

    Illuxcon is different: the attendees are artists, collectors, students, and art directors. There is also a very collegial atmosphere among the artists. They feed off each others’ work and come away muttering that they need to up their game; it is a convention aimed at them. And I have had long-time pros tell me that even with no sales there, they made enough in commissions taken to pay the cost of transport for themselves and their art.

    But Illuxcon and Spectrum have helped kill other con art shows: the collectors go there or save their money for those events rather than spending the money at other cons, so the artists stay away or send prints.

  10. Hmm. That’s unfortunate if artists stopped showing their works at sf conventions. I only buy art from the sf conventions I attend. Once I started earning enough money, I stopped buying prints and now I only want real paintings.

    Unfortunately, this means the best art are the ones I can’t afford and the majority of the paintings in my price range are of women with wings, horses with wings, cats with wings and dragons with wings. I think I have enough art with winged animals/people so it’s hard now to find something original which speaks to me.

    (Although, I do have to admit, my last purchase was of a dragon with her 2 baby dragonettes playing in the moonlit snow)

  11. I’ve actually found that people who buy online vs. people who buy at cons to be largely two different groups–or at least they used to be. So back in the day, when I could churn out originals every other day, I’d do both in hopes of getting two different groups to buy.

    These days, the equations are weighted a lot differently for me–I produce so little outside of work that I have to hoard originals for shows, which means I totally make less, but that’s the trade off. (I am an art guest reasonably regularly, and part of the agreement is that I’ll have stuff in the art show. And I’m totally cool with this, let me add! Free room and travel more than makes up for it!

    What I didn’t address in my comment–probably owing to mojito-like focus–and which I regret not saying, was that most of the art shows I attend, even if they’re just there because of-course-we-have-an-art-show, have at least one incredibly passionate person running things and they break their necks getting everything set up and soliciting art and….still, the slide. (Going through the motions is more of convention in general thing than an individual art show organizer thing.) I’ve done some small cons which sell quite well because of the grim determination of the volunteers, and I’m always grateful, but these are people who are bailing the tide.

    I feel horrible for them and for auctioneers and all the rest, because it’s usually not anything they’re doing wrong, the sales dynamics have just moved on. Many of them will tell you that they used to sell much better, but…well.

    All that said–commissions still move. People want custom art as much as ever.

  12. This is interesting – I guess I can abandon my dream of financing my retirement by selling off the art on my walls

  13. So, to be entirely selfish, I am still at the end of the very long queue for commissions, but I shall soldier on (insofar as one can whilst horizontal) in the knowledge that it will be worth the wait, and that patience is a virtue.

    I’m sorry for all the people getting squeezed hard by this change in the market: it really sucks.

  14. I recall hearing or reading, years ago, that the cost of getting art to and from conventions was a major factor – especially when dealing with customs inspection on both ends.

    I was at art shows, back when I could afford conventions, where there were one or two pieces I liked and would have considered bidding – but one-day membership. (I have two pieces bought in shows, both originals.)

  15. Yes, I’ve seen art shows declining significantly over the… thirty or so years I’ve been going to conventions. Lots of factors there.

    – As noted by others, being able to see and order things off the Internet has changed the dynamics a lot. Unless you really want an original painting, are willing to pay for it on site and handle getting it home, the art show is probably not the best way of dealing with this.
    – Dealers’ rooms often sell a lot of prints.
    – As a Canadian with a lot of Canadian artist friends going to the U.S. and American friends coming into Canada… customs is an incredible pain. And U.S. customs in particular can be incredibly protectionist against anybody from out of country who gives any indication that they might be ‘working’ in the U.S. I’ve heard cases of GoHs being blocked at the border because of the stacks of artwork for the show that they had.
    – This one is more anime and furry cons than SF cons, but you also have the rise of the ‘Artists Alley’ with people being willing to take on-the-spot commissions for sketches and quick work to be done at the con.
    – I’ve seen charity auctions take a lot of the wind from art auctions over the last several years (though that’s probably as much a response to the decline of art auctions as causing it). Which is great for the charity, but not great for the artists.

    So, yeah, lots of things going on.

  16. Story time!

    The first art show I directed was Arisia 2009. The con was in a too-small hotel, with awkward spaces for everything including the Art Show. And the recession was like nothing any of the attendees were old enough to remember. Sales were through the floor — $9,267 including the Print Shop. The 2008 convention had had one piece go to voice auction, and when it got there it went to the bidsheet. It was tempting to kill the auction entirely. Instead, I came up with a new auction format, one that was immediately popular with our most loyal buyers. Sales picked up, slowly at first but accelerating once we got a new hotel and better space for the Art Show — the most recent show had $31,401 in sales. Gradually more people started bidding in the voice auction. At this last Arisia I took one of our Artist GoH’s pieces from $375 to $775 in fifteen seconds.

    So I figured, the auction is back!

    And then I sat down to figure out which of our artists were coming out ahead because of the auction. There was only one, the aforementioned Artist GoH, and she came out $50 ahead on nearly $7,000 in sales. The problem wasn’t that our auction was broken, because we’d fixed it. The problem was that auctions are bad for the artists.

    At the same time, Quicksale is steadily growing in popularity among our buyers. We had a forest of red dots on our bid sheets even as early as Friday, and a frenzy to buy things before someone else got them. Buyers seem happy to pay the premium to be sure they got their piece. Quicksales at this most recent Arisia were a touch over 58% of total sales, up from about 20% in 2007 (the first year for which I have data).

    The final nail in the auction’s coffin is the reaction I get when I go to mainstream art events and try to recruit artists who are doing genre work but don’t know we exist. One thinks of auctions as prestigious in the mainstream art world, but that’s only for artists who have died. Why bid up a piece by a living artist when you could commission one instead? The only kinds of auctions that most living artists ever see are charity auctions, where the pieces usually go for much less than a commission would be, and the artist is lucky to get half. When I mention the auction to an artist who isn’t familiar with SF conventions I invariably get the side-eye, usually followed by a quick change of conversational topic.

    We’ll save a little bit of volunteer time, and maybe even a little bit of money, by not having an auction (no auction means no deadbeat buyers). But Arisia has plenty of money, and plenty of volunteers. We’re killing the auction because we want more art to get out in the world, and more money to flow toward the artists, and we think that’s the best way to make that happen.

  17. I doubt the Boskone art show will go quietly; there are several other ex- and incipient heads invested in it. But art shows, like dealer rooms, are waning at the Worldcon level, so it’s not surprising that shows drawing from a smaller area would also weaken. Some numbers: the show I built for you in 1996 had ~8700 square feet of display space for 2D art; the show I built for LoneStarCon 3 years ago was ~4500sf, and the one I laid out for Sasquan last year was ~3300sf. (Dealers have also fallen off; I didn’t count your dealers room, but the one I laid out in 1992 had ~300 tables, while LSC3 and Sasquan were both well under 200 (including booths, which we didn’t do in 1992).

  18. Art shows are getting smaller and less impressive, and… most people aren’t upset. When you can buy online, commission anything, not have to go to the auction, and know the artist gets all the money, why not?

    I have too much art for my wall space anyway, and decreasing money. I don’t remember the last time I bought any art, frankly, be it original or prints.

    Nowadays I don’t even get to the art show at a con sometimes, particularly if it’s small. Or I wander in only when utterly bored. I’m certain more and more cons are going to be dropping art shows — the artists don’t want to hassle with carrying/shipping/setup, the con’s losing money, the buyers either order online or have no money.

    They may go the way of the hectograph. (I’m old enough to have done paper zines and collated and stapled ’em at home — but even I did them offset or xerox and used a word processor)

  19. @Lisa Hertel,

    You were the one with the tiny pots at this year’s Balticon?


    Do you still do commissions?

    Nevermind. Hopped on your FAQ and answered my own question. Alas

  20. @Nicholas Shectman: Thanks for the info/background on Arisia’s change in direction. That’s interesting; I wonder if other cons will follow suit, and how much this sort of thing really varies from con to con.

  21. @Nicholas: I’m fascinated that artists find auctions dubious; as I said on the thread that started this, I remember when genre artists, even people who made what-passed-for-a-living at it, were desperate to get into the auction because they thought people would bid past considered judgment. This was sometimes plausible; the 1977 Worldcon set a record of ~$1000 for a work sold at a convention, but Boskone smashed that (~$1.300) a few months later with a work that had something like a $100 minimum bid. (It was a very well-composed piece of space art — good enough that it had been picked for the curated auction we had on Saturday afternoons — but the price was still a shock.) OTOH, I also remember conventions making the mistake of treating the auction as an entertainment rather than a function; a few years later a noted auctioneer, on Saturday night at another con, was reduced to going up and down a line of pieces the art show had selected as auction-worthy (regardless of lack of silent bids) and pleading for anyone to offer minimum on any of them.
    How did you define “coming out ahead”? If it’s the bidding passing the quicksale price, how can you tell (since pieces are unique) whether the quicksale was low enough?

    I wonder how many con attendees — even at SF cons, which IME usually still have a stratum of tech people on good salaries — could afford a commission, or even think of commissioning a piece to their taste rather than looking for what grabs them? I suppose that working only to commission is easier on the nerves for artists good/known enough to get commissions, but that leaves the question of where new and especially intermediate artists come from — are all the would-be commissioners (commercial or private) now satisfied to look at net thumbnails? I can see that working for publishers, who usually print a work at anything from 50% down to 20% of its finished size, but I’d think people looking for something to hang at size might want a closer look. (Or maybe they don’t; I know of only one privately commissioned piece (a mediocre execution on a very specific topic), so I don’t know how people who issue private commissions think.)

  22. @Chip Hitchcock
    Mind you I’m in the very low paying end for private commissions – working with newer artists trying to get established. I’m rarely looking for a very large work to hang as limited wall space. I’m quite happy to work over the net, email, phone. I believe I’ve commissioned 5-8 pieces now as gifts for various family members – all have the same wall space issues I do so I’m generally looking at 5×7 or ~8.5-12. This also makes framing affordable which is a big plus.

  23. @Chip:

    I was defining “ahead” as “past the Quicksale price”, as the closest approximation to “past what the artist could have gotten in a non-auction setting”. You’re right that in some cases the Quicksale price was an unreasonably high bar, but most of the Quicksale prices were pretty reasonable (as evidenced by how much work went for Quicksale). I could have defined “ahead” as “more than 10% past the minimum bid” and the auction would still have been bad for the artists overall.

    Of the 207 pieces that sold at auction, 150 went for the minimum bid. The voice auction had some anecdotal excitement, but it turns out that exciting outliers just aren’t enough to make up for those numbers. We’ll never know for sure, but I suspect they weren’t enough in 1977 either.

    I don’t think that the auction is the only way to get people to spend past considered judgment. Yes, auction buyers have a very narrow window in which to make their final decision. But when red dots are going up on pieces every two minutes there’s time pressure to buy at Quicksale too.

    As for commissions:

    Johnna took I think 6 commissions at Arisia; you can see three of the finished pieces on her Facebook page and one of those generated yet another commission from someone who’d seen her work at Arisia. I’m aware of two other artists who took commissions at this year’s Arisia and there are probably more I don’t know about. I think you’re right that people (both collectors and art directors) don’t commission work unless they’ve seen an original from the artist up close. This means conventions are a key part of introducing new artists to this world. Individual convention art shows may wither and die but the concept of the art show has a lot of life in it.

  24. I must say that this discussion has had a completely unexpected and welcome input into my life: things are a bit fraught over here, and a former Prime Minister, speaking of a group including England’s version of Donald Trump, has noted that The NHS would be about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python.

    Sadly, this is true, so you can imagine my joy at discovering Red Wombat’s battle hamsters: not only have they greatly cheered me up now, but I am making my selections so I can look forward to them adorning my walls once they’ve made it across the pond.

    It seems to be true that all roads cross at File770…

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