PARTICIPATORY SPORT FOR CRAFT ARTISTS
through a fault entirely my own I wiped out my crafthaus account and with it the entire Jackalope discussion! I sincerely apologize to all who have been following this discussion and to its many contributors. Since I know that there are still people out there who are interested especially in the last discussion I will go ahead and post this again, although all previous comments will not be there. Maybe there will be a second round of debate that takes us all in a different direction (trying hard to look on the bright side…)
Here are Jillian Moore and Rachel Timmins comments on our SIERAAD experience:
Greetings Jackalope Collective Supporters, Curious Makers, Fair Organizers and Goers, and Supportive Teachers!
We thought that it was high time that we gave y’all an update on our trip to SIERAAD, an international art jewelry fair located in Amsterdam. For those of you that don’t know, we (Rachel Timmins and Jillian Moore) went to SIERAAD along with 8 other American art jewelry makers to exhibit at the fair. Our goal was to introduce the European scene, and particularly Amsterdam, to the very wide variety of art jewelry that the United States has to offer right now. Not only did we curate and organize this group of educated, hard working makers, but we also managed to secure funding from many of you, our amazing supporters, to help pay for our enormous booth.. If it wasn’t for your support, we couldn’t have afforded the space necessary to exhibit everyone’s work.
STRUCTURE OF THE FAIR
R: The fair is located in an intimate area of Amsterdam, near a select few cozy restaurants and bars. The building is large, it has tall ceilings, is circular and it is very easy to navigate.
J: The Gashouder is a repurposed industrial building on the Westerpark. The space itself has a general funkiness that contributes to the uniqueness of this event. With a circular interior, the flow through the space begins to feel infinite as you move through, and rediscover work. The contrast between the darker, crude style of the building and the bright colors of both the booths and the work is something deeply identifiable with this particular fair. Well in advance of our arrival, SIERAAD’s organizers work with a build team to break up the space for each exhibitor’s space. Arrangement of all details is done online with the artists, choosing color, furniture additions, and other customizable aspects for each space. Every year is different, with the layout changing to suit the exhibitors that year. The result of this planning and uniform build is that the fair has an overall quality in presentation that elevates all exhibitors, and allows for emerging artists to present very well with limited resources brought beyond their work.
The Set Up
R: This part of SIERAAD was a complete dream. When you arrive, the booths are already waiting for you, and ready to go! Your wall colors are the same as the colors that you have chosen in your prior forms, the shelves are installed and where you’ve asked for them to be, and the tables are all moveable, allowing exhibitors to adjust their space as they see fit. The lighting is also installed and it is up to the exhibitors to tweak the angle of the lighting so that it shines on their work in a desirable way. All exhibitors are provided with free wi-fi.
J: Yes, the set up at SIERAAD is what gives it a definite edge over other events that I’ve participated in. Anyone from anywhere can fly in with a suitcase of work and know that they will be presented in an environment that is not just professional, but fun as well. The color options are limitless, and the fair really encourages exhibitors to embrace more lighthearted approaches to showing work given that this is distinctly outside of a gallery. You end up able to focus on the show itself, and not stress over the set up.
The Sales System
R. Upon arrival, exhibitors are asked to provide their bank information IF they are taking advantage of SIERAAD’s credit processing and bank transfer system in order to get the appropriate sales funds to the exhibitors. If exhibitors choose to take advantage of this sales system, for 49euros, they never need to touch cash or credit cards. Exhibitors, simply give their customer an invoice that the customer then takes to the payment booth run by SIERAAD staff. There, they receive a receipt showing that they have paid X euros. The customer comes back to the exhibitor showing proof of payment and leaves with the work that they have purchased and another slip that is shown to security, allowing the customer to leave the building with the purchased work. This system was very easy to work with. It meant that no exhibitor was out funds or work that was not paid for. It also meant that instead of counting money and running credit cards, exhibitors could tend to their next customer as opposed to futzing around with cash or credit card processing.
J: Indeed, another serious operational advantage at SIERAAD. I love the ability to focus on the personal aspect of selling work rather than feeling stress about the financial aspect. And for someone traveling from out of country, this means that you don’t have to keep a lot of Euros on you and worry about losing your nest egg during a rough night out.
Nuts n' Bolts: security, storage, location of the fair to purchasing odds n' ends.
R. Security was very tight. Everyone who came and left the building needed to show proof (a badge or ticket) that they were supposed to be there. The security folks were very visible at the fair – on the off chance that an exhibitor needed a security officer, it was easy to find one. Their high presence also contributes to a lesser likelihood that there will be any thefts.
J: Additionally, this is the same security team that was there last year. I’ve gotten the impression that they work as a team just the way Astrid Berens and the other organizers of SIERAAD do. The result is a sense of camaraderie between everyone there. The security people remember artists from year to year, and are very invested in making the experience professional and comfortable for the exhibitors.
R. Storage was available, but it mostly served as a coatroom. Any jewelry or other precious objects that were left in this room seemed to be “at the risk of the owner.” This was not a room that could function as a “stock” room for exhibitors.
J: Yes, to save money we had to rely entirely on the coatroom. It becomes a bit of a madhouse, like the backstage dressing room at a theater. There are locked storage units that can be added to the booths along with other furniture, and I feel pretty persuaded to go that route for my next trip over. The organizers try and encourage that everyone put their clutter out of sight, one way or another, and I completely agree that it contributes to the professional quality of the fair. But were I not pinching pennies for my group, I might indulge in one of those little cubbies for myself…
R. The location of the fair wasn’t really located close to any hardware stores or other venues in case “emergency” installation items were needed. Going anywhere from the fair (except for the near by restaurants and bars) would be at least a 10 – 15min walk in each direction. Future exhibitors should come completely prepared to install unless they don’t mind going on a hardware store hunt.
J: I think it’s best to plan to need very few items for install. The basic items like monofilament, nails or pins, and a small hammer and pliers usually do the trick. The fair has a few of these smaller hand tools on site. If you want something funky, the Praxis that’s within 15 minutes can help you if you’re really in a pinch.
R. Admittedly, I came to SIERAAD with extremely high expectations regarding the audience. I thought that: 1. Amsterdam supports three major art jewelry galleries, 2. This is seen as a major event, and 3. People come from all over Europe to attend. Additionally, there was an extremely high amount of promotion (print, web, television, etc.) that SIERAAD staff gave, not only to our group, but also to every individual exhibiting at the fair. Specifically, I was excited to see that SIERAAD’s official promotional materials showcased work made out of very experimental materials. Based on all of these things, my assumption was that there would be a lot of attendees who were looking for statement jewelry. In my experience, this is not what happened. However, I found that most people were generally polite, very honest (sometimes too honest) but pretty conservative in terms of what they felt they could wear. An experience that I hadn’t anticipated was viewers speaking about my work in Dutch as opposed to English. This language barrier made it really difficult to talk with customers about the work. It was almost like a wall. I made it very clear that I spoke English by greeting each viewer with something like, “Hi there, please feel free to pick up the work and try it on if you’re interested.” They would acknowledge what I had said and then start speaking to each other in Dutch, leaving me out of the conversation. Like all fairs, there were a handful of people that were rude or insulting, but, for the most part, visitors asked good questions. They were interested in materiality and concept but not interested enough to pull out their wallet.
J: I think, in terms of audience, Rachel and I have had a different experience. I’m still mulling over how this sort of thing comes about, but I have a few ideas. Personally, I find certain expectations of engagement with an audience exhausting. I’ve never enjoyed the way some customers want to be catered to, and the Dutch audience seems to prefer to be left alone until they have a direct question. They don’t compliment your work unless they sincerely like it, and they don’t take up your time unless they’re truly interested. It can leave you feeling out in the cold if you’re not into that. I’ve found the trick is to look for subtle cues in their intonation or body language and jump in if needed, but it means that you have to really be “on” the entire time and up for that sort of experience. It is a good fit for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for everyone.
In general, I’ve enjoyed the audience at SIERAAD both years. I noticed a return of customers from last year, and new customers who remembered me or saw my work on the poster. I think they may take time to come around to new artists and new materials, so that could explain some of the differences. My impression is that there are many more collectors in Amsterdam, but that they are not all as affluent as the “known” collectors here in the states. As a result, they spend more time with work and take more time to get to know new artists. However, I think their passion runs deeper and their commitment to a piece and to a maker can last much longer. In the meantime, it means that for our group of all new people, they made connections but not much in the way of sales. I do think that the number of people in our booth contributed to this in many ways as well, so I don’t know if we had a proper test of what sales can be like. More things that are hard to anticipate with a fair, but very frustrating when clear in hindsight.
R. I think it’s important to be honest here with regard to sales. I left SIERAAD with a pretty extreme deficit. I sold one piece to one of the fair organizers. My prices ranged from 50euro (production rings) to 600euro (one of a kind necklaces and brooches). The majority of my work was priced in the 50 – 300euro range – a range that I thought was reasonable and accessible, and also the range that was suggested to exhibitors by fair staff. Even in this reasonable price range, I found that many customers felt the work was too expensive. I noticed that some exhibitors adjusted their prices through the fair - many of them lowered their prices to try and make more sales, but this is not a route that I felt I wanted to take. Some people may not have sold well, but still gained other potential opportunities. The fair was well attended by numerous galleries and private collectors, most of whom at least did one lap around the fair. I understand that it often takes returning to these fairs multiple times to start to see a return on profits. That being said, only selling one piece (or zero pieces like many other exhibitors who had fantastic work!) is not acceptable to me. When I was initially preparing to go to the fair, I thought, “if I only break even, that’d be okay.” (For me, “breaking even” meant covering the cost of my flight, lodging, material cost and other minimal expenses I paid to SIERAAD, like credit processing.) The truth of the matter is, that’s not okay. Because, that’s not coming close to really breaking even. Simply accepting being underpaid, or not paid at all for the work that I make is becoming less and less acceptable to me every day that passes.
J: Touching on my comment before about being a returning exhibitor, I felt that my area of the booth seemed to be very busy. People who were buying seemed to remember me, and wanted to get something after thinking about it for a year. My average price point for individual sold pieces was lower than last year, under €100 as opposed to under €250 last year, so it definitely felt like people might have a tighter budget for the fair and perhaps were taking less risks with what they bought. I sold a little better than last year in terms of total money made, and I sold many more individual pieces since they were at that lower price point though I had much less space, and as a consequence, less work out. This means that last year I broke even on cost, and this year I came out a little ahead given the reduced cost with the shared booth. Countered against the drawbacks of a very packed booth and limited space, I believe I might have made more money as a solo exhibitor but that is a gamble I was nervous to take. The cost as an individual is much higher, so it can be much harder to meet the expense. Additionally, I am very glad to have brought so many new artists with me because the benefit in the long term of beginning this exchange is very, very well worth it.
R. For anyone who is considering participating in SIERAAD, or any other fair, for that matter, I would say this: It is a risky venture. It’s a financial risk - if you go and you don’t sell even one thing, be sure you can come home and be able to pay your necessary bills without too much additional stress. It’s an emotional risk – be prepared for your work to not be well received. If standing and smiling indoors, behind your work, for whatever the duration of the fair is while people openly criticize you and/or the work that you make isn’t something you can easily shrug off, this might not be for you. Even if you have a good show, it is still an exhausting experience. I have now done a European far and a few American fairs, and perhaps y’all can expect to see some writing on comparing this European fair experience with the American fair experience in the future. For the time being, I would say that they are different. They each have their pros and cons. Weighing travel, booth installation (or, in SIERAAD’s case, lack there of), fair cost, fair history, each fair’s way of promoting the individual exhibitors, size of the fair, typical attendees and overall fair content is ultimately based on the exhibiting individual and their goals for the experience. I want to want to go back to SIERAAD. However, the energy and finances that travel costs combined with the looming booth fee and zero guarantee of “breaking even” makes returning really difficult to justify. Fairs aren’t for everyone. As much as I wish I was good at everything, fairs might not be for me. My stubborness tempts me to give a few more American craft shows a try before calling it quits.
J: I’m really glad we had this experience overall, and I am very happy to have been a part of this initial wave of crossover. I got a lot of positive comments both during and after the fair on the quality and diversity of American work at the fair. We’re still a new entity at that event, and I believe it will take time to build a deeper relationship with the buying community. That being said, Rachel is right in that there is a gamble to the whole enterprise. The current fair model, regardless of country, is difficult to break into. There is definitely a burden of cost for some time before any tangible financial benefit begins to show itself. I learned to make peace with this, and try to keep any event I do as cheap as possible. There are other benefits that I believe are worth it, but only if you can afford to potentially lose the money now in exchange for a longer arc of improved sales and projects. Your performance as an exhibitor can be impacted negatively if you feel that debt weighing on you while you’re trying to make sales. Connect with new buyers, meet new galleries, speak with organizers from other countries who wouldn’t see your work in person any other way, and try and think of the sales as a bonus in the beginning. It sounds a little crazy, but I think it’s the only way to really make it work in the beginning. I will return to SIERAAD for a third time in 2014 with a single booth, or possibly a shared booth to save a little money. I think the presence that comes with a single booth, though it costs more, is worth it in terms of holding people’s attention. And if you can’t lure people in and hold them for a little while, you lose a sale.