First time ACE participant, Kat Cole, in her emerging artist pop-up booth. Kat won the "Show Director's Award" with her enamel-on-steel work, and because of it she will automatically be in a 'big girl booth' in next year's show! Congrats!

If I had to sum things up about the new ACE (American Craft Exposition) show format and venue at the Chicago Botanic Garden this weekend, it would have to be: Great work all around by the artists - unfortunate and confusing layout of the show from the side of the organizers. Sorry, but there you have it.

OK, let's back up here. First things first:

This is an image from the American Craft EXPOSITION website and it shows a scene taken from the floor in the past. 2015 marks the 31st anniversary of ACE shows, I have been to last year's event which was held in a great location on the Northwestern University campus. It was uncomplicated to get to, offered free parking, and well-lit, easy to maneuver rows of craft booths. A professional environment.

Unfortunately, this is not what the Botanic Garden venue was like. I am not a Botanic Garden member, so the visit started off for me with a staggering $30 parking fee (it would have been free if I were a Garden member), followed by a $15 ticket to get into the event tents/buildings themselves. $45 seems to me to be an unreasonably hefty price to pay to be able to get into an outdoor/retail-type craft show event. An event designed to attract buyers. I was willing to pay up because I absolutely wanted to see the work and my fellow metalsmiths in particular, but I am not sure how other folks felt about this price tag.

I am not blaming the ACE for this, but would suggest that someone rethinks this venue or figures out a deal for craft show visitors. The parking fee is charged per car and doubles as entry fee to the Botanic Garden. Once you're in the gardens you can roam the place, there is no additional entry fee to pay. I am wondering what, if anything, could have been done to differentiate between park visitors who did not come for the ACE exhibition at all, and those who ONLY came for the exhibition, but did not want to visit the gardens?

In the end, these are two completely separate issues that came together in an unfortunate way for non-Garden member visitors: the gardens make their money from the parking fee, they have nothing to do with the ACE. The ACE makes money from their own ticket sales.

View from the entry way into the Botanic Garden. If you want to go today (Sunday Sep 27), walk through here and continue straight on, you'll come to the first tent. Believe me, please - because there is no signage leading you.

While the parking situation was just a minor annoyance, the actual problem with the show was its layout and lack of signage. Due to the location's building and open area limitations, there was not enough room to house all the artists in one big tent/building/room for easy viewing and shopping. I would have even been fine with two or three larger tents that were somehow loosely connected, but that was not the situation. Instead, the exhibit venue consisted of a mix of tents and a splattering of rooms (indoor and outdoor) in various buildings. To make matters worse, there were hardly any signs to guide you to the various exhibition rooms, which was making the visit cumbersome. Sometimes, you had to walk through non-ACE related Botanic Garden greenhouses first and then search for the next ACE location, which could be anywhere.

I lost my way after the 4th non-connected room and was starting to positively panic when I received a phone call from Linda Kindler Priest, who asked me to visit her booth so that she could show me her newest work. Since signage and exhibition overviews were basically nonexistent, I had to flag down a garden volunteer and ask for directions, because I would not have found Linda otherwise. Not a chance. The ACE website is all shiny and sells you tickets, but does not provide any navigational help whatsoever. It would have been helpful to have something to download or even just view from my phone in absence of a paper map.

While making my way over to Linda, I had to walk through a hallway between two buildings. To my astonishment I saw that a few artists had been placed on both sides of that hallway and had to make do with those limitations by hanging work on the walls straight up - and then squeezing out of the way to make room for the rushing passers-by. It was tight, one side of the hallway had barely place for a table or display case, let alone a conversation with a customer. I found that to be a particularly unfortunate setting. It cheapened the presentation of these artists' work and I wonder if anyone in that hallway made a single sale. There were people constantly rushing by, it was way too close for comfort. If you wanted to stop and look at work, you were in danger of being run over by the person behind you. I felt truly sorry for these artists.

The event was well-visited on Saturday when I was there, especially in the easier to reach two tents that I came in first. Attendance was, unfortunately, much more sparse in some of the satellite rooms that were difficult to locate.

I leave this screenshot from the ACE website here without further comment.

Plant in one of the greenhouses I walked through in order to get to another ACE location. I am not a botanist and I have a brown thumb too, so please don't ask me what these are. I just think they look delicious.

Here are some images of the artists I came for and their work on display. 

The first artists on my list to visit were Roberta and David Williamson. Situated in a big, white tent that featured one of the two exhibition entries (but lacked air conditioning), their booth was a hive of activity. Here you see me standing next to Roberta, her daughter Lauren was kind enough to take this photo from behind their display case.

David and Roberta really do not need an introduction, most of you will be very familiar with their spectacular work. It was an absolute pleasure talking with Roberta for a little. She mentioned her Chicago ties and how much she'd love to move back. Well, we'd love to have you back, Roberta!

Here's an image of their carefully curated display. (Disclosure: I took the image from the Philadelphia Museum of Art's website as a representation, because their booth was busy and I did not want to interrupt their browsing customers.)

One of my favorite master goldsmiths, Boston-based Linda Kindler Priest creates stunningly beautiful work. Linda is an incredibly warm person, unaffected and funny, a true storyteller at heart. She endlessly fascinates me with her ability to incorporate unusual gemstones that make sense with her stories. There's always a very good reason why she picks a certain gem to go with her chased animals and she loves to share that story with her customers. Sometimes, her brooches are a set of two separate pins (top and bottom) which gives the wearer flexibility when wearing the work.

Walking out of Linda's booth, I came to the emerging artist section located in an outdoor atrium-type area, and featuring (among other artists) metalsmiths Ashley Buchanan, Kat Cole (top image in this post) and Nicolette Absil. The weather was sunny and there was a nice breeze going, so this was a very pleasant area to be in that day. Had it rained though, I don't know where the ACE would have placed these artists since they were not in individual tents, but in an open air, exposed, pop-up situation. Anyway, it worked out well this year weather-wise. Lucky.

Funny and energetic, Ashley Buchanan chatted with me while making an easy sale on the side. Her booth was a straight line of white desks against a rough, outdoor brick wall, with a modern, streamlined and color coordinated display in her signature grey & white colors, with just a dash of yellow sprinkled in.

Ashley recently started to lasercut some of her work ... at my repeated urging. For at least the past two years, I have tried to talk Ashley into making her life easier, to streamline non-essential, repetitive tasks. Up until recently, she had been hand-sawing absolutely every single jewelry item, but today she said that she finally relented and now breathes a sigh of relief. She still hand-saws some of her work, but using the cutter has freed up her time considerably, which she now devotes to developing new work and trying out new things - good job, Ashley! Smart move. In the real world, simplification and efficiency trump complication every single time.

I look much forward to seeing Ashley again at SOFA Chicago in November. If you go to SOFA and want to meet her, like last year, Ashley is represented by Donna Schneier.

Nicolette Absil is definitely coming into her own as she is getting more and more acclimated with the craft show circuit. She had a lovely display that looked harmonious and well-edited.

Lots of people around her table looking at her enamel work. I love it that she still has "secrets" engraved on the back of some of her pieces. She's been doing that since I first met her. I won't give away what the secrets are, you'll have to find out yourself next time you see her (click for her show calendar.)

I was happy to see Judith Kinghorn at the event. Her booth was an all-black affair, as it usually is, a color that provides the perfect backdrop for her enormously popular jewelry. The warm 18K gold shines off of the display background, and people are drawn to that like moths to the light.

Judith wore an absolutely gorgeous necklace, a collaborative piece she made with Kathleen Nowak Tucci. It is comprised of one of her signature Sterling/18K brooches and a necklace of rubber from Kathleen. Perfect match.

Last person on my must-see list was Minneapolis-based Jennifer Merchant. I own three of her pieces, I am a total fan. Jennifer opted for a colorful but clean and well-ordered display that drew a lot of attention while I was there. People were asking questions about her materials (layered plexiglas and paper) and her procedures. Jennifer fabricates all her work and pays meticulous attention to detail - something for which I am a big nerd for.

Nice touch: In order to inform her customers, Jennifer showed off a cube of uncut, unfinished, layered plexiglas/paper. The difference between the rough sample and her brilliant, finished work is striking. Jennifer is the queen of polishing!

There were, of course, many more wonderful artists at the show and I managed to look at most of the work, unless I missed a room by mistake, which is, unfortunately, entirely possible.

For those of you contemplating to go today or next year, here is a list of this year's artists to give you an idea of the caliber of work on display:

Marketing wise, this was all fairly well done. I received an over-sized, color post card in the mail the beginning of this week, and also saw two big ads in the Chicago Tribune within the past month. Event attendees looked like your typical craft buyer crowd, mostly female, around 40-70 years young and with plenty of money and interest to purchase. I hope they did.

The Botanic Garden is located just North of Chicago, close to many upscale residential neighborhoods, so in that regard it was a good alternate choice of venue. I just hope that if the ACE holds next year's event at the Botanic Garden again, they'll figure out a way to reduce the attendance cost and have maps available to hand out so that you can find all the rooms and all the artists.

I am glad I went.

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Comment by Cheryl Eve on September 29, 2015 at 2:50pm

Thank you for sharing Brigitte. I Great review! 

Comment by Brigitte Martin on September 28, 2015 at 6:27am

Firstly, just so there is no misunderstanding, this show was NOT organized by the ACC (American Craft Council). This was an entirely different organization, the ACE, American Craft EXPOSITION!

The lack of signage and maps is exactly what's so puzzling, Harriete! Nothing on their website (, no handouts and barely-there signage. I got a ticket at the cashier's desk and that was it. There were at least two entry points into the exhibition, maybe it was just my luck that at my entry there were no maps? It was a startling difference to their last year's event.

There was an information desk somewhere within one of the buildings and the staff there had a paper map overview with booth numbers and artist names and looked up Linda Kindler Priest's location for me. If they had any paper maps they may have run out of them by the time I was there, because even though I was clearly lost, they hung onto their copy and just sent me on my merry way, "Turn left, walk around there, go through the greenhouse, then straight ahead into the next room, walk left there, Linda is on the other side of the room." I am not kidding.

There were booth numbers displayed and had I known my guys' booth numbers, I might have been able to figure things out better within a room or tent. I am fairly insistent and don't give up easily, but not every customer is that patient, as we all know.

Who knows what the real story is, maybe the tent situation was a last-minute accommodation because something else fell through or was impossible to rig up. Maybe these are just typical early kinks that come with a new venue. I don't know and I don't want to start guessing. I am sure everybody involved is doing the best they can under the circumstances.

Bottom line: it was unnecessarily hard to find the artwork and that's just not what anybody wants to see. For those artists who consider applying for next year's ACE show, they may want to find out beforehand if the situation has been addressed.

Comment by Harriete E Berman on September 27, 2015 at 11:04pm

Thanks Brigitte for the informative post. I can't believe that there was no map. At ACC San Francisco  everything was in one building but there was still a vendor map of the whole building and every booth location. There were also three additional indexes. The indexes included:
Artists by Booth (organized by all the booth numbers in numerical order)

Artists by Company (Aphabetical order with the booth number).

Artists by Name ( Aphabetical order with the booth number)

I can't believe there wasn't a map or program of any kind?


Comment by Brigitte Martin on September 27, 2015 at 12:54pm

The feedback that I received from the artists was mostly positive as far as their sales are concerned. But then again, who would truly ever fess up that their day has not been good? That's a discussion artists usually keep to themselves, or talk to each other about, behind closed doors.

All I can say is that from my observation, for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, the weather was nice, and there were lots of people at the Botanic Garden. I hope that many visitors who had not known about the show ended up ambling into the tents just because they were already there anyway. That would be the best case scenario to reach new audiences.

In any event, if the show goes up again there next year, I am sure the organizers will have worked out some of this year's kinks.

I was glad I went. It's always good to see artists engaging customers. And that happened plenty. Some of the craftsmanship was truly off the charts, so exceptionally good, so very worth it.

Comment by Alison B. Antelman on September 27, 2015 at 11:36am

thank you for such a thorough review of the show. I know that ACE has always had great quality work and obviously that has not changed. It's a pricey event to exhibit at and I always wonder if show promoters get the idea that artists actually need to make money from the show...$45 is a big deterrent for customers even of high economic situations. I've done shows where layout is difficult and it makes potential customers frustrated. It looks like a gorgeous setting that needs more pre-thinking about logistics. It was also the first year at this location and even for an established show that doesn't help with crowds.  I truly hope that exhibitors made good sales.

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