Friday Tips for Artists: Art Fairs / Juried Shows

Art Fair Photo

I consider most art fairs a waste of time for the serious artist. Even so, if you intend to sell, you will in all likelihood still have to do them. I’ve done them. Most of my artists have done them. Most artists I know have done them. They provide you with those necessary lines
for your resume, and you’re going to need plenty of those lines before any of the better galleries will consider your work. For those of you who only execute installation-based work, or work that is strictly avant garde, art fairs are of little relevance. But for the purpose of general knowledge, you should read this section anyway.

Just what is an art fair? Usually an outdoor event arranged by well intentioned dilettantes for a largely indifferent public. Are they all this bad? No. Certain of them are excellent, and couldn’t be better venues for your work, or for meeting potential collectors. The trick is learning to choose between the ones that are worthwhile, and the ones that aren’t.

The best story I ever heard about an art fair came from Vernon Brejcha, a glass artist whose works have been placed with museums worldwide, but who in the beginning was as unknown as any emerging artist. He told me how once, in the early ’70s, he was sitting a booth at a show in Dallas when a man, a woman, and their daughter walked up. The trio stared at his glass, stared at him, then the father said to the girl: “See now, Charlene. This is how you’ll end up if you don’t start getting better grades.” They turned and walked off.

Vernon was rather more selective in choosing his fairs after that.

Regardless of whether the show is an outdoor fair or an indoor exhibit, it must be juried. It means nothing for you to be accepted in a non-juried exhibit. What’s more, in non-juried shows you don’t know what other kinds of work will be exhibited, or whether you’ll be stuck next to some guy who does paint-by-number landscapes on saw blades.

Amusingly, the jury members in juried shows are sometimes no more qualified to serve on these panels than the average car salesman. In fact they may have almost no background in art, but are simply chosen because their niece is chairwoman, or they think it would be a “creative” thing to do, or, better yet, they’re trying to expand their horizons. It
could be worse. The panel could choose to not have a show at all. In certain cases this would be a blessing, but often it would not, since the more sophisticated of the juried shows do help advance the awareness of art. Besides, if you win a prize they usually give you a little dough.

I therefore repeat, ANY SHOW OR FAIR YOU ENTER MUST BE JURIED. So much the better if it’s a well established venue with a jurying process that is respected, like the Navy Pier Shows in Chicago (if you can afford the booth fees), or, in the more typical realm, the Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City. But even if it’s a newer show that doesn’t yet have a reputation, as long as it’s well run, well attended and in a proper setting, this is better than letting your work sit in the studio and collect dust. You’re in the process of building up your resume. It’s a gradual process, and you’ll have to be patient in carrying it out.

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