Are Art and Craft Fairs Dying?

By  Carolyn Edlund

I don’t often go to art and craft fairs anymore. After exhibiting at so many of them back in the 80’s and 90’s, I’ve become very jaded. I can’t be subjective, and frankly wish that I could see them as the public does, and enjoy them more.

So a few weeks back when I walked through a show where I had sold my work years ago, it was a bit surreal. I also found it to be a little tired-looking and sad. The show (which has a good reputation) has shrunk considerably. Quite a few of the exhibitors there have been in the business many years and I recognized several of them – a bit grayer, and still selling the same merchandise they were making twenty years ago. Although the quality of the work for the most part was high, there wasn’t much new – and there weren’t many young artists there, either.

On the other hand, I interviewed a twenty-something artist the other day who has been showing at elite shows and literally selling out of her high-end merchandise. A new breed of young DIY artists and craft enthusiasts have arisen and are organizing and promoting their own shows which are enthusiastically received.

Art festival website forums are filled with artists and craftspeople frustrated with the state of art and craft fairs these days.  They are complaining about the amount of buy/sell merchandise that has been accepted by promoters and continues to undercut and diminish the fair experience.

So, where are you on this spectrum? Are you selling retail at fairs and shows and routinely angry about the circumstances? Do you do your homework and walk a show ahead of time, finding out what’s really going on?

Have your regular shows gotten a bit thin, with the quality becoming questionable? Or are you applying to top-tier shows where you feel protected from infringements on the rules, and where only truly handmade work is exhibited?

Perhaps you’ve gone the way of many artists and craftspeople who have decided to leave the show circuit and try other ways to sell their work. You may have even joined the ranks of artists who are unemployed (artists are unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers).

Art and craft fairs are in a state of transition, like many types of commerce and many industries. In these tough times, I have not found evidence that creativity has faltered – in fact, I believe it’s flourishing. I don’t believe the fairs are dead yet, but will transform. What’s your take on this?

Comments

  1. great topic Carolyn, I have done shows for 27 years…started young and green…but they have always been good to me and I think it’s because I reinvent myself constantly….my work is new all the time (except the old favs)…and my business is doing better then ever at shows…but I certainly see what you describes as “tired” booths…cardboard boxes with sheets..really??? It is motivating me to do all originals and go for the big time shows….and also I love offering art at a reasonable price…the other thing I noticed that you hit on was there weren’t many younger crafters and that surprises me for all the amazing art in our circles online…I do think there are too many shows and people get “immune” to their environment..they go for a stroll and some food….I hope we can excite the buying crowd and not compete with buy/sells!!!

    • I think you’re right… if you don’t keep moving, you will be run over by those coming behind you. The fairs that have been around for a long time are catering more to the older exhibitors and crowds. The younger artists are reinventing and want a different aesthetic.

      Then there is a highly professional, high-end craft market which is the envy of all the others. It was a goal years ago to join this group, particularly by the art school grads.

      Today’s DIY and Etsy influences mean that almost anyone can create and exhibit (somewhere). I think this is changing and influencing the perception of craft and what it means to the consumer.

  2. I just finished a show as you described above. The show, once huge, now back in the building stages. Young artists are starting to sign on, and no buy-sell items allowed. It truly gives me hope there it will be a big regional show again. The economy is great here in western ND, I expect art shows to continue to grow.

    I displayed my old style paintings together with the new “things” I’m painting now….guess what sold first? Yes, the new. I’m energized.

    • Judy, I share your feeling that this is a show to watch. If they are bringing in new blood and keeping their standards, they should survive.

      Best of luck to you in ND, it’s proof that the sad economic news is not all pervasive – it’s just in the news a lot.

  3. I volunteer with an arts and crafts guild that has historically served primarily artisans who made their living through arts and crafts fairs. Our membership is way down now, and the continuing members often lament the same circumstances that you describe.

    I think that there are many reasons for the decline of arts and crafts fairs, most of which are out of artist and crafters control. But artists do need to recognize that making the same things that are no longer in vogue and are easily replicated is not wise creatively or as a business model.

    Artists who evolve creatively and in their business model are the ones who will succeed. Those who are static are going to lament their circumstances until they just quit.

    • Vicki, I share your sentiment, and believe that there is a huge shake-out going on in this industry – as there is across the nation in many businesses. Those that survive will be changed.

      When we embrace that change we create our own new opportunities. You are one of the people who understands and is taking control of your own future.

  4. You are right that there is a distinct slpit between older style craft fairs and younger urban ones. I just did my very first craft fair in central NY after it was highly recommended to me. It had 300 vendors and many sold thousands of dollars of the same kind of dried flowers/wooden signage that I used to see in the 80’s. My booth stuck out like a bright white oasis in a sea of brown but my sales were small. The cool thing was my target customer was attracted–I sold to almost 100% teachers. I am not ready to do a fair again without serious checking. Since I am older than all the new urban crafters I am thinking it is worth the cut to find small shop owners with the right clientele to “get” my stuff. Other thoughts?

    • I don’t think age works against you – you’re more experienced in life. If you have work that appeals and know your audience, seek them out.

      When we think in a larger paradigm, it follows that we plan to widen our prospects to wholesale accounts and other ways of selling. Don’t stop to think “is it worth it?”, think “what am I missing if I don’t pursue numerous channels to sell my work?” What have you got to lose? Even if it fails, you have found out something that doesn’t work. Then try another method, other stores or another market.

  5. A lot of what I see at fairs these days is desperation and there is definitely an energy still of the “starving artist” mindset. I definitely think that is is wise for “promoters” to really stick with the venue theme. It’s denigrating to the process when they don’t and frustrating for an artist . . . for me 🙂

    I’ve become very picky about where I exhibit now . . . whereas I used to exhibit any where . . . it was/is important for me to consider the over all energy of an show environment and weather my work is a good fit rather than considering every fair that comes along because I’m scared. Being choosy also creates a sense of ‘urgency’ if you will for returning customers . . . ‘if you wanna see it and touch it before you buy it, I’m only at this show’.

    That’s my 5 cents

    • Other artists are opting-out too, and it will result in those shows which lower their standards to kill themselves off. You are smart to sell your work only in venues which are supportive of artists and have the right energy. Your customer will find you, and new ones will, too,

    • I do the same thing. I’m very, very picky about what shows I will do, and as a result, I do fewer shows–maybe four per year.

      I think it’s worth it–I sell more this way at each show.

  6. I totally agree with your findings and wrote about this issue on my blog about 2 weeks ago.
    http://wp.me/p1goMu-4Z
    I did a craft fair that was once huge and successful but is now low on vendors and boring. Most of the vendors had out of date crafts. I was, by far, the youngest vendor there. I earn for a craft fair of new and cool crafts, I think it would do well in my area (NH).

    • Apparently this is happening all over! The older shows must move towards a new and exciting type of exhibitor or they will pass away.

      There is such transition going on now in the business. And it’s painful. But I see good things happening ultimately for shows and for artists.

  7. I keep having people recommend that I do craft fairs for money, but when I talk to vendors they report working very hard, spending a lot to enter, spending a lot on prints and materials…..only to sell very little, not even enough to cover costs.

    I’d be interested in a list of these “hip, young shows to watch”!!!! Perhaps if I attended a few of those, I’d hear different things.

  8. I can’t say I’ve ever been to a legit arts and crafts show. I know they exist around here, in fact, I’m hoping to exhibit in one this winter! But the truth of the matter is: I never hear about them.

    The bloggers I follow mention shows on their blog the day of opening, but other than that, it’s the first I hear of them and it’s always much too late. Where do they advertise? Perhaps it’s really a matter of poor marketing? I don’t go out looking for bulletin boards, and there isn’t much in the newspapers anymore. I don’t dig around craigslist much and I can’t stand news websites (their layouts are always much too busy and complicated). I don’t have cable television and I’ve never received an invitation through the mail.
    Times are a bit different now… If you’re not in with the social media online, you’re invisible.

  9. I make about 95% of my sales at shows. It is a lot of work and it takes a lot of patience and perseverance to fight the elements. I find it more lucrative, exciting, and rewarding than Etsy or any other online marketing. I really think it depends on what you sell/who your customers are, and how well the event is promoted as to how you will do at a fair. I absolutely will not do an event that is not all hand crafted, for obvious reasons. I also have a problem with doing a very small event that has an extremely high fee for no other benefit except to go into the hosting business’ pocket. Generally the point of inviting craft vendors to an event is for the vendors to bring traffic to their shop/s. We have a quickly growing supportive arts community in our city that I’m proud to be a part of!

    P.S. If there are no craft shows in your area, start one!!!
    “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams” -Willie Wonka
    “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi

    • Kris, I agree with you. Sounds like you have a realistic but positive outlook on a business that is going through difficult times. Best of luck to you!

  10. I started participating in art festivals a little over three years ago. I will say that it is one of the hardest jobs I’ve had. But, there really is nothing like hearing customer comments and asking customers questions first hand. In 48 hours I can learn which photographs to continue promoting or test launch a new product and learn its fate.

    I think it would be good for shows to check in with artists and follow them during the year to see what they are creating to form relationships. We can market their show and they can market us in the off-season. I recently started making jewelry out of my photography. Ata recent show there were three vendors with jewelry in the same room. I did submit my pendants on my application… but I think shows get used to our names, know we are a positive addition to the show and let us in year after year.

    Several indoor holiday shows recently rearranged all the artists, so that customers would have to peruse the whole event. And, I personally try new shows and skip other shows for a year to mix up my schedule.

    • Hazel, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Although fairs are having a tough time in general, I feel those that are most innovative will survive – and also thrive.

      And you are definitely correct about promoters knowing the artists who are dependable and make quality work – they should have the privilege of ongoing booth space!

  11. Hi there,
    I think there are a multitude of changes in the craft market, so to speak. I have done ice in Atlanta several years ago (forgetting how hot Altlanta would be during summer.) I believe Etsy has been a game changer for many people. As well, have also participated in art coops, but I do definitely agree with the idea of reinvention and constant learning.

    As an older craftsperson, some of the “younger shows” (more indie vibe) may have a preference for items that many older artists are not making. Remember to look and see what your target market is buying:D-or are they downsizing their home ready for retirement?:D

    The last show I did before the holidays had a good variety of artists, but unfortunately there were a few resellers there, so many artists were not happy about that. However, I did the majority of my sales the last two hours of the show, so something to keep in mind when you think you are having a slow show!

  12. It seems an issue in the UK, not just USA. Craft fair footfall is at an all time low, and fairs themselves are filled with generic “crafters” selling what I assume they think is an easy to make product in order to make a quick buck. The problem this causes is that firstly, more and more fairs are now being offered by various companies to cater for the increase in people wanting to sell wares. this leads to repetitive, generic craft fairs in which the truly creative and unique items stand out mostly for the price, which reflects the time and skill involved, whilst the bandwagon-crafts and buy to sell goods are being sold at a fraction of the price

    True artists, artisans and craftspeople are fleeing the fares like rats on a sinking ship and so the craft fairs are struggling to get the footfall, possibly because every stall looks the same. It is a shame, and I have seen creative people give up or become very bitter.

    Admittedly though, many crafters are in a rut as well, selling the same product now that was being sold years ago and expecting the same results. Just because something can be made, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be made or it will be bought, and crafters seem quick to point the finger at genuinely hard working event organisers when their dated wares don’t sell, blaming a fictitious lack of promotion or implying a lack of organisation or similar. If they were to apply the same scrutiny to their own product, then maybe they would have more luck.

    I genuinely think that for a truly creative individual with a unique product, there is money to be made, but sadly they can not always keep afloat amidst the sea of mediocre crafts to make it

    • Yes, it seems that this is a time when the wheat and chaff are being separated – some good shows that keep their standards will survive, while shows that allow buy/sell goods will fade away.

  13. This is an old post, but still VERY relevant.

    I stopped participating in fairs in 2001, but did them the prior 8 years. As a painter and sculptor, I found that the dollar amount I was wanting for my work no longer “fit in” with what was being shown and allowed in at the fairs I was going to. I went to about 8 a year in the midwest. Over time, I was the “overpriced” guy that people would look, but hardly buy. What was so energizing at the beginning (selling so much at my first fair that I figured this is the way to go) was drudgery by my last fair. And what was killing sales for me was competing with much lower end items, food and jewelry. Now, this isn’t to diss jewelry makers, but jewelry has taken over many fairs to the point that 2d artists hardly show up these days. For the most part, women would much rather adorn themselves than adorn their homes, which is a big change in the psyche of the buyer. Combine that with packaged food, t-shirts, buy/sell and more, you get fairs that have turned into flea markets.

    I was vindicated by my choice to stop participating by transitioning into gallery sales and the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced about one thing. Selling a high-ticket item shouldn’t happen outdoors and shouldn’t happen when it’s raining or cold or hotter than the desert. I started (correctly) thinking that my work deserved better than to be overlooked by people who would rather buy a t-shirt. It sounds snobbish, but a $3000 painting simply isn’t going to sell to a crowd that’s busy stuffing caramel-corn in their collective mouths.

    Art fairs are dying and the reason why is: greed. The organizers simply don’t care who they’re letting in. The cumulative effect is a downward spiral in quality and type of work, and this in turn changes the type of buyers that come to the fair. Any artists left at this type of fair are not going to do well and eventually they stop coming and the downward spiral continues. Even our best fair for the area (Penrod) has begun to let in less-than-quality goods and it’s now in a downward spiral as well.

    I see it as a market change, one that I could not withstand and had to change my way of selling. Do I sell as much now? No. But I also no longer have to pack up my vehicle, box up my goods, travel to some far away place, set up in the rain (and mud) and watch as someone else makes a fortune in t-shirt sales while my nice-looking booth stands empty.

    • Well said, Keith. I think you have many good points here. Although there are some good art fairs left (and there is a list of top fairs here http://www.artsyshark.com/2015/04/28/top-50-art-fairs-in-the-us-2015/) clearly you weren’t exhibiting at the right shows to do the type of business you sought. Show promoters have gotten lax …. the era of making tons of money on the fair and festival circuit are pretty much over. In my opinion, artists need to identify and seek income through more than one stream – perhaps galleries, online, taking commissions, or through other ways. It’s a balancing act. Congratulations on finding a better way and staying out of the mud!

  14. I have not had great luck with fairs. Typically, I find that people don’t want to pay what some items are worth, and mine aren’t even that expensive. (I’m probably somewhere in the middle.)

    I only do very few each year, and I mainly use them as a means to get my products in front of people who don’t shop online or just aren’t aware of my business. I’ve made many good connections at fairs, but actually turning a profit has been sadly rare for me.

    The shows I really like, I return to often, because I believe good organizers deserve loyalty from their artists.

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