The one arts festival-related thing I chose to do this year was attend the Zapp Arts Festival Conference. Part of the reason was that it was in my backyard, and because I felt that I could stand to learn a few things about the fine arts festival circuit. In case you’re not familiar with ZAPP, they’re the major online arts festival application website. A ton of shows (including ones I’ve set up at) use their site to facilitate jurying artists into their events, and it’s a pretty seamless, easy process (from my end). This was the sixth annual conference that ZAPP has put on, and the first that I’ve attended. It’s a two-day event, usually right before an arts festival in the same town (this year, that would be the ongoing Art in the Pearl, a great yearly show in Portland).
The event was both not exactly what I expected, and also incredibly helpful. Warning, this is totally going to be long, so grab your favorite libation and get comfortable!
This year’s event was held at Portland’s Benson Hotel, which is a beautiful, amazing hotel. First problem, though: the day’s first events were held in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom. But there is a much more famous venue in Portland, about ten blocks away, also called the Crystal Ballroom, which is a concert venue. And that’s where I headed, half-asleep, only to find people loading kegs of beer into the building, but absolutely nothing to do with an arts conference. Clearly, I was the only idiot to make this mistake, and fortunately I was early enough that I could angrily trudge back down to the Benson Hotel, never to clue anyone into the reason why I was surly and sweaty. Looking back at the conference materials, maybe it’s just the fact that I have attended so many shows at the Crystal Ballroom that confused me, and it’s probably unrealistic to expect out-of-town organizers to know that there might be some confusion (even if it was only me), but that got Thursday off to a bad start.
Once the presentations began, things picked up quickly. It also became apparent that this was not an event intended solely for artists – at least half of the attendees were people in charge of festivals of their own, looking for ways to make their festival bigger and better. Depending on how you look at it, that’s tremendous. As an artist, it was a unique experience to be able to directly ask festival curators questions on things that confused me about the process, and to get straight, plain answers back. The art world can be very hierarchical, where access to gatekeepers can be difficult to obtain (even though they need us as much as we need them), and straight answers are tough to come by. The ZAPP conference, on the other hand, had none of that spirit. Maybe it was everyone being in the common boat of being willing to plunk down money to better do what it is that they do, maybe the coffee was really good, but the attendees that I had conversations with were open, friendly, curious, and helpful.
On day one, the morning presentations were about examining the role of arts in society, and then a longer presentation about diversity. Both seemed tailored more to festival promoters than to the artists in attendance, which isn’t to say that there wasn’t useful information in both presentations. The information on the shifting demographics in the American populace isn’t really something that I can address as an artist – my role in the arts world is to produce work interesting enough to be part of the overall discussion, and if I can’t do that, then I don’t even get a seat at the table to discuss anything else. The upshot of the presentation seemed to be that Millennials (deal with it; nobody gets to pick their generational label) care much less about race, unless there’s no diversity present at all, and have largely not yet been interested in attending arts festivals.
An aside that occurred to me as I was looking around at Art in the Pearl a couple of days later: one of the big issues that art fairs face is how to appeal to younger folks (that’s part of the diversity thing – a wide range of ages as well). I saw at least a couple of booths with signs featuring draconian warnings against photographing any of the work within that booth. It’s well within an artist’s right to dictate how their work is represented. You can ask Lars Ulrich how going against the tide worked out for him in his battle against Napster. If you’re trying to draw in a younger audience, and at the same time basically telling that audience that they’re not allowed to communicate in one of the central and easiest ways that they do, meaning social media, especially meaning Twitter and Instagram, then you don’t exist in that world. They can’t talk to each other about work that they find interesting, and they’re not going to feel welcome, and then they’re going to be gone. As an artist, you can either be like the record industry circa 1999, desperately trying to plug holes in the dam as they spring up around you at an alarming rate, or you can embrace the change and try to make it work for you. One change I plan on making in future shows: a sign in my booth that encourages people to spread the word, and just please tag it right (@clayholio everywhere, forever) so that people can reach me if they dig the work.
The afternoon had dueling sessions, where you could pick from two presentations that were running at the same time. I skipped a presentation on designing websites in favor of one called “The Growth is in the ‘Maybes,’” presented by Chris Dahlquist, which suggested taking a longer-term view of sales, and offered techniques for staying in contact with the people who are interested, but not ready to immediately make a purchase. I found it to be a useful talk and a necessary attitude adjustment, and I liked the idea of having a nuts-and-bolts approach to running your arts business as a year-round deal, not just something you do a couple weekends a year in a tent in a field somewhere. After that, I passed up problem-solving at events talk in favor of one titled “How to Charge More Money for Your Artwork (and Get It!)” by Alyson Stanfield. I reasoned that I’d already been through the panic stage at art fairs before, and duct tape and a Sharpie can fix about 83% of your troubles. I’m not sure that I agreed with everything that Alyson presented, although she made good points about trying to understand the attitudes of your clientele, and made a great point about not trying to do everything on the cheap. I have to admit, my first thought about that was that I wondered if the ZAPP Conference had been mainly for artists, would it have been at such a beautiful, lush venue? That’s less of a dig at ZAPP than other artist-focused events that have a conspicuous non-consumption veneer. As Alyson said, that’s the time to break out your grandmother’s good china – that’s what it’s for!
After that came the one thing that should be mandatory attendance for every artist who wants to show at art fairs: the “Public Portfolio Critique.” I can’t stress this enough, this one hour was worth every penny I spent for the entire conference. Artists are used to critiques being about the content of their work, about technique and effectiveness, and artists also have varying levels of tolerance for these sort of things. This presentation focused not on the content of your work (which was going to be at a certain level, on the basis of even knowing about this ZAPP Conference), but on the effectiveness of how you presented your work. This is a big distinction. In the Crystal Ballroom (!), a mock jury was set up exactly like one that would be used to jury artists into an arts festival. The jurying process is essentially your twenty-second job interview, and if that sounds terrifying, just imagine when you start seeing the mock jury tearing into other artists’ dumb mistakes (and thoughtless ones, too), the same ones that you made in your last batch of unsuccessful applications. The attendees were able to maintain composure, but if there’d been a microphone on my brain, there would have been a steady beat of my palm hitting my forehead. This, also, is where my earlier point about having access to gatekeepers restricted is relevant. One festival director said that he had 2,100 applications this year, and you can believe that they don’t want to wade through that much material, all containing dumb, easily-correctable mistakes. And it’s all things you wouldn’t really understand, until you sat in a room with your four slides projected onto giant screens in a dark room, and see why brightly-lit images piss off jurors, or how a great booth shot is a boon (and instantly forgotten about), while a bad one will cripple your chances. Or simply seeing how to sequence your images in a way that feels weighted correctly (this is complicated, and would require a visual explanation). Once you’ve started to solve the million problems behind making artwork that people respond to, there are another million problems in the way that an artist must present their work to show it off in the best way possible.
I can’t even fully express the amount of valuable information that I picked up in that one panel, other than to say it’s like getting handed back your resume, and finding out you’ve been misspelling every fourth word. For the last five years. Okay?
At that point, I was exhausted, and blew off the final panel in favor of sitting in traffic for like an hour and a half.
Day Two began with a three-hour symposium, which frequently touched on the importance of diversity and how to achieve it. Again, this material seemed much more aimed towards the “gatekeepers” of the arts field. There were important points about how not to reach out to different communities, but speaking as an artist, I felt they really missed the point in one regard. It was sort of accepted that if you wanted to reach out to Latino communities (for instance), you’d also need to provide services and content that was relevant to their community. Great point. But from the other end, the question that was completely unaddressed was how to provide that content. In essence, you’re asking more people to start small businesses in a very risky field, as that’s what an artist who exhibits at art fairs has done. There are concrete costs associated with starting up an art fair business, and they are not insignificant. And, speaking as someone who’s not exactly a beginner, you also end up throwing a lot of money away because no one tells you what the common pitfalls are. Or that simply some people aren’t going to like what you do. If festivals need artwork from a variety of backgrounds in order to appeal to a wider audience, how can artists be encouraged to start those small businesses to fill that need? And especially if there’s not already people who have been successful doing so from a given community, where does the knowledge of how to navigate the process of getting into shows, and then being ready to exhibit their work in a professional, art fair-ready manner come from? Some festivals already have an outreach program, of sorts, through emerging artist categories, which can come with instruction and material assistance to get ready for an art fair.
It’s not impossible to come across this kind of information, but I’m not entirely sure that people know where to look for it in the first place. I found the access to arts fair professionals that the ZAPP Conference provided to be immensely valuable, but also wonder how emerging artists of any stripe would figure any of this out without a toehold (like an organized class, or stumbling across a mentor) in the first place.
On Friday afternoon, the first presentation was called “Content Matters: the Art of Pitching Messages,” by Eve Connell. This was a good overview of how you can use various outlets to spread the word about what you’re doing, but more importantly, how to craft your message in an effective way. If it sounds like a lot of this conference was about marketing and sales, well, yeah. At least for artists, it’s not that difficult to find feedback for what you’re doing artistically, but focusing on the marketing/sales side seems to be a taboo topic to many artists, at best. I feel like some of this material needs to be explained in a different way to artists (I’m not talking about this presentation, in particular), because there’s a sort-of aversion to being a money-grubbing capitalist within the creative community. Let me put it this way: if you could do fewer shows and get more out of each exhibition opportunity, you can spend more time in the studio doing what you love. Or, conversely, if you can get more out of the opportunities that you’re already getting, you can expand your reach more quickly. Doesn’t that sound useful? It’s not about stacking piles of money, it’s about getting to do more of what you already love to do, by taking a little more care in how you present and promote what it is that you’re already doing. This presentation was good, in that it gave a peek into what it is that people will respond to, and also how to get more traditional media gatekeepers on your good side (pro tip: learn their format, give them something that requires minimal effort on their part).
The final presentations on Friday were once again a dueling talk situation. I opted for a second talk by Eve Connell, called “Talk the Talk: Effective Interpersonal Communication” over one called “Creating an Art Fair Experience.” Now, I’ve spent plenty of time talking to people at art fairs/comic cons/what-have-you over the years, but the best advice I’d ever gotten on the subject came from a community college public speaking class – prepare, and remember that everyone’s rooting for you to succeed, because failure is awkward for everyone. That advice will get you functional, meaning that you can get up in front of people and start talking, and it won’t be torture for everyone. But Eve’s talk was more about excelling at this facet of promoting yourself. For the most part, if you’re creating work, you should be able to discuss it without tons of preparation. I mean, you’ve spent the time with it, so you know what’s up. We all did an exercise where we had to pair up and talk about something that we were passionate about, and even though I drew a blank AND got paired up with the teacher, the point of the exercise became clear. There’s a certain feeling that you have when you’re discussing things well and with confidence, and you can try to put yourself back in that place every time you’re talking publicly, even if you’re talking about something that’s not in your wheelhouse. And confidence pretty much equals charisma, which is a big part of sales. Being made aware of that feeling is a distinct experience, and a valuable reference point for the future.
So, two days of insufficient sleep and easily more lecture time than I’ve endured since college adds up to what, exactly? First off, I’d say that the ZAPP Conference is useful not just for what you learn in a concrete fashion, but also in the confidence boost it gave me. It’s very easy to get frustrated about how things are going when it feels like you’re completely on the outside looking in, and you have no way to figure out how to get to a better place, professionally. The presentations are useful to varying levels – like I said, some of it seemed directly aimed at art fair directors, and I still got something out of a lot of that material, too. But learning concrete steps to take to build and connect with your audience is a huge relief. To some degree, that went from being a complete mystery to a list of steps I need to take immediately. Secondly, or maybe thirdly, the down-time conversations that I had with other attendees were awesome. My experience was that everyone was there to learn, and to share whatever they knew if it could help you, and that was refreshing and incredibly useful. And lastly, at least a couple of the presentations (in particular, the mock jury) were so helpful that I’d consider it basic, fundamental information for any artist who wants to show their work publicly. It was mentioned that it’s also sometimes possible to sit in on and observe actual jurying sessions for art fair, and that’s a workable alternative to travelling to wherever the next ZAPP Conference happens to be. But getting a better understanding of how your work is going to be viewed as an end result will change how you choose to present your work.
And, on a more fundamental level, simply deciding that you’re going to set aside two complete days to re-think how you present your work, and to do so among other talented, motivated, intelligent people who are in the same boat will yield results. Among the busy-ness of one’s everyday life, it can be difficult to set aside any real amount of quality time to examine what you’re doing, much less to do so with the input of people who are specialists at different facets of what you do. I found the ZAPP Arts Festival Conference to be a valuable experience, and I feel a lot more confident about how things will go during next year’s round of festivals.
Twitter roundup: #ZAPPcon