I have been an exhibitor in the MediaWest artshow, on and off, for the past 12-13 years or so. And to be totally blunt it is very sad to see the way the art show has gone downhill during that time, especially in the past 2-3 years.
And by going downhill, I don’t mean the quality of the work exhibited: there has always been and still is a full range of technical art skills presented, from extremely talented pro/semi-pro artists to beginning/young amateur artists. Crafts from jewelry to knitting to etched granite were on display along with paintings, drawings, and a large amount of photography and photo-manipulations. But the amount of art and the number & variety of artists exhibiting has dwindled dramatically. This year I don’t think the art room was more than 1/3 full–both the tables for 3D art and panels for 2D. Even some of the artists who are regular, big contributors like Jesse McClain only had one panel’s worth of submissions, instead of taking up a full standing bay as she usually does.
So why the downturn? Easily the first reason is the terrible, last minute way the convention handles space reservations for artists, which has only gotten worse and worse each year. This year the Progress Report with the art show reservation form was not mailed out or put on the website until May 3, 2009, and interested artists were told they only had until May 10 to submit reservations! (Never mind that after that date, an update mentioned space still available. No kidding!) Artists also need to have a supporting membership to hang art–and the con rules/website state that memberships can only be bought up until May 1. Also it can take a long time to actually RECEIVE your membership number after paying for one–good luck getting it to you in a week’s time.
Another problem, especially for artists who might be considering mailing in artwork, is the inability to get your multi-part forms mailed to you in time. The convention should seriously consider going to forms that could be downloaded by artists on-line, even if yes, that would then require the artshow staff to create a computer database to keep track of art pieces and bids instead of multi-part forms. But that too could avoid a lot of problems at check-out with pieces missing, winning bids being mis-reported, or not reported at all. But for the past three years running, it has always been about 50-50 whether I would actually receive my forms in the mail before leaving for the convention–and when they did arrive, it was usually with only a day to spare. This basically completely rules out the possibility of mail-in art being submitted, making the only option for artists who can’t attend to be to find someone who is attending to agent your art. (One small thing done this year to help with future issues about the forms is artists were given forms for next year at check out. Great for the regular, small group of artists who habitually show and attend. This will do nothing to help with new artists who weren’t here this year.)
The convention, if it intends to continue to have a good art show, needs to work to correct these registration and paperwork issues if they are going to have any chance of attracting new artists to exhibiting. There might be an impression that the convention is only for “fan-art”, but that’s definitely not the case. Some of the pieces which seem to consistently sell the best are animal/wildlife art, fantasy, and jewelry. This year I submitted some of my astronomical artwork instead of any fanart, and sold 5 of the 8 paintings I showed (along with at least 2/3rds of the jewelry pieces I submitted.) Of course, a fanart oil painting I’d shown for the past two years in the artshow, never getting a bid (at a very low starting bid), I sold off my dealer’s room table this year at a much better price. Go figure! So perhaps the artshow isn’t even the best place for artists to exhibit and try to sell their work at the convention…
That said, there are also buyer issues as well which could be discouraging to new artists, as MWC certainly has a very clique-ish feel to it and that carries over into what (and from whom) people will buy. This year I was agenting for a new jewelry artist who does wonderful work, was all priced very reasonably — and she only received 2 bids out of the 16 pieces she’d shown. I’ve seen a lot of hesitation regularly from bidding on “unknown” artists at MWC, no matter the quality of the work. So it’s an environment of buying from your friends and known fellow fans more so than buying the best, most interesting art.
I’m sure the art show staff has to be aware of these issues at this point. What I’m less sure of is whether they care at all enough to do anything about them. As the entire convention feels like it is just going on because it’s been going on for almost thirty years, there for the fans who remain but not working to bring in new blood, I have my doubts and am not sure I’d recommend the convention to artists who haven’t been regularly showing there already.