Saturday, 1 September 2007

Soft sell

It’s the first such art fair I’ve participated in so I don’t know quite what to expect. With the car stuffed with work, hanging materials, folding table, browser stand for unframed works and directions about where to park I arrive, too early.

It’s a big old building, with two floors. The experienced ones, the ones who return each year, are upstairs, where the ceilings are gilded. Downstairs, through a corridor that takes as long to walk as it does to dawn on you that maybe it’s better to go to the cafe upstairs after all, are the late bookers, the new ones, like me.

We each get a few six-foot-high screens, the number depending on how much we’ve paid. They are covered with a kind of hessian that means smaller works can be attached with Velcro. If God had wanted us to attach paintings to walls with Velcro he would have put strips of the stuff on the back of frames. As if to prove the point, my immediate neighbour, who thought she had stolen a march by hanging her work early, returns to her space to find she has to pick her work from the floor among broken glass.

I have a friend who says that for him the two most demoralising words in the English language, the ones that make his heart sink and give him the urge to run to the hills, are “craft fair”. It’s people selling things that nobody wants, he says, to people who don’t know what to spend their money on. Harsh, perhaps, because they are the people out there doing it while others may only think about it. At the art fair, too, there are exhibitors who it is impossible to imagine going too far, but they are doing it and believing in themselves.

The ones with spaces near mine are an interesting lot, most of them having been to art school at some point or other. Over the days we get to know each other quite well, offering congratulations and commiserations as sales are won and lost, and musing about where all the buyers must be. The opening night flies by, some friends come over, and the space packs out. I get my first catch with interest from an art publishing group that wants to see more work. It’s a long-term prospect, but it immediately vindicates doing such a show. The group’s representative would have been unlikely to have seen my work if I hadn’t been showing.

The fair is only a few days long, and most of us make sales. I try to perfect the art of drawing people in to look at my work by standing at a distance so that people aren’t intimidated by having to speak to someone about the work before they want to, if they ever do. If they are interested in buying, they’ll seek you out anyway. Does the hard sell work with art? Can it be sold as if it was a car? Not by me, certainly.

The excitement of having someone you have never met before look at your work, mull it over, decide they like it, and then get out their wallet is one that established artists with galleries to handle their work must miss out on. It is a genuine thrill to turn bits of paper, and odd marks and strange ideas into something that people want, and then escort those people to the sales desk.

The work comes down, and unsold work is packed away, but it is not the end of the story. Days later, emails continue to come through from people with offers of promising projects and exhibition opportunities. Would I do another art fair? Having done one, I have everything I need to do more. It is less a case of can I afford to do another, as can I afford not to?

No comments: