Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ask the expert: Deb Bailey director of the Marion Arts Festival

 A really good example of booth organization and great means of display

I am an art festival director, and bid you application greetings from the Dark Side.

Sorry; sincerely.  The whole process is impossible.  As an administrator, I know – understand – applying to a show can feel like throwing money down the devil’s hole.  The event I’m responsible for hosts 50 spots, and typically receives 350-ish applications.  Our entry fee is $25 – the lowest in the realm of high caliber shows, but twenty-five bucks times the number of shows you apply to pretty much equals your whole morale budget.  I have a very experienced artist pal who once declared, “If you’re not getting regularly rejected, you’re not applying to enough shows.” (it only took me, like, fifteen times before I learned most artists don’t find it all that comforting a statement).  Ego and money are both on the line.  And the line.  And the line.  It’s not ad infinitum, but still.

Fact: we do make money off you, in that your jury fees help fund the festivals to which you’ve applied.  If it’s useful, here’s what else is happening behind the scenes.  Most of us are nonprofit organizations.  To produce our specific event, we work year around to raise nearly $100,000, in cash support and in-kind contributions (more than three-fourths of which we spend on promotions, e.g. getting your customers to the park).  Foundations and corporations, via grantwriting, award us about half that $100,000, with another quarter coming from local business sponsorships.  The remaining one-fourth is income – we host a 5K run, which serves as a fundraiser, and see revenue through t-shirt and poster sales, artist application fees and exhibitor/food vendor booth fees. 

Investing in the right display pieces/ fixtures
can make all the difference.

Each artist application fee contributes one-fortieth of one percent (1/40 of 1%) toward our budget.  It’s not a lottery – your talent matters, above all else – but with an all-things-being-equal 1 in 7 chance of getting in, it’s a gamble, no question.  The payoff is we work hard to make a great show for the artists we’re able to invite.  Our festival is ranked as the #1 show in the country featuring up to and including 100 artists, with other shows offering their own unique jackpots.  Festivals are a business we’re all in – artists, and the events themselves.  You’re in the business of art-making.  Our business is to help keep you alive.  If you don’t thrive, there’s no point.  You’re our labor of love; if we could just raise $100,000 and give it to you, we would.  As it stands, our sponsors require that we throw a party.  The good news is, it’s fun, and people bring money.            

More festival secrets: your gallery images matter less than you think they do, and your booth shot matters more than you think it does.

Having said that, it’s likely you could benefit from having a professional photographer document your work.  You honestly can’t do it justice – to have your good work photographed badly is an insult you issue yourself.  You deserve better.  On your own, there’s a good chance you’d place your pieces on a white sheet, using overhead lighting and a flash, or arrange work on a tabletop, or hang it on a wall.  If I didn’t know better, that’s totally what I’d do.  Not our friends the professionals.  In addition to their obvious charms, they know what background and lighting will flatter each medium – glass is not clay, jewelry is not woodworking, and painting is not drawing.  Personally, I like to be photographed from slightly above – head-on, and you can clearly see I’m shaped like an apple and way too shiny.  3D mixed media is not sculpture.  I think you see my point. 

Judges want to see how the product in the booth.
This functions only as a detail shot.

Yet.  The upshot is, if the work is shot by a pro, it’s hardly ever your image quality standing between you and a booth space.  Good work is good work.  Jurors can see past many things.  Lesser work is lesser work, even when well photographed.  Sometimes your offerings are simply not a good fit for the audience, as not everything plays in Peoria.  Most shows will provide guidance.  Ask!  Ask!  Ask!  And!  Do answer every question in the application, in the detail requested.  We ask our applicants to provide price info, including their most common price point.  Fyi: “$30 - $3,000” does not answer the question.  If I had a nickel, we could buy more billboards.              

Moving on!  You’re ready, with respectable gallery images, a blessedly incisive artist’s statement – that’s a whole other discussion – and the $25 application fee in hand.  Except … gah.  We want a booth shot.  Require.  A booth shot.

Here’s the thing – or rather, things.  Do not fake your booth shot.  Photoshop-ed with only the best and priciest work you have ever produced?  We know.  Set up in your basement?  We see.  Filled with “Best in Show” ribbons?  We wonder.  I say this with love and sincerity – if you seem to be circumventing the process, the jurors will question your integrity, and that blows.  You are trustworthy!  Do not give jurors a reason to waiver!  We know about “show the best, bring the rest” – and respect it as a survival strategy – but, above all else, we want to know what our audience is getting.  As do you: the jurors are selecting with the eye of our audience; if the images you show are not the work you bring, you cheat yourself.  I cannot stress this enough.  Show your real work, in its range of glory, in your real booth, and – ideally – in a real outdoor festival setting.  If you’re new to festivals, and don’t have a credible shot, display hardware or even a tent, email the show director.  We want for you to put your best application face forward, and can offer guidance.

There’s more.  Please, please give this message to those who may intentionally fudge: jurors do not forget the occasions on which artists arrive with very little of the type and caliber of work seen in their application package.  Ditto the quality of booth set-up – to have been presented a certain elegance of display only to have an artist arrive with a card table (oh, sister – it’s happened) is an unforgettable drag on everyone’s experience.  Artists who behave in this manner are not just hurting us – meaning, our audience, who expect and support fine art – or themselves; they’re also hurting you.  We work to stay savvy, but you, too, are part of the code of ethics mix.  It’s our industry, yes – but first and foremost, it’s yours.     

This is a great example of a
nice range of product.

Finally, we want to be a great show, the show our community hopes for and a show in which you’re proud to be a part.  All of us – you, me, our volunteers and sponsors, the audience and community – are out hauling ass for the same thing.  The perfect festival storm, where the right art is put in front of the right people with the right wallets.  There will be slurpees for everyone, and maybe falafel.  Dogs – sensibly – will be left at home.  Kids will ask you how you made that.  The sun will shine, and our greatest hope is you’ll feel our efforts, your art and that $25 have worked together in an exponential – a literal, two hundred-fold  exponential – way.  Thank you for the work you do!  We’re lucky you do it, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it, truly.
-Deb Bailey is the director of The Marion Arts Festival


  1. Wow. This post is very well written and thought out. Thank you for sharing. I will share it on Facebook so other artists can benefit from your wisdom!

  2. Thanks fineheart! Deb Bailey is the expert here and she is amazing!

  3. Looks interesting this arts festival. Greetings.

  4. Leovi, It is so much fun. In addition to the artists selling their work, they have a 5 k run, a art project for the kids to do, and lots of food. It is the best way to spend a nice summer day!

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this wonderful information. (I'm moving to Iowa)

  6. Sointoit, So you welcome to move here anytime. Everyone is....


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