This is part four of a four part series of articles about my personal life. My wife and I used to be potters; in this business, we sold hard crafted stoneware pottery in gift shops and galleries all across the US as well as art show, mostly the Western US. We did this for almost twenty five years between 1973 and 1995. After we sold the pottery business, we became landscape phototographers. In this business we sold large framed photographs in high end art shows from Phoenix to Oklahoma City and lots of places in-between. We were photographers from 1995 to 2010.
This article is about one of the hardest parts of life on the art show road.
A large percentage of the art sold in America now-a-days is sold at art shows, not in galleries. Even well known artists who have their own galleries often show their art at art shows and sometimes end up selling their galleries and doing only shows.
Galleries have many downsides: they are horrendously expensive to run and you have to have employees if you want to have time to produce art and then galleries get really expensive. Also, galleries are very inflexible; if the bottom falls out of the economy in your area, gallery owners are stuck while show artists just do shows in a new area. In fact, galleries have one of the highest bankruptcy rates in existence; very few make it more than a few years.
Putting your art in someone else’s gallery doesn’t work well either; the artist doesn’t get paid until the work sells, work gets lost and galleries are notoriously slow in paying the artist. So, if you want to earn your living as an artist, doing art shows is pretty much a necessity. And here is where the problems start.
What is the hardest part of being an artist? Most people think it is making the art. They think that if only they could paint or draw or sculpt or pot or take pictures as well as so-and-so, all the rest would be easy. Wrong. If you are a professional artist, making art is always hard, serious work but it is always fun; making art is something you look forward to, not dread. You don’t worry about the next creation, you are very confident about making art and you can’t wait to get at it, but usually there is that accounting that just has to be done right now or you have to pack the ten pictures that should have been shipped last week or you’re three weeks behind on the bills or you have to do the next show.
When you finally do find a little slot of time to make a few pictures, all the time hassles and business and money worries fade into the background and the hours fly by until the picture is done. Making art for a professional is fun; that’s why we do what we do. But there are a lot of un-fun parts too and one of the most un-fun is setting up at art shows, and the most totally un-fun is finding a parking place before you can even begin setting up. Really, I’m not kidding, the hardest, most dreaded part of being an artist is the parking.
Most artists start out using the family car or SUV to get to shows but soon discover that there simply isn’t enough room in a car and so they buy a van. Vans are great show vehicles if you have a single booth and don’t make large items. However, many artists quickly discover that double booths work very well, or they make huge pictures or they have tons of backstock and so they add a trailer onto the back of their vans or they buy a huge truck.
And then there is the “How do I afford to live in motels and eat out for half of the year while I’m on the road” problem. So, lots of artists have RVs or campers or big trucks with a trailer hitched on behind. By this time, many artists have rigs that are fifty or seventy-five feet long. Then, consider the fact that 200 artists, many of whom travel in rigs over fifty feet long all need to get into a very small area, often in the middle of a big city or a high traffic resort town and you begin to appreciate the problem.
The first problem an artist faces is getting his huge pile of show equipment and art to the spot in the show that has been allotted to him. Nope, the shows don’t provide tents or anything else. All the artist gets for his show fee is a empty 10×10 or 10×20 spot on the pavement and he must provide all the rest, and all the rest usually weighs a couple of tons or more. The few artists with only vans usually manage to scoot into the show and park temporarily in front of their booth spots to unload. But even vans have endless problems: other vans can’t get past them on the narrow street and they have to move every fifteen minutes or they find that when they are all set up other booths have boxed them in and they can’t get out.
Most artists with trailers or large trucks don’t even attempt to drive into the show. They try to find a place to park out around the edges and dolly all their stuff in to the booth. If vans pulling trailers or huge trucks do try to drive into the show they usually block access for everyone else, even those trying to dolly into the show on foot, and then everyone is unhappy with the trailer owner who is causing problems for the rest for everyone else.
Since parking is such a hassle, artists have come up with many ingenious ways of dealing with it. The first strategy, that all artists learn by their second show, is to totally ignore all parking regulations. The universal basic rule of show parking is “Never ask, just do it.” A corollary to this rule is “It’s always easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
A real dyed-in-the-wool show person will never ask permission to do anything, especially from a show promoter; they know they will never get set up if they do. If the only way to get near your space is to park in the middle of a busy thoughfare, get out your orange cones, turn on the hazard lights and go for it, then that’s what you do. If you have to park in front of a fire plug or a drive way, so be it. If you have to remove traffic barriers or drive over a sidewalk or lawns, do it. Those who hesitate are lost.
One of our friends who is a great wood turner has come up with another solution. He bought a mammoth trailer 75 or 80 feet long that was designed for putting six or so horses in the back and that has a nice living space in the front. He drives his small four wheel ATV with a small trailer attached into the back section of the big trailer. The small trailer is loaded with the first bunch of stuff he will need when he sets up. When he gets to a show he finds a good place to park for the entire show, a vacant lot or a large parking lot or even a place on a nice quiet, shady street nearby. Even if these parking places are a mile or two from the show he can still easily ferry all his show stuff right up to his booth in four or five trips with the ATV and the small trailer. Of course it cost him $100,000 plus seven cents a gallon to do all this, but what’s money when he doesn’t have to worry about parking?
Another friend who is a wonderful photographer of European landscapes has a large truck, inside of which he parks four dollies with large wheels, each about ten feet long that are pre-loaded with everything he needs for the show. When he arrives at a show he gets as close as he possible can using the “Park first, ask later” rule. He then rolls the first dolly out onto his hydraulic lift gate, lowers it to the ground and rolls it to his spot. The first dolly holds his 10×20 foot extra high tent and the four foot wide by ten foot high fabric panels that he hangs his pictures on. The next dolly is more panels and pictures. By the time he is done, he has built a booth that is as big and often much nicer than most permanent galleries. And he does it all in four or five hours without any help.
One thing that almost never happens at shows is fights and arguments between artists over parking. There is a very close camaraderie between professional show artists. The basic attitude is that we all know that getting into and out of shows is a tough job, but we have done it so many times that we know exactly how the job has to be done and we all know that if we cooperate, we will get it over with faster. No matter how hassled artists are, almost everyone goes out of his way to help other artists get into the show. All requests to move a little forward, or a little back, or please close your door or could you possibly park here rather than there are usually courteously responded to. Newcomers who don’t realize what is going on sometimes cause problems, but if they plan to make a career out of art shows they soon figure out the protocol.
The people who cause the most problems during set up and take down are usually the show promoters who have never actually participated personally in a set up before and only manage one show once a year. Sometimes show promoters try to micro-manage setups and the results are always chaos. Promoters set up fences and gates and then lose the keys to the gates or they arrange specific times for specific people to set up and get so rigid about their schedules that half the artists never get set up until the promoters give up and go home for the night. The very best set ups are when the promoters mark all the spaces in advance, give the artists their booth number in advance and then let the artists work it out. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen often as the parking lots and parks and streets used for art shows are often occupied until just before the show.
Joan and I usually try to stay out of the setup mess as much as possible. We have a large pickup with a large camper on it and pull a twenty foot trailer. We will usually scout a show in advance to check out the setup possibilities and then park a block or more away and dolly the whole show in. And that is a lot of dolly trips. I figure it’s good exercise though. Some people jog, others go to gyms, I dolly.
Another favorite tactic is to arrive early, park someplace near our booth location (usually where you are not supposed to be parked) and then disappear until it ‘s time to set up. We do one show in Breckenridge, Colorado that is wedged into a very small shopping mall with zero parking anywhere near it. We tend to arrive three or four hours early for this show, sneak into the back of the shopping mall on a little fire road driving the wrong way on the narrow, one lane road. Part way in we have to cut through the outdoor seating area for one of the classy restaurants in the mall, moving tables and chairs as we go. And then we finally park in the delivery truck area which is plainly marked no parking. At this point we are also facing the wrong direction on a one way alley next to the exit so we can get out quickly and easily after setup. Trucks can get around us, but we are definitely some place we are not supposed to be. Then we go to lunch and do a little shopping until it’s time for setup to start and hope that when we get back that the truck and trailer hasn’t been towed. Parking tickets are no problem, we have no problem at all with a fifty dollar parking fine–a parking ticket is well worth it if it helps solve the parking dilemma.
Another of our favorite solutions is to let everyone one else set up the day before the show and then come in at 3:00 or 4:00 AM the morning of the show when everyone else is asleep. Then we can easily park in the street in front of the show and dolly in to our space with no problems.
The parking part of being an artist is definitely a real problem. I know many artists who actually get physically sick at the thought of the parking mess at an upcoming show. I also know many very talented artists have given up art completely rather than having to face the parking gauntlet. And, in spite of the usual camaraderie of art shows, I have seen fist fights arise over parking issues. These are usually by newly guys who have never done shows before and know how its done.
However, in the long run, I think the benefits of doing art shows greatly overshadow the problems. Where else can you earn a living making things you think are beautiful, have the freedom of being your own boss, come and go as you please, work when you want to and not when you don’t. These things are, as they say in the credit card commercial, invaluable. Parking and all, I would never do my career differently if I had it to do all over again. It has been a life style that I definitely have not regretted.