When I got the email from Raw Artists out of the blue, at first I was excited. I screenshot the email and sent it to my closest circle of friends. Someone likes me! They like my art and they want to show it in an exhibit! Cue fanfare and my best dance moves. But, after a bit, when the dust settled I started to question if this thing was legit or not.
I mean, why me? I hadn't posted online in ages, and they weren't specific on what piece they really loved that made them think I was a fit. Actually, they didn't mention what type of art I even create, and I realized that this was a canned email response that they're sending out probably because I have over 4,000 IG followers on my personal account. I sighed. Great, right when I was feeling good about myself, here comes a scammer.
So I buckled down and did some research. I checked their social media accounts, websites, combed Youtube and BBB. There were several people yelling "Scam! Scam! Scam!" But my research was saying otherwise.
There's no stolen money, they do have these shows in major cities all over the world, and from the photos, I saw posted by others, the event is well attended and diverse. They don't charge a commission on sold works, and the venues are pretty nice. The one thing that everyone kept pointing to is the 20 ticket commitment.
"The artist doesn't get any of that money."
True and false. Now, since I've been on all sides of this coin (I've owned a gallery, managed venues, vended, and hosted my own vending events), it's not as straight forward as all that. The artist gets a benefit by selling those tickets: a booth at a highly trafficked event in a big city.
The first thing you have to do is get the word exhibiting out of your mind and switch it with vending. Because RAW is more of an art fair vending event than an exhibition of artists. There are no pristine white walls and soft elegant harp music. There are no turtle neck, beret-wearing, art critics sipping shiraz and muttering about art styles and technique. It's a room full of mesh wire walls, with art zip-tied to them, and aisles of artists like a sea of flea market vendors in front of a stage of performing artists. Imagine Comiccon with no comics. This isn't a bad thing, however, because attendance is great, and unlike an exhibit that you only visit that first night you get to meet everyone who is interested in your art. You get to sell your art directly instead of hoping that little white square of information sells it for you in a gallery.
Back to the ticket requirement. If you've ever vended before then you know what it's like to vend at an event where no one shows up. Or vended at an event that was not really your demographic, so there were people there, but no one was interested in what you were selling. A lot of our local vending events are around $125 for a 10x10 space. Maybe you get some electricity, probably not a wall to hang your work, and you might be outside in the heat. Selling tickets at $22.50 each is a total of $450 cost to "vend" at Raw. That is a steep price, but you don't have to pay that directly out of your pocket, you get to go for "free" if you just sell tickets to your friends.
Taking a look at bridal shows you'll see that they charge upwards of $500-$1000 for a booth space because they are providing the vendors' direct access to their demographic. The probability of someone paying for their services at this showcase is much higher than let's say the Dogwood festival because your demographic is there at RAW. On top of that, most events will never offer a free vending space to you because you sold tickets. You could sell 100 tickets and still pay $1000 for your 10x10 booth in the back corner. So $450 with a good chance of none of that money coming out of my pockets directly? Sounds like a plan, Stan.
Also, after you hit your 20 you get $10 for every additional ticket sold. So they aren't completely money hungry. Don't forget staffing, setting up, and paying for these venues is not cheap. Spaces can run $2-4,000. BuT ApRiL ThEy MaKe MoRe MoNeY tHaN tHaT. Okay, so in what world are businesses started to NOT make a profit? This is not a nonprofit charity, this is a for-profit entity so they expect to make money and they have to in order to grow and have more of these events.
"They're using your following to gain exposure and make money"
True. Of course, their goal is by you sharing and inviting your friends and selling your tickets then they can have a good turnout. They probably do select artists with a good following to gain that traction. Here's the thing, which are you more apt to click on and purchase? A random ad graphic from Raw Artists or your friend's link saying they're going to be there?
What selling tickets through the artists does is create an organic reach to people who are truly interested in these events. This means that the attendees are going to be interested in viewing and buying art. So they are using your following but using it to help it work for you. Honestly, when is the last time you've really wielded the power of your following to promote and sell your art? I will raise my hand and say,
Between being inconsistent in social media advertising, and that heart-palpitating anxiety that I get when I want to ask people to buy my art, I've not been using my platform to its fullest. I'm not alone. Most people are not maximizing their social media presence for all it's worth. Even the blue check power posters still have to post "I'm back," and "Where I've been the last month..." posts. And they post A LOT. Look, I have other things to do like play Minecraft and watch New Girl.
This kind of jump-starts your social media "use" (for lack of a better term). If you have to sell tickets then you have to post and share. You have to finally send out that email newsletter you have advertised on your website but never sent. You have to finally update your IG bio. You have to figure out hashtags. You have to let people know you're still alive. Which for me generated sales long term. Because now people see me going to the event, see photos from the event and are asking me "What's next?" and they want to see my new art and support it. They want to see me exhibiting in other spaces. They are commenting, liking, following, sharing, and loving on me harder than ever because I finally stopped putting it off and started using social media. This is where this benefits me as an artist.
You can totally do this on your own, but will you?
"Pay to Play is not okay"
Okay, now I'm going to just talk as an independent gallery owner here to shed a bit of light on museums and galleries and their finances. The big local museums are funded by the city, state, and major charities and corporations. They may even receive a portion of tourism taxes depending on their local laws. So they have funding for loads of things, that little independent galleries and smaller (not city-funded) local art events do not.
This means that paying to showcase your art in a small gallery or art event 9/10 times is just helping to keep the lights on, not making anyone rich. Event space, advertising, graphics, websites, social media management, set up equipment, staff, signage, permits, insurance, flyers, posters, stage rental, tables, chairs, sound equipment, DJs, MCs, ALL cost money. Tens of Thousands of dollars to be exact. What you're paying for is to fund more events like this in your area. Their success means more art events, and more art opportunities in the future and I don't mind helping to fund that. This increases the diversity of art events because they don't answer to boards and councils like your city museums and galleries. They can push back against censorship, red tape, and limitations imposed by the tourism board. This is where art shines as it's true self, not just the pretty stuff that matches the couch, but the bold expressive art that we need to see more of. I will pay to play for that every time.
"The event is too short, 4 hours isn't worth my travel"
Depending on how far you're traveling RAW is short but it is heavy on the self-promotion and like I said before does more than that little white square next to your art can do on its own. You're there in the trenches showcasing and selling your art directly to your buyers. It's fast-paced, fun, and a great way to make quick money and LONG TERM money if you meet the right person. Meet being the keyword. You actually meet the people who are interested in your art. Where your art may hang for a month in a gallery and the only person who sees anyone look at your art is a gallery staff person who may or may not even really understand your work. Who better to explain, and SELL your art than you? So you may find yourself making more sales in this environment than in a gallery if you're unknown.
"Because everyone had to buy a ticket their money was spent and they weren't buying art."
This was not my experience at the event at all. Many of the guests came with money expecting to rack up on prints and art pieces. I'm just going to be blunt here, if $22.50 causes your guest to not be able to afford your art, they couldn't afford it to begin with. Yes, some guests probably travel and have travel expenses in addition to the ticket price and want to just be there for you. However, the percentage of those types of attendees is minimal.
"The other artists' prices were so low, I couldn't sell a thing"
Honestly, this is something you have to deal with in any vending situation. Remember this isn't an exhibition, it's a vending event. I will advise that anyone going to a fair, festival, or other vending event provide cheap impulse buy options at their booth. Don't drop your original work prices, but instead bring prints, and other smaller merch and crafts that people can buy easily without thinking about the financial commitment they are making. Things that cost little to time or money to create such as stickers, pins, buttons, or shirts. My lightboxes were priced at $333, but I got several inquiries and commission requests from them. I brought prints and sold a few at $20 each. Most of the people who saw my art loved it, but $300 isn't something you normally spend without thinking it through. $20 however you can spend without worrying about upcoming bills, or financial obligations. Prints cost me around $1 to produce (If you're looking to get some printed let us know!), so I had a 2000x income for those sales. Also, you may not make a sale during the event, but if you give out business cards, flyers, have a signup sheet, and have an updated website or social media account you can expect to receive orders after the event. Not all sales will happen in that 4-hour window.
"It's not really a 'fine art' experience"
It's not, and I don't believe it's supposed to be. Raw is a modern almost low brow take on an art fair. It's not a MOMA or Louvre experience. It's meant to be a place to grab a beer and look at cool stuff while watching undiscovered artists perform.
What you need to know:
- Know your demographic. If you are looking for a fine art crowd this won't be it and if your followers are also used to a fine art experience they will not enjoy this event.
- Bring a hand-truck, wagon, cart, something you can easily port art in. You may have to walk a distance because of parking, and you're going to want to be prepared.
- Bring Prints.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
- Bring business cards and flyers.
- Make sure your business cards list everything you're able to do.
- Update your website/social media
- Bring snacks and water.
- Take the venue tour if you can.
- Read all emails
- Tickets sold at the door will not count towards your numbers.
- Bring extra cash for parking
- Bring a second person to hang out with you/watch the table while you take photos or use the restroom.
- Make sure your second person knows how to talk about your art.
- Practice talking about your art
- If you have kids look for nearby places they can go to so they're not stuck
- Bring extra makeup and hair stuff for your headshots
- Practice taking headshots and how you want to look
- Bring a notebook to take down emails and contact information
- Have a way to take credit cards
- Bring a phone charger
- Bring a cash box with change
- Bring things to promote what you're doing next