An Art Fair Dilemma: Misrepresentation by Artists and Failure of Shows to Consistently Monitor and Enforce - Why a Strong Booth Slide Requirement is Needed
Editors note: The following commentary was presented at the 2009 NAIA Conference in Peoria. The views expressed are those of Mr. Slesnick and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NAIA, its members, or its Board of Directors.
In July, 2009, I participated in my eighth ZAPPTM jury. The basis of the remarks that follow, especially those about misrepresentation, are culled from those experiences, including jurying or judgingorbothfour nationally ranked and a few local and regional shows in Florida. The unexpected result of participating in so many juries in such a relatively short period of time (less than two years) is that it afforded me the unique opportunity of spotting and observing trends within our industry, most notably within the jury process.
For better or for worse, the outcome of the jury process solely determines the overall appearance, direction, and quality of every show. It is therefore necessary that the shows director guarantee the integrity of the process to his jury, and to ensure what the jury sees is what the show and its patrons ultimately receive.
With safeguards seemingly in place, the integrity of the jury process has nonetheless been called into question on occasion. Preeminent artists are complaining they receive more rejection notices than ever before and lament how difficult it is today to make a living. Others claim scamming is widespread and that show directors are either blind to it or are doing little or nothing about it. Blame is often placed on the world having gone digital thus aking it easier to fool the jury. Its often said by artists that the application process is no longer a level playing field, and scam has become a byword. Sadly, there is some truth to all of this. But no matter what is said and who or what is implicated, most of it all seems to come down to one thing: the jury process.
There are inherent shortcomings in any jury process, and as long as humans are involved and digital technology remains the format of choice, they will no doubt remain. The good news is that by implementing a few changes, we all benefit. Formulating a strong booth slide rule, for example, will put artists back on a level playing field with all other applicants, as explained later in this paper. Removing the trouble spots from the process will assure the show director that the overall quality he sees at jury will be the overall quality he gets at the show. Along with that comes the added bonus for the director of maintaining, or even regaining, control of the overall appearance and public perception of the show.
After having now completed the eight juries, and after having seen seven out of those eight shows, there is, in my view, clear evidence of a developing trend of misrepresentation by the artist during the jury process, which can range from harmless to scamming or even fraudulent. The overall appearance of the artists booth can turn out to be quite different, as well as the work itself. In the vernacular of the retail world, even the product mix can look substantially different than it did at jury. Further, show directors are not consistently assuring their patrons and audiences that what they are seeing at the show is indeed a reasonably accurate resemblance of what the jury selected a few months earlier. To varying degrees, the result of this combination is a continuing displacement of legitimate artists by those who misrepresent, as well as an increasing inability of show directors to control their festivals overall appearance and perceived level of quality.
A disturbing trend
What Im seeing at the shows Ive juried are junky-looking booths cluttered with merchandise that I dont remember from jury. Or types of work that, to the best of my recollection, never appeared in any of the slides, or if they did, in quite different proportions. Im seeing what may be buy/sell merchandise. Other things that seem to mysteriously appear at the show that were never in the booth slide include extra display panels, or a booth that has become two feet taller than it was in the booth slide and much larger. Photographers in particular have become known for their urban sprawltheir encroachment into their neighbors and public spaces with the extra panels and with more work. But theyre not alone; there are others.
How should the booth slide be used?
Back in the late 60s and early 70s, when no booth slide was required, scale became a debated issue for juries. How could you tell from a slide of the work whether the piece was five inches tall or five feet tall? You couldnt. So then someone said, Lets require a slide of the booth with work in place. They knew the booth was about ten feet wide, and from that the real size and scale of the artists work could be seen and extrapolated. That was the original intent of the booth slide. For the most part, it was not the intent of the booth slide to check for continuity of work or the appearance of the artists display.
Fast forward about forty years. What Im seeing at shows are booths that dont appear to be anything at all like the very clean and uncluttered booths those very same artists submitted with their applications. Some of the differences are minor; others are not so minor. All are misrepresentations.
At the lower end on the scale of misrepresentation are those minor differences that we expect to see from show to show and from season to season, or from the purchase of a new booth: A few extra pieces of work, a brand new piece just completed, or a slightly different display arrangement. Those are the harmless and generally unintentional misrepresentations and we should expect them.
At the other end of the spectrum are the more alarming, harmful, and deceitful misrepresentations: those which are calculated efforts to bait the jury and switch at show time, and those which taint the show and often become the subject of a broad range of complaints by others.
In between are infinite levels of misrepresentation, from simply pumping up the colors in PhotoShopTM to something more complex, such as a virtual booth slide created entirely on the computer.
So whos to blame?
Its become a very complex and interrelated issue. Ive already indicted artists for misrepresentation, scamming, and possibly for fraud. But thats only one side of the artist/ art show equation. The truth of the matter is that art show directors and their respective boards are the other side of the equation, and collectively they have an obligation to formulate rules that effectively minimize scamming and misrepresentation. The greater truth is that they are obligated to enforce those rules.
Which, then, is the more pressing issue: Artists misrepresenting themselves or shows not consistently monitoring and enforcing? It doesnt matter, because now we are all paying the price. The ability of the legitimate art fair artist to make a living continues to diminish, and the reputation of art shows themselves has been called into question.
In the pages that follow, I will suggest a few changes that will hopefully resolve some of these issues.
A true story
At one prestigious show I juried, I was taken aback when I saw there were so many artists in the show whose work and whose displays did not look a bit like I remembered from the slides at jury. A lot of them looked worse. A fair number of them looked junky. They had work that didnt ring any bells at all from jury. Had I seen at jury what I saw at the show, in many cases, I would have remembered. I told the show director that I thought misrepresentation was rampant.
A few days after the show, that same director received an e-mail from a disgruntled artist who was in the show. An exact copy of that e-mail follows. Names and dates have been omitted.
From: (name of sender)
Sent: (date), 10:43 AM
To: (name of festival)
Subject: great art fair
Yeah sure? real good, and you have to love (name of artist) Pottery, he gets juried in with slides that look NOTHING like the pieces he exhibited and so did (name of artist) got to love a booth full of LAMPS, clean up your jury process and start looking into these scammers.
have a good day. (name of sender)
The show director then forwarded the e-mail to me. I responded that I didnt doubt the accuracy of the charges made against the two artists whose names were mentioned. The writers comments merely echoed what I had already told the director. My greater concern was knowing that the writer of the e-mail probably didnt venture more than a block or so in either direction from his booth, and had h done so, he would have been even more put out. I saw the entire show several times over and thought there were more artists to complain about other than the two that were mentioned.
However, since I was one of several jurors who put those two artists in the show, as well as all the others the writer either didnt see or didnt mention, I felt at least partially responsible for the shows dips, which is a word one of the other jurors used that weekend in describing the show. Could those dips have been avoided? I think yes.
What Ive seen at jury...
Lets first address the quality of slides being submitted. Surprisingly, some of the worst slides are being submitted by seasoned, experienced artists, artists who should know better by now. Even worse is the applicant who doesnt think a booth slide means a shot of his booth with work in it, and instead sends an extra work slide, or even a shot of an empty booth (And why not? If you are new at it, and the prospectus didnt specifically state that your work also had to be included in the booth slide, how would you know?). But when the prospectus says to send four slides of work and one booth slide, why would an applicant send five slides of work and no booth slide?
booth slides that were so fuzzy and so out of focus that no detail whatsoever could be recognized; slides with the artist in the picture looking straight into the camera smiling; slides with the artist's or studio name, or both, emblazoned on the tent or booth; work slides obviously taken with a small, hand-held point- and-shoot camera under less than optimal lighting conditions, and for 3-D work, using what appears to be a tabletop studio that can be purchased for about 50 bucks at a discount store, all yielding amateur-looking less than optimal results.
Ive seen small pieces of 3-D work placed on carpet for a backdrop, or colored backgrounds that so distracted from the artwork that you had to ask yourself, What inthe world was this applicant thinking? I saw one booth slide recently that was divided into four parts, each part showing the artist in the different stages of making and completing a sale to a patron, with a text overlay in each of the four parts explaining what was happening. And, yes, believe it; its true. Ive seen booth slides that were just that: A shot of the booth with nothing in it or on it -- just the booth and nothing but the booth.
And then there are the booth slides that arent outdoor venue booth slides. Fine crafters in particular (usually jewelers or sculptors) routinely submit booth slides that were obviously taken at an indoor venue, such as an ACC show. Apparently, the applicant thinks that his indoor setup from such a show will work as part of an application panel for an outdoor event, complete with the accouterments typical of an indoor show and the oftentimes odd space sizes that dont conform to the usual 10x10 outdoor festival space. Its okay to have two different booth slides for both indoor and outdoor venuesin fact, you should. Using them inappropriately, however, has become commonplace.
As far as the inconsistencies and challenges of uploading images that accurately represent work are concerned, every artist must deal with them. The vagaries of digital application processes are well known and documented. If youre having trouble, you need to figure out how to do it, or find someone who can show you how to do it properly and expertly, or pay someone else to do it for you. Its part of the cost of doing business.
Food for Thought
I have put abundant food for thought on the table for artists, as it all relates to the booth slide, more specifically the shortcomings of some artists in the application process and the misrepresentation of others. Its the booth slide rather than a work slide that, more often than not, differs significantly when there is a claim of misrepresentation or scamming.
As a juror, I want to see what the applicants booth will look like at the show Im jurying, not some make- believe booth that exists nowhere in real life. Heres an example: Theres a photographer out there who routinely submits a booth shot with only five framed pieces in it and no browse box whatsoever. At a recent show in which this artist exhibited, I counted 21 framed pieces on display in his/her booth, one framed piece on the ground leaning up against a panel, and several browse boxes that took up a significant amount of the artists interior floor space. Should that artist have been in the show? Yes. Was that artists work good enough to be in the show? Absolutely. But did that artist honestly and accurately represent himself at jury? No, he did not. In my view, he clearly misrepresented himself.
Sculptor Lewis Tardy told me recently that the booth slide requirement has always been the most mysterious part of the application process for him. Think about it. Where, if any place at all, are the booth slide requirements spelled out and explained in detail? Essentially nowhere. When has any prospectus clearly defined what is expected in the booth slide? Never, that I know of. To this day, the definition of booth slide has always been a freewheeling define-it-for- yourself approach. A detailed and clear set of requirements of what is expected in the booth slide, spelled out in the prospectus, is conspicuously absent every time.
Another disturbing trend is not showing the entire booth in the booth slide. A large number of artists are routinely showing only...
half the booth in the booth shot,
or just two of the three wall panels,
or just one corner of the booth.
There are potential pitfalls in these cases. A metal smith at a recent show was juried in with four beautifully crafted table pieces. All four pieces, or similar work, were indeed at the show, but they were essentially the only four high-end pieces in the booth. In addition, there were dozens and dozens of low-end dining utensils that were all individually boxed in neat, clean white boxes, all the same size, that in turn had been packed in larger cardboard boxes. The booth looked like it belonged in a flea market. A review of the artists booth slide revealed that it showed only one corner of the booth, the corner with the high-end pieces. The entire right side of the booth that housed all the low-end utensils, which were clearly the artists bread and butter, was not even in the booth slide. Thats bait and switch explained in a nutshell.
A Revealing Study
Ive spent most of the time up to this point criticizing my fellow artists, but Ive already said there are two sides to the artist/art show equation. Art show directors and the boards that support them must also bear their respective share of responsibility in the acknowledgment and resolution of these issues. In no area, however, can they be of greater importance and significance than that of rule compliance and enforcement.
In preparation for this commentary, I devised a list of six sticky wikets, which included such matters as reproduction policy; separate definitions and/or requirements for digital, photography, and the booth slide; mass production; and collaborative efforts. For each show attending the 2009 NAIA Director and Artist Summit, I compared each shows rule (or lack of one) in each of those areas. The object was to determine how easy it would be for me to scam the show if I wanted to, based on the relative strength of each shows policies as they relate only to the sticky wickets. At best, the study was informal and totally subjective, but the results were revealing.
Of the 30 shows I compared:
Four shows (13%) did not address reproduction policies;
18 shows (60%) made no attempt to mention or define mass production;
14 shows (46%) made no attempt to mention or define digital;
12 shows (40%) did not define photography, and several that did still use a decades-old rule open to wide and often misused interpretation;
11 shows (37%) didnt have any requirement at all for the booth slide; and
Only five shows (17%) covered or even mentioned all six areas of concern.
The award for the show with the highest overall relative strength of rules in this study, as informal as it was, goes to the Renaissance Fine Arts Festival in Ridgeland, Mississippi. It is worth noting that in formulating its rules and writing its prospectus, Renaissance Artistic Director H. C. Chris Porter relied heavily on extensive input through the years from established and well-heeled artists around the country. Additionally, rules from the countrys most prestigious shows were studied in detail, then combined, distilled, and combined and distilled again with the artists input and suggestions to arrive at its current slate of rules. The results speak for themselves.
In going from show to show reading prospectuses for the purpose of this study, the lack of a consistent format in presenting the rules and the guidelines was glaring. Each show had its own manner and order in presenting essentially the same information, and what was at the top of the list in one show was at the bottom of the list in another, or did not even appear at all. The result was a confusing array of guidelinesso ambiguous in some cases that any attempt to misrepresent was made relatively easy. The exercise also brought to mind the reason so many artists pay little or no attention to the rules in a prospectus.
Although on the surface it may appear that artist issues can be resolved only by artists and that art show issues can be resolved only by art shows, thats not the case. Misrepresentation, scamming, rule compliance, and rule enforcement are all joined at the hip by one common denominator: this uniquely American phenomenon we call the outdoor art festival, in which we all play equal roles.
Richard Lobenthal recently and so very eloquently appealed to the NAIA membership to step up to the plate and for each person to do his or her share in ensuring our individual futures and livelihoods. Equally important, we all need to:
1. Submit a professional- looking application package, whether by ZAPPTM or by any other method;
2. Submit booth and work slides that are realistic and speak of the truth;
3. Firmly and politely insist that show directors enforce all the rules, not just some of them; and
4. Consider adopting more stringent rules for the booth slide.
You might say, Slesnick, why isnt the show director himself aware of this? Hes always at the jury and hes always at the show. He should be able to see all this for himself.
True. But the problem is, when hes at jury, the show director is busy administering the process. Thats a full-time job. And when hes at the show, hes putting out fires all weekend. He rarely, if ever, really sees the show. And therein lies part of the problem: he doesnt have time to compare what hes seeing at jury to what he sees at the show.
Closing Statements and Recommendations
One very highly respected show director recently said that he didnt think show directors understood the full value of the booth slide and how to properly use it. The fact is, there are additional, equally important uses for the booth slide other than to determine scale and continuity of work. The booth slide, if used to its full potential, would be of enormous assistance to show directors and juries in ferreting out a significant number of those who misrepresent before they get into the show and before they become problems.
It pains me to see artists whose work and reputation are above reproach, but who are nonetheless denied access to shows when they lose out to those who misrepresent themselves. The legitimate artists, some of whom are the icons of the art festival circuit, are the backbone of our industry. They are the artists who made art fairs the standout segment of the art world that is accessible to all, and they are the ones who bring great art to the masses. It is these artists for whom I stand, and it is the respected show directors whom I support.
Honest representation at jury is a dual, equally shared responsibility between artist and show director.
Artists need to be honest and forthright in their application panels. Directors and their respective boards need to ensure that what their jurors select is essentially what their jurors, patrons, and audiences will see.
Definitive guidelines for the booth slide would substantially improve the current status quo of essentially no guideline at all. Definitive guidelines would help eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, misrepresentation. They would also assist the show director in maintaining overall control of the appearance and perceived level of quality of his or her festival.
The long-standing bone of contention between artists and show directors over non-enforcement of rules must end. Definitive booth slide guidelines would, at long last, give show directors the ammunition they need to enforce the rules, and a strong leg on which to stand.
Finally, the art show world needs a mechanism by which trends can be observed in their early stages and dealt with, long before they become serious issues that negatively impact our industry.
The future success of artists and of art fairs themselves will be partially determined by how the industry responds to the problems of scamming and misrepresentation. The subjects of scamming and misrepresentation by artists need to be broached, need to be addressed, and need to be resolved. The subject of shows adopting policies and procedures that work because they are monitored and enforced should be a priority. Show directors: Dont be reactive. Be proactive. Maintain control of your show and protect the interests of your stakeholders by doing so.
Remember this: For every scammer who makes it into a show, the fallout is a legitimate artist who is displaced from the show. Times now are the toughest theyve been in the 35 years Ive taken pride in saying I do, or did, outdoor art festivals. Now, more than ever, we need to eliminate the distractions and get down to business.
Les Slesnick 1230 Waterwitch Cove Circle Orlando, FL 32806 E-mail: LSlesnickmsn.com web site: www.PrivateSpaces.org Tel 407.856.5434 September 24, 2009
Thank You . . .
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following persons for their feedback, insight, and opinions (and there were many) in the preparation of this paper:
Painters Donne Bitner and Stephen Bach of Florida;
Photographer Barbara Kline of Idaho;
Jeweler Sadie Wang of Tennessee;
Sculptor Lewis Tardy of Michigan;
Writer and arts supporter S. J. Anderson of Washington, D.C.;
Digital artist John Margerum of Florida;
. . . and, of course, my wife Ella, who is as knowledgeable about these issues as anyone.
Please note that acknowledgment of the above persons in no shape, form, or fashion constitutes an endorsement by them of this document or any part thereof. Unless specifically noted, all statements and opinions contained herein are those solely of the author. This entire document Les Slesnick, and may not be reprinted in part or in whole without express permission.
Les Slesnick exhibited in outdoor art festivals as a photographer from 1974 to 2006. He is the recipient of many awards, including those from Cherry Creek, Saint Louis, Fort Worth, Coconut Grove, Winter Park, and others, as well as sev- eral international awards. He has taught advanced photography at the university level and is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. He remains active in art fairs by offering support to both artist and show director. His mantra is that art fairs are the standout segment of the art world that is accessible to all, and that the art of America is on the street.