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  • Writer's pictureFiona Henderson

I took part in an Art Fair and sold nothing – this is what I learnt.

Obviously, it was hard to sell nothing. In a world where most success is judged by a financial yardstick, to be sitting on zero can be assessed as failure. And, let me be frank, it was humiliating; especially as my stand was near the station where sold art was wrapped and I saw the work of other artists being carried across to be packaged and listened to the distinctive sound of packaging tape coming off the roll. My humiliation was shared by the artists around me, none of us sold a single work, and that sort of helped, but not really. We all had to look forward to re-wrapping our work and lugging it back home without having covered any of our costs while some of the artists around us were making a tidy profit.

So, did I walk away feeling like a failure? Surprisingly I (mostly) didn’t. I came away from the Fair having learnt a lot about how my work is regarded outside the walls of my studio where it was created. I learnt a lot about how to talk about my work to people who know nothing or not much about art but are paying me the compliment of being interested enough to stop to look and listen to me. I challenged a lot of my assumptions about what I want as an artist. I had to really consider why I was there and what value was being offered to me beyond monetary recompense. I found out that my endurance is considerably larger than I would have thought; although I did end up completely exhausted, I made it to the end.

I had to consider the nature of the Fair itself with its slightly confused art buying/party/family-day-out identity. There were one hundred and twenty artists, producing work of an immense variety under one roof. The stands were set up in a maze-like structure and I challenge anyone to navigate the maze and look at the work of so many different artists and not start to feel glazed over. In fact, many Fair-goers were glazed over within the first half of the show and by the time they arrived at our stand, tucked away in a corner, they were in full over-load. To really see art, to connect with it enough to want to take it home, takes time and space, not the quick four or five steps it takes to walk past each stand. For most of the Fair loud music was pumping over the speakers, often with a strong beat or shouted lyrics that made speaking to buyers difficult and we strained to be heard. We dreamt with longing of a quiet gallery where the work of only a few artists might hang in harmony.

It quickly became apparent that most people had not come to the Fair to buy art. They were there with friends or family to have a wander and an experience, maybe to have a drink or some food and possibly to watch one of the demonstrations. If an artist interested them, they stopped and talked, maybe asked questions and then drifted on. In the whole four days of the Fair there were only two people who stopped by my stand with the appearance of a potential buyer. Otherwise I talked endlessly, feeling like a public service, to people who were interested enough to spend time educating themselves on one aspect or another of my work. Other artists stopped by to exclaim over my process or the quality of my prints but often then wanted to tell me about their practice and they certainly weren’t going to buy anything; they are artists, they don’t have any money either. The worst of these was a woman who paints dogs on commission who had come to the Fair armed with cards and postcards to hand out and endlessly engaged the artists who had paid for stands in talking about her own work while we helplessly watched other potential buyers walk past.

But please don’t think I did not enjoy or benefit from the majority of the talks I had. Hearing how people connected with my work, how they construed it and what they understood from it was very rewarding. It often affirmed my purpose as they read it as I had intended and, sometimes, they found new and equally valid interpretations. As an artist, my goal is to present work that reaches out to engage, touch and intrigue a viewer, that does not immediately reveal itself and that has layers of meaning – it became clear to me that I had done all of that with my work and for everybody, not just an academic or artistically educated viewer. Perhaps my most extraordinary conversation was with a grief counsellor who found my works to be a visual representation of many of the concerns and processes with which she works. Just by looking at my work she understood that I had a similar attitude to death, grief, sorrow and loss as she did and she broadened my understanding of how my works could be read and where they might be viewed. Artists work in solitude and chances for such rich feedback are rare and to be cherished. (On the other hand the “photographer” who took it on himself to aggressively explain to me why I should have just printed my work on my home printer instead of paying for fine art printing because “there is no discernible difference between the two” could have kept his opinions to himself.)

I have spent five years at the National Art School doing my Bachelor of Fine Art and then my Masters of Fine Art. During that time, I have learnt an enormous amount about art and artistic culture and had thousands of very informed conversations on those topics. Many of my conversations at the Fair were the complete opposite. I had labelled my work as “Giclée prints on Hahnemule Photo Rag” and, as I answered endless questions about what this meant, I reflected that an artist needs to consider their audience and fine tune their presentation accordingly. On the other hand, I really appreciated that so many people were interested enough to ask me to explain, even though some of them were clearly afraid of being taken for fools. Probably the question of the Fair was the man who asked me “Do you get your photos from the internet?” I had to very quickly re-calibrate some of my assumptions to cheerfully answer that one!

In terms of making no sales, the first thing I had to consider is that selling art, establishing a market presence and establishing a reputation is a long game. For a few people, who happen to sell exactly what the market wants when the market wants it, all of that might come quickly and easily. But not for the vast majority of artists. After all, we are asking people to buy our work, take it and hang it in their home or at work where they will look at it every day. A great many people came past my stand and were intrigued by my work. They stopped for a second look, asked me about it and expressed their appreciation for its aesthetic qualities – but they did not buy it. Perhaps because my work is not straightforward or simple, it is not easy and decorative, there is a lot of black. Perhaps because they want to think about it, make a considered purchase. But they spent time with it and I have access to tiny part of their consciousness.

I also clarified for myself that making art and selling it might appear to be one continuous process but, at least for me, they are two quite distinct activities. I make art because I must, because there are ideas or emotions inside me that crave expression and won’t let me rest until they get it. Making art allows me to follow my curiosity where it leads me and to end up in unexpected but wonderful places. At no time in this process does selling have any hold over my consideration. It is only after my work is made that I think about selling my work and then I have several reasons. One is hubris, there is affirmation in making sales, especially in our current culture where the dollar equates to value on so many levels. There is the practical part of life where money pays for the mortgage, rent, food or the next batch of materials (for most artists, if we rely on selling art for rent and food, we are going to be homeless and starving). And there is the logistical reality that I cannot keep it all – my walls don’t have enough room. And so, I must try to find ways to sell which is entirely against my nature and upbringing which emphasised modesty and never pushing myself forward! I have discovered that I may not be able to sell a fridge to an eskimo (as the old saying goes) but I can engage endlessly on whatever is the appropriate level and interest people in my process and outcomes.

I learnt from my fellow artists. My closest neighbour, who is a new and treasured friend, was clearly very disheartened by her own lack of sales and, I suspect by the number of people who just skimmed past her work without engaging at all – while I, at least, had encouraging conversations to keep me going. But she stuck in until almost the very last minute and gracefully dealt with every person who did stop to have a look, carefully balancing between giving them space to look and being available to talk. On a different note, I noticed that another neighbour always had her business card in her hand, ready to hand out at every contact rather than making people choose to go over and collect a card for themselves – that was a tactic I quickly adopted and offering a card was often a good way to start a conversation.

So, would I do it again? At this moment I don’t know, I want to see if any of the myriad of people who stopped and talked to me get in touch again now that the Fair is over. I don’t know if I can manage another four days of shouting through over-loud music that has not been curated with care for its context. But on the other hand, it was a rich experience of engagement and exposure. I will need to catch up on some sleep and wait a bit to see how the scales balance out.

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May 09, 2019

Such wise words Fiona.


May 08, 2019

You write so well Fiona! And you have captured the sonic and visual hype that was the Art Fair. You've also summed up the artist's dilemma in your grappling with the fine line we tread between being caught up in our lofty garrets and engaging with what the general public appreciates and understands of our work. If art is about communication, then I reckon we served the muses well this past week. xx Jo


May 08, 2019

How can you measure the enjoyment of those who witnessed and experienced your art work?

Enjoyment is not measured in the amount of money that changes hands - but in the discussion and conversation that the viewing generates.....

I have visited many galleries and greatly enjoyed the experience - but apart from buying that drink to accompany the after showing discussion - no money changed hands.

Great read Fiona.


May 08, 2019

Great read and very informative Fiona. I have done a couple of art fairs for a group of artists and it was exhausting. The publicity and experience is always great but with few instant rewards. You are very courageous !

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