An Art Non-Profit Discovers the 21st Century

By F. Lennox Campello

This month this column is just going to re-address some thoughts about our DMV area non-profits – an idea which I’ve been venting on about for years.

The Art League in Alexandria is not only one of our area’s largest artists’ organization, with over 1,200 members, but also a jewel in our area’s art presence. The Art League also operates a school with over 2500 students per term and a supply store for the purchase of art supplies by students and members.

When I first re-arrived to the Washington area in 1993, the first thing that I did was to join The Art League, and was a member for several years. It was a key part of my growth as a “local” artist.

Each month The Art League has a juried competition, where members can bring original works of art to be juried by a guest juror. Selected works are then hung at The Art League’s large gallery on the ground floor of the Torpedo Factory. Over the years I have been honored to have been a juror for this process multiple times.

Also multiple times over the last few years I’ve tried to get someone from the many great art non-profits and artists’ leagues which abound in our area interested in doing art fairs in other cities as part of their programming… and I’ve usually picked on the Art League as an example of ow this process would work.

But the “process” applies not only to our great Art League and its management, but also to the Greater Reston Arts Center, the Arlington Arts Center, the McLean Project for the Arts, the Rockville Art League, the Fairfax Art League, the Washington Project for the Arts, etc.

You get my drift.

Thus I am using the Art League as an example of a visual arts entity (and a great one at that) that should participate in art fairs – but it applies to all such organizations.

The Art League should do art fairs as part of its programming and take a few of its members to art fairs in other cities.

How does The Art League (again, you can fill in any of multiple DMV area membership-based art organizations) pick or select the 3-5 artists to take to an art fair?

Once again I am going to make the very important point that the “good” art fairs are nearly always tightly juried. There are many other art fairs where one just pays and anyone and everyone can go – those usually suck and unfortunately by now some DMV galleries and many DMV solo artists have discovered this (along with good Cuban food) during Art Basel week in Miami.

It is very important to do the “right fairs”, and for the Miami example I am thinking (in no particular order) about Art Miami, Context, Aqua, Pulse, NADA, Scope, Miami Project, Untitled… some of these are very, very hard (some nearly impossible) to get into, but they’re listed nonetheless, because there is a “food chain” of art fairs, and the bottom-feeders usually spell disaster for the participants. There were almost 30 art fairs in the Greater Miami area last year!

For this, The Art League would need to establish a process to pre-jury its membership to 3-5 artists and apply with those artists to an art fair. Note: Before Miami I would start with The Affordable Art Fair in New York this next Spring. They are close by and they are a “proven” fair. Later, for Miami, I would start with either Aqua or Context.

The Art League then would need to canvas their membership and find out who’s interested in being juried for possible selection for further jurying into an art fair. Everything that I’m going to discuss below has to be clearly explained in the prospectus for this process, so that each applying artist knows exactly what this would involve.

I suspect that a large number of artists would find this attractive, and perhaps a small jurying fee ($10?) could be applied to subsidize the art fair costs (I would budget anywhere from $12-20K, depending on booth size). Or the costs could come out of the League’s budget.

I would make this jurying process independent from the Art League itself – just like they do for their monthly juried shows, and have interested artists bring their work in to be juried by an independent juror.

That juror has to be a very special juror – in fact 99.9998% of your standard-issue visual art juror (art professors, art critics, art writers, art center directors, artists, collectors, art symbiots, etc.) would guarantee a disaster to this process. There are probably less than a dozen people in the entire DMV who are qualified to jury this process, I kid thee not and I know them all.

This is a critical point, so I’m going to repeat it: The DMV jury pool for this process is very limited and its members are only those gallerists who have successfully participated in multiple art fairs. In fact, I can’t think of anyone better to jury this part than me! Or Adah Rose, or Leigh Conner, or Amy Morton…

Whatever you do, DO NOT use an art fair director as a juror! They are usually interested in what would make the fair look good (usually from an unsellable trendy perspective), rather than understand the delicate balance of good art, finances, and peripheral issues that come to play into this process.

The juror would pick 3-5 artists and 2-3 alternates. This is because some art fair processes do have the option to accept an application while at the same time rejecting some of the artists in that application.

So now we have a group of artists, culled from applying Art League members, ready and willing to participate in an art fair.

The actual application process is easy, so I’m not getting into that – be aware that deadlines are usually months before the actual fairs.

If accepted, the next step is transporting the artwork to the art fair, and then returning the unsold artwork back to the owners. For this, the Art League has various options.

One option would be to hire a transport company. There are dozens and dozens of specialized carriers that do this and they pick up and transport the art to your booth at the fair, and at the end pick it up from your booth and transport it back. This is the easiest and the most expensive. From here to NYC and back I would budget $1200-$2000 depending on volume. Packaging also becomes an issue here.

Another option is to rent a truck or van and schlep the work to and from the fair yourself. This is what I usually do for New York and Miami.

A third option is to have each artist (or teamed artists) bring their own work in their own cars, vans, etc.

In this example, I would offer each accepted artist the choice to also come to the fair, and help hang and help to sell their own work. This should be an option, not a requirement, as some artists would rather spend a week in Syria than a long weekend in an art fair dealing with art collectors; but some artists do like doing that. In any event, just “being” and seeing what goes on at an art fair is a spectacular learning opportunity for anyone involved in the visual arts.

The Art League has the luxury of having a very skilled “front desk” team that is already well-versed in the arcane art of selling artwork – so they could and should also come to the fair to handle questions and sales, etc.

We’re getting dangerously close to having a lot of people crowding the booth, so let’s please keep the number of people hanging around the booth at all times to less than three; the artists can “float” in and out.

There is strength in numbers in many other aspects: transporting artwork, hanging it, packing it, splitting costs of hotel rooms, etc.

Before you book a hotel room anywhere in the major US cities (especially NYC) always check http://www.bedbugregistry.com. Again, I kid thee not. Pick a hotel that is walking distance from the fair or public transportation to the fair.

The elephant in the room here is cost(s), but again there is strength in numbers.

Art fairs often offer discounted prices to non-profits; Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia has participated in The Affordable Art Fair in NYC and takes advantage of this special pricing. The WPA participated (and had great success) at the DMV’s former art fair known as (e)merge, and Hamiltonian is sometimes a presence somewhere in an art fair in Miami – you see? Some local non profits do take advantage of this model.

Of course, the Art League would also keep their usual commission on sales, so this also has a money-making angle for them.

Awright… so idea submitted one more time – let’s see if anyone takes it for action!

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