ArtExpo New York – What’s Next?

I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important I believe a thriving ArtExpo is to the growth and stability of the art print market. My wish for the art print market is to have a successful ArtExpo for all to benefit from.

The 2007 New York ArtExpo show concluded on Monday, March 5. I managed to get there for Friday (a trade-only day) and Saturday, which is open to trade and public. A flu bug bit me on Saturday; I did the best I could to see as much as possible.

ArtExpo, as a vestige of its former self, is a testament that things change. The show in its heyday was an incredible powerful fine art tradeshow with a flourishing consumer component. No fine art print publisher in those days could consider not having a sizable presence at the show. It wasn’t a fear of being conspicuous by absence, but more an excitement of money to banked and great contacts to be made that drove booth sales.

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In a sign of the times, in my humble opinion, the show has morphed from a must attend for buyers and exhibit for artists and publishers tradeshow with a consistent consumer component into a run of the mill (for a New York art fair) consumer show with a dwindling tradeshow component.

In recent years, some of the top tier exhibitors formed a loose knit group and produced a concurrent show called Fine Art Forum. The list included such notable companies as Chalk & Vermillion Fine Arts, Inc; Meisner Gallery; Csaba Marcus Atelier; Jacques Sousanna – Graphics; John Szoke Graphics; MAC Fine Art; SI Fine Arts and more.

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This year the Fine Art Forum was not produced; logic would say most or at least some would return to ArtExpo. But none of the abovementioned exhibited at this year’s show. Other perennial center court exhibitors such as Collectors Editions and The Chase Group were also MIA. The noticeable loss of these significant companies is not good for the health of the show or the industry. Right now, the industry needs a prosperous show as ArtExpo was in years past. The slow leak of well-known long time exhibitors has put a serious damper on the importance of the show.

The press release announced more than 600 exhibitors, including 250 exhibitors in the SOLO section. SOLO artists are emerging artists looking to use the ArtExpo platform to establish gallery contacts, get publishing deals and sell works to the public. It’s a great idea, but I think when 42% of the exhibitor mix is newbies, it’s not a good sign. This is an educated guess when I say that figure ought to be 25% at the greatest.

There were exhibitors at the show that did well. Some sold out of originals before consumer days began on Saturday. I’m betting those sales were made to an existing clientele and could have been generated without show exposure. Other exhibitors were grumbling that buyer traffic was off. Those would be typical mixed reactions to any tradeshow off its peak.

The former New York Decor Expo show, which features picture framing and equipment companies and many poster publishers and open edition publishers, didn’t run concurrently for the first time in decades. The missing synergies that that show created is another factor undermining ArtExpo’s success. The convenience to buyers to have everything on display at once cannot be overlooked as a huge drawing factor.

Granted the picture framing and poster buyers aren’t all prime prospects for many high-end artists and publishers. Still when present they helped to fill the hall and add the buzz that makes a show look and feel successful. Undoubtedly, one exhibitor element not missed would be the imported assembly line produced oil paintings.

The show had some successes in selling huge amounts of space to the DelJou Art Group celebrating 25 years in business with its 32-booth compound and Masterpiece Publishing with its spectacular booth, sculpture area, 10th anniversary festivities and party. It was refreshing to see buyer and consumer activity and optimism bounding in the booth of The Howse Collection. A new exhibitor but with industry seasoned ownership. Some of the celebrities such as Jane Seymour and Paul Stanley of the rock group KISS helped the show get publicity and create enthusiasm.

I take no pleasure in reporting the show has declined overall. Au contraire, it greatly concerns me that ArtExpo is not the venue it once was. I have advised artists for years that launching a publishing company around the ArtExpo with a concentrated ad schedule around it was a smart way to get started. While that advice still is true, it is no longer said with the certainty as before.

One can point to a whole host of reasons for the show’s decline. In some ways, it and the industry never fully recovered from the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorists attacks. The increasing cost of exhibiting against declining sales is unquestionably the biggest cause of exhibitor attrition. Whether show management could have kept a lid on costs is not easy to know. It’s a privately held company not required to share such information.

Some argue show management could have done a better job of promoting the show. It’s also possible that virtually nothing show management could have done that it didn’t do would have changed the outcome for the show. The problems go deeper than price, promotion or management. The problem with the decline of the show is systemic and correlates with the changing ways in how marketing directives are shifting for all industries.

How products get to market are undergoing dynamic changes and art is not immune to them. Traditional methods still work, just not as well. There is a reason your mailbox is stuffed and why your direct mail gets a paltry response. It’s about all that’s left.

Look at how Tivo and DVRs have changed TV viewing habits in helping viewers speed past commercials; or how millions have signed on to satellite radio to avoid commercials. Do Not Call and Can Spam efforts come out of consumers’ desires to be left alone by marketers. It’s harder than ever to get one’s message across and is in part why product placement has run amok in television programs and films. Text messaging use is rocketing as more people realize it’s a better. less intrusive way to communicate short messages than ringing cell phones and voice mail.

It’s estimated we are now inundated by a daily dose of 8,000 advertising messages compared to 800 in 1970. Art publishers perceive all this and are pulling back on exhibiting and advertising because the ROI (Return on Investment) is not what it used to be. For example, the at-show issue of Art Business News had 102 pages, which is anemic by previous issues just a few years back. This ad page decline in a flagship publication is also not healthy for the industry. Especially in important issues such as the March issue of ABN.

The Internet has been a huge disruptive force art publishers and galleries, tradeshows and magazines. For one pernicious example, it allows consumers to shop galleries and go home to surf for better prices. Some publishers are fighting back by moving to more originals are offering gallery exclusives for limited editions of 95 pieces. Others are selling many more originals than in the past. (See the February issue of Art Business News for a roundtable discussion on this topic.) Such things as framed art shows in Costco and improved offerings at big box retailers chip away at the marginal consumers who might otherwise consider a pricier giclée.

There are now estimated more than 100,000 Web sites selling art on the Internet. It’s like the days of the Wild West. Every player is trying to get its share of the market. Meanwhile new ones seem to come online too often to keep track of them.

The giclée process itself at once a boon for artists and publishers and a bane as it also gives rise to a market flooded with low quality product. Speaking of giclees, a first-time attendee posted on her discussion board about her shock at how much of the art was printed poorly. She is an experienced digital artist with a critical eye and she pointed out numerous examples of how some well-known artists’ works were pixilated and poorly done. Neither the lack of quality or reports about them help a show like ArtExpo keep its cachet as a top-shelf event.

While the current management remains largely the same, the sale of the company, concluded just last November, has to have distracted it to some extent. There is always rampant speculation about what will happen when a company changes hands. The sale of Pfingsten Publishing LLC to Summit Business Media LLC is no different.

Questions abound about whether the art and framing group will be spun off, whether the current management will remain in position, whether new shows will be added, or current ones revived and on and on. Any show is a live rumor mill and with so much to hypothesize on, it was full on in New York. A fevered rumor mill also does not help the health of a show.

The management party line, which is to be expected, is that it is business as usual with the new owners professing to not make changes. Although that sentiment is true for now, we’ll see what the future brings. The next show in Baltimore for the new owners to digest is a new show. I previously blogged about the Baltimore Decor Expo and was admittedly harsh in my outlook. For the sake of everyone invested in the show, I hope I am proven wrong.

If ArtExpo New York is to regain its status and bring back many of the exhibitors it has lost over the past few years, changes need to be made. To paraphrase Einstein, you can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created it.

I hope show management reaches out to those companies that formerly exhibited at Fine Art Forum, or who have just abandoned the show without really replacing the marketing in some other significant way. Getting them back to the show is critical to starting to get it to grow again.

Maybe the Javits Center thinks it can put another show with better prospects of bringing in more room nights in the ArtExpo slot. If that is the case, there is no negotiating room for lower prices…on the other hand, they may value the ArtExpo business and share some concerns about lost revenue for the building and the city.

Maybe the new owners can live with a lower margin on its booth revenue. Maybe exhibitors can be cajoled into doing more promotion on their own for the show. Maybe an advertising and booth special can be presented to make both the magazine and show more successful. The show runs through Monday because the labor to breakdown on Sunday night is exorbitant. Is there some way to get around that and close the show on Sunday?

In past years, the show sponsored events at a nightclub in Manhattan. You would have to pay your way, but were assured of entry. It gave exhibitors and attendees a chance to mingle outside the venue. It created more excitement and reason for being there. The private events are great, (the Bruce McGaw and Axelle Fine Arts events come to mind) but there ought to be public events too.

I don’t have any illusions that I have provided solutions to fix ArtExpo with these suggestions. It will take a serious debriefing of exhibitors (current and past) and buyers to begin to learn what is needed. Perhaps some critical thinking from influences outside the industry can offer a fresh perspective. I merely hope my thoughts here stimulate debate and generate some actions geared toward righting the ship while there is still time to do it. To do nothing would be a shame at a time when the industry needs strong leadership and a centerpiece show with growing energy to help it through this difficult and confounding market period we are all experiencing.

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Barney Davey

I help artists and photographers find buyers, sell more art and operate profitably.

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