Bad News Rising – Is the Trouble at Art.com and the Atlanta Decor Expo Related?

I posted a couple of days ago about the difficulty in being a poster publisher. For decades, the bread and butter of the marketing for poster publishers has been a one-two punch of trade advertising and tradeshows. Publishers knew they could reliably count on those activities, when steadfastly applied, to generate growth for their businesses.

To this point, I have not mentioned the aftermath of the Baltimore Decor Expo show. I felt offering any negative news could only hurt its slim chances of succeeding as a thriving show. With new developments and news on the tradeshow front, I am compelled to chime in. As expected, Baltimore was weak, but many exhibitors looking on the horizon and seeing little else to replace it verbally committed to coming back in 2008. The history of weak shows is they last about three years. Given other market indicators, Baltimore will be lucky to make it that far.

One might reasonalby assume with the New York Decor Expo show abandoned after 2006 and Baltimore weak that the Atlanta Decor Expo show would benefit as the court of last resort. From reports I’m hearing that is not the case. Tradeshows grow and contract on the consensus opinion of exhibitors. Once you gain momentum either way, things can happen fast. Inside of a decade, the Atlanta show grew from a 350 booth show to nearly 2,000 at its zenith. This phenomenal growth made it one of the largest tradeshows in the U.S. Quite a feat for an industry virtually devoid of ownership and influence from large publicly held corporations.

As the saying goes, "What comes up most come down." This is the obvious case for the Atlanta Decor Expo show. Show stalwarts among the art publishing component of the show mix have been rapidly downsizing. It hurts when a 4 or 6-booth island gets downsized to a 2-booth space. It hurts worse when an island turns into a blank. That’s what is happening to the Atlanta Decor Expo show this year. I suspect the framing exhibitors are more likely to maintain their larger spaces. The money from the framing side of the business has been the driving force behind the show’s growth, so it’s not likely the show will slide into oblivion like its sister New York venue did.

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There can be no one even remotely attached to the art and framing business who isn’t saddened to see this kind of outcome. It can only mean that many people who have put their professional careers in the art publishing side of the business are feeling squeezed and more than a little scared about where things are headed.

Another bellwether for the state of the business is the size of Decor magazine as measured in ad pages. The most recent issue is scarily thin and had to be the slimmest published in decades. Pulling advertising is another way publishers are seeking to cut costs and save money. There is no way this is healthy for the industry. A strong trade publication is an essential key to the growth and stability of practically any industry. Agreed, we are all choosing to access information differently these days and newspaper and magazine circulations are feeling the pinch as a result. Still, the vibrant ones are carrying a decent amount of paid advertising.

To see such a successful publication that has been in existence since 1880 falling to such lows is difficult to watch, especially since I put in 17+ years working there. And, when its sister tradeshow components are also battling losses, it is doubly difficult. To observe and not be able to help stem the tide and to know others who have relied on these marketing vehicles for years feel the same is very hard to take.

I mentioned in my previous post about publishers that they were under siege now from Art.com and Allposters.com. The comment was based on the announcement they were going full scale into the hospitality, contract design business markets. For publishers, this is the same as your best customer directly competing against you for business. Even if the dotcoms order from the publishers, they will be seeking to lower their margins to a near break-even point. When you compete for big jobs, you have to get your component costs down and the paper art in such jobs is a key component.

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An interesting and eye-opening turn of events in all this is that Art.com, which operates the www.artistrising.com and www.sistino.com sites for artists to use for online marketing and giclee printing and framing fulfillment from those sites is having big problems with those sites. They are just two of many sites competing to gain business from artists. Recent developments at Art.com change that outlook.

I admittedly have been following developments in the online art arena from a distance. My thought was to later this year start a study on how they are operating and which work best for self-represented artists. I plan to incorporate the findings in a 2nd Edition of my book, How to Profit from the Art Print Market due early next year.

I’ve been waiting on the update to see how things unfold with the shows and magazines and frankly for the new investment management company owner, Summit Business Media LLC, to divest of the art and framing properties. The art group doesn’t fit the financial services slant the company is on and they are far from the cash cows they once were. Dumping them would seem to be a priority, IMHO. If I’m right, it’s only a matter of time before a new owner is announced. The fly in the ointment is with the rapid decline of the shows and Decor magazine, there is less to sell. A conundrum for the current owners. I’m sure they would have preferred to carve the art & framing portion out of the sale if they had had a chance to do so.

I previously blogged about both the Online Visual Artists community forum and Empty Easel, an excellent blog for artists. OVA is funded by ImageKind, which is yet another relatively new online site that provides artists with marketing, printing and fulfillment. It is a direct competitor to Art.com. These sites operate in a similar fashion to how my book is printed, marketed, sold and shipped. I upload to the printer. It gets me on Amazon and most other online bookstores. It takes the orders from the online stores, prints and ships the books and pays me monthly.

This is a good deal for authors and while not new can still be called revolutionary from the manufacturing and marketing distribution channel perspective. The same POD dynamic is being played out in the visual art arena by companies mentioned here and others as well. It’s like the Wild West where many sought to establish a foothold and grow their businesses from it. Right now, it’s a shoot out that will leave only a few sites standing when over.

Dan at Empty Easel has made several in-depth studies of traffic and other measurable metrics regarding the leading POD/distribution sites for artists. He recently chimed in with the startling confirmation of rumors of mass layoffs at the Artist Rising portion of the Art.com business. This coincides with an ongoing discussion on an OVA thread that talks about how things are apparently coming unraveled at the Artist Rising and Sistino sites.

It almost doesn’t make sense in that it would be easy to make the case that the rise of the online sites has hastened the undoing of once powerful tradeshows such as Decor Expo New York and now Atlanta to a lesser degree. To learn those sites are having difficulties and are laying off people in the process flies in the face of the argument that online sites are hurting the tradeshows. Of course, the shows and magazines face more challenges than just self-represented artists having success online. But, that they are certainly doesn’t bolster their business to say the least.

Art.com is in pre-IPO mode now and may be jettisoning anything that is not generating a profit right now. It could be its model with Artist Rising and Sistino just need time to come around to be profitable, but that its money managers are forcing some painful measures on the company to help get top dollar when it goes pubic. Whatever the reason, the artists who have invested their time, money and marketing to drive traffic will be left holding the bag if these sites cease to exist.

How these developments will play out in the coming months and years is nobody’s guess. I wouldn’t bet on the shows or magazines going under…or all the online sites. But, I never thought the New York Decor Expo show would hit the skids either. Likewise, I wouldn’t bet on a resurgence for the shows and magazines that would bring them back to something akin to their glory day in the ’80s, 90s, and early ’00s. There is more pressure of all sorts on these properties than ever. The lack of focused committed leadership at the top does nothing to help make the future look brighter at this point.

To coincidentally see Art.com suffering from its own version of reversal of fortune and lack of fortitude and patience or ability to bring it around does nothing to put a happy face on the current and future outlook for these once vital markets and the artists who have come to rely on them. One can only wonder what forces are wreaking the greatest havoc to cause these situation to arise at Artcom and the Atlanta Decor Expo show.

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Barney Davey

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

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