ArtExpo Las Vegas & Decor Expo Atlanta Shows Mirror the Market – Part Two

The New Millennium Brings Change and New Challenges to the Industry

The early years of the 21st century set the stage for major changes within the industry. For example, against a trend of declining trade magazine ad pages, the industry witnessed the largest shows ever. There was the demise of the PPFA (Professional Picture Framers Association) shows as stand alone entities, and the rise and success of the industry’s only regional framing and art show in the form of the West Coast Art & Frame show. 1999 brought the sale of the Commerce Publishing Company’s ABC (Art Buyer’s Caravan), Galeria and Frame-o-rama show and DECOR magazine to Pfingsten Publishing LLC.

The Commerce Publishing Company sale to Pfingsten Publishing LLC led to its acquisition of Advanstar Communications’ ArtExpo shows, Art Business News magazine and other related media and show properties. The Pfingsten’s ownership also brought the end of CPC’s regional art & framing tradeshows. Deemed marginally profitable and contracting in size, the new investment firm owner cancelled shows in California, Orlando, Dallas, Louisville and rotating shows elsewhere. The closing of these shows was an early indication of both changing market conditions and different management philosophy.

Despite these changes, there was at the time of the Advanstar acquisition great hope that new synergies and efficiencies could be wrung out of the merger of these once formidable rival art magazine and art tradeshows. Having the Decor Expo shows run in the Javits in New York concurrent with ArtExpo was an example. Unfortunately, the hope and hype turned out to be greater than the reality. As with all things, economic events, industry changes and the timing for this seemingly synergystic merger worked against it.

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From the onset, Pfingsten executives were quite candid regarding their objective when they purchased and went on to consolidate the shows and magazines under single ownership. The goal was to sell the properties within seven years from the May 1999 initial purchase of CPC. They succeeded in their efforts when all the Pfingsten media and show properties were sold to Summit Business Media LLC in November 2006.

Summit Business Media is a new publishing company and was formed to create a financial services media conglomerate. Despite not being a solid fit with the new firm’s plans, the art and framing group was not to be carved out of its purchase of the Pfingsten properties. Today, under SB Media ownership, yet another investment firm, but largely with the same management retained from Pfingsten, the industry at large and its leading magazines and tradeshows arguably face the most challenging and difficult times in growing and maintaining momentum than any previous time.

Some of the following oft-repeated driving factors have irrevocably changed how business is done in the art print market. These include the rise of the Internet’s importance in retailing and resulting change in buyer habits, the growing list of art-specific online retail sites, the development of giclee prints with print-on-demand technology, the flood of Chinese oil paintings, and the demise of independent mom & pop shops in the wake of big box retailing progress. Franchise operations like Deck the Walls also fell on hard times in the ’00s.

The current slumping housing market across the U.S., and in particular in former real estate highflier states like California, Nevada and Arizona had to have had a negative effect on bringing consumers to Vegas and within the industry in general. There are other factors, but these mentioned are the most important aspects creating the tumult and change art and framing marketers at both retail and wholesale levels face daily. Meanwhile, art schools are turning out huge numbers of students and the ease and lowered cost of creating an art print business contribute increased competition for established and fledglings artists and publishers.

Change Does Not Mean the End of Opportunity for the Art Print Market

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All this change and turmoil doesn’t necessarily make the situation bleak. There are plenty of publishers and artists enjoying substantial success despite difficult conditions by working as smart and hard as ever. Some examples, are artists such as Michael Godard, whom I’ve blogged about before and Ford Smith. A relatively new publisher, The Howse Collection, just announced adding a new artist to its growing business as has James Coleman to his well run, long established publishing operation.

Bright spots aside, profiting in the art print market is very challenging with less predictable results. In some cases, opportunities no longer exist of which poster publishing is an example. There has not been a new and successful poster publisher come on the scene in more than a decade. If anything, it’s highly probable in the near future, there will be a reduction in the number of poster publishers serving the market. A precursor to that prediction is the consolidation of smaller poster publishing firms selling to Bentley Publishing Group and larger publishers in past years. With the cost of doing business only effective on a very large scale, seeing boutique publishers bail and startups vanish was inevitable. The next wave is likely to see more companies departing the scene, as competition grows more intense for a relatively small group of important volume buyers.

Today, the volume buyers who service mass marketers and who represent the bread and butter of the poster publishers’ business are a less reliable source of steady business than ever. A trend toward sourcing their own art and printing it overseas ominously and significantly adds to the problems. And for those that remain as top customers to poster publishers, they continue to relentlessly drive margins to ridiculously low levels. The average $40 retail price for a poster has barely budged upward in 20 years. Only operating and printing efficiencies along with forays into third party licensing have kept many poster publishers solvent in these arduous times.

In addition to the abovementioned factors affecting the industry, art on paper is increasingly relegated to inexpensive posters and open editions on the low side and traditional printmaking and originals on the other. The middle of the art print market, typified by ArtExpo exhibitors, has given over nearly exclusively to giclees with the preponderance printed on canvas. Less demand for art on paper hits poster publishers, and all those entities in the pipeline between them and consumers, in the pocket.

Can Anywhere on the West Coast Be a Top Flight Show Destination?

Over the years, ArtExpo has experimented with Los Angeles and San Francisco. Decor Expo has tried Long Beach, Pomona, San Diego and Seattle. None of those venues or shows gave exhibitors or show producers the bang for the buck needed to establish a long running venue. Picture Framing Magazine’s West Coast Art & Frame show has had a successful run for the past decade in Las Vegas. But, it’s a picture framing training conference as much as it is a tradeshow. And, it’s size is relatively small given and is not likely to get larger.

Part of the WCAF Show’s success is due to its owners realizing oversold shows can lead to disastrous results. They keep a family feel to how they do business with their exhibitors and attendees. By taking a long term approach to managing the shows, the owners may lose some revenues now, but stand to continue to make them more money over time with a show that keeps a solid footing. Its model is in contrast to what John Bogle of Vanguard Mutual Funds fames calls "New Capitalism", which will be discussed in the next installment.

The World Market Center in Las Vegas has been giving the humonguous IHFC furniture market in High Point, NC a wake up call and serious run for the money in the past few years. But, apparently there is no halo effect extending from the home decor market to the fine art market in Vegas.

It’s doubtful anyone exhibiting, attending or observing the ArtExpo Las Vegas show would say they witnessed a fresh start of something new and invigorating in the art print market. Sadly, the show came off with a less impressive, smaller than expected feel for a show billed as "sold out". I heard complaints there was not enough promotion, but I don’t believe it was the problem. I’m sure the show organizers put as much in the budget as possible to drive show traffic. It’s in their best interest to have the best possible inaugural show. The problem is larger than a budget. I’d venture a guess that twice the dollars spent would not have made a huge difference in the outcome.

Exhibitors need to do their share of promoting to their lists as well. Again, I’m sure those with buyer databases used them to beat the bushes and drive excitement towards attending the show. And, that too can only do so much in these market conditions. Overall, the results in Vegas ought to be cause enough to have those with the greatest stake in the success of these shows to rethink how to remake them.

Celebrity Power Remains a Strong Attraction

Perhaps in another sign of our increasing societal fascination with celebrity, the booths with celebrity artists at times drew the largest crowds. Some of the loud music and commotion during certain celebrity signings or giveaways created excitement around those booths. The look on the faces of other exhibitors seeing crowds rushing past them or clogging aisles in front of them told a story of angst and frustration. Perhaps if they had had their fill of buyers and sales, the looks would have been different. The lack of show dynamics perhaps proved once and for all that Vegas is a convention town more than a tradeshow or fine art consumer show town and an entertainment mecca as opposed to an art mecca.

Seasoned Artists as New Exhibitors Found Success

For sure, there were some bright spots with a few new artists who were having great success. Today more than ever, it is a market now where having the right look is critical. A couple of artists I met who enjoyed such success showed primarily originals with some giclees. Both had sophisticated styles that appealed directly to a single gallery owner looking for exactly what they were offering. As a result, both sold virtually everything they brought.

One was en plen air coastal canyon landscapes and the other extraordinary abstracts. Both were experienced proficient artists with defined painterly styles. (A welcome respite from the photoshopped graphic look that has had a great run in the decorative art market.) A lesson here is these artists new to ArtExpo who enjoyed success came to Vegas with a definitive style, great talent and a confidence borne of years of experience honing their craft. Even for them, either could have had potentially poor results save for a single buyer making major purchases. Word was the larger multi-artist higher end publishers with significant space did not achieve the sales they expected from the show.

Some well-established self-published artists I spoke with wrote new business and made the show profitable. A solid cadre of solo artists were on display, and as always, most were hanging their prospects for the show’s outcome on the "contacts" they made with the hopes some would materialize into future business. The turnover among them is likely to be quite high, which is typical not just for Vegas, or even ArtExpo for that matter. Fortunately, from a show organizer perspective, the pool of hopefuls who might replace them next year is substantial. Not so with mainstream exhibitors. It will be interesting and telling to see which of the companies with larger space return and with what presence in booth sizes.

New Capitalism, New Marketing, What Do the Cards Hold for Future Shows and Art Marketing? (Part Three)

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Barney Davey

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

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