The September art & framing shows, Decor Expo Atlanta and ArtExpo Las Vegas concluded with a thud. Reports from both shows were not unlike results from any casino surrounding the Vegas show. They included a small number of exhibitors who came away winners, and more whose results ran the gamut from okay to dismal. Further reflecting the state of the art print market, neither packed the punch that exciting shows get from word-of-mouth. It is an interesting dichotomy in our age of instant electronic communications and marketing that, just as with motion pictures, old-fashioned word of mouth is the chief driver to fill exhibit halls and pack movie theatres.
The Atlanta show continued its decline in size again this year, which can be construed as a direct reflection of the industry mirroring the contraction in the numbers of individually owned galleries and picture frame shops in North America. The one growing segment of exhibitors in Atlanta is Chinese oil painting companies. This is problematic for the show organizers. As these cheap oil painting outfits expand their space, they become more important to the financial health of the show making the decision to ban them altogether difficult from a bottom line perspective. Not to forget the show needs to be a certain size to warrant getting favorable dates at the Georgia World Congress Center. It’s a crappy no-win Sophie’s Choice situation for the show management. Keep taking the money of these oil painting companies and the problems they present, or ban them and risk losing the show’s dates and venue.
Unfortunately, another distasteful aspect is the manner in which the oil painting operations show their product. Often they spread pieces on the ground, put there from the top of undraped tables which gives the show a cheap rug bazaar flea market feel. It’s a far cry from the magnificent ornate booths put up by the top moulding manufacturers who want an visually stimulating upscale ambience for their art & framing tradeshow experience. As with dirt cheap imports of products in other industries, the effect is to devalue the work of American artists and publishers. It is especially egregious in this instance because it undermines a population of small businesses with few resources to fight back against cheap prices and copyright infringement.
Oil Painting Knockoffs Reach New Heights and Lows
Poor presentation is only part of the problem and not the least. The greater problem is the blatant knockoffs displayed at the show. Atlanta artist, Thomas Arvid, took matters into his own hands this year policing the show for knockoffs. His actions were reported in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, "Local artist draws bright line against fakers." Interestingly, the October issue of Art Business News, which like the Decor Expo and ArtExpo shows is owned by Summit Business Media LLC, had little post-show coverage, scarcely mentioned the show’s dwindling size and zero on the ruckus caused by the Chinese oil painting companies and their shameless knockoffs.
The Art Copyright Coalition held a meeting at the Atlanta show. Part of its proceedings included destroying one of the fake canvases confiscated from the offending oil by the pound operators. Who can blame the outrage and this type of action? There is virtually no other protection provided. Still, at some level vigilantism creates a potential new set of problems. Wouldn’t it be better to give these companies fair warning that even with one forged piece on display that they would be permanently banned from the shows? As mentioned, this would be a financial blow to the show producers who can little afford to lose a big chunk of revenue from these exhibitors. Of course, vigilantism leads to other problems as some North American artists are just as likely to produce knockoffs.
For a case in point, I saw a booth and was certain I was looking at the distinctive work of Natasha Wescoat whom I have written about on this blog and in my book. She was there at the booth. Although we had never met, we recognized each other immediately from pictures. By coincidence, just at that moment, she had come to the booth of the offending artist to gather literature that showed obvious knockoffs of her work and graphic design. The knockoff artist or her rep told Natasha she had been painting in this style for 10 years, which seems preposterous. To make matters worse, this artist was sharing a booth with another artist who was knocking off Michael Godard’s unique olive characters in martinis.
Wow! A nasty 2-for-1 for those who don’t know the real thing from the fake, or are willing to participate in purchasing knockoffs anyway. So, while it’s more hurtful because of the massive organized efforts by Chinese companies, it’s just as bad and as much a violation when a fellow artist from your own country does it to you. What would have happened if Natasha decided to take down and rip up the offending knockoff work of this artist? It would have possibly been cause for legal action not favorable for Natasha. If we are going to police this ourselves, we have to be ready to fight the battle with domestic copycats as well as the international crowd.
Will 2007 Be a Pivotal Year in the Art Print Market?
Sometime in the future, it’s likely 2007 will be seen as a year that signaled permanent changes in the art print market. Looking back to the 1980s, a predictable model for growing an art print business for publishers and self-published artists evolved. It included a steady application of trade advertising and tradeshow exhibiting. Back then, art and picture framing tradeshows and trade magazines flourished along with the retail industry they served. Some examples of how successful the industry had become include the massive March 1988 issue of DECOR magazine.
That March issue, with more than 350 total pages and stuffed with nearly 200 pages of advertising and inserts, resembled a mid-sized city phone book and was just a monthly issue. Granted it was the at-show issue for ArtExpo and Galeria and Frame-o-rama, but was stiil quite impressive. The annual DECOR Sources directory from around that time carried well more than 600 paid listings (show me a directory from any industry these days with paid listings) cross-indexed into more than 1,100 categories. Crammed with a dozen inserts, many of which were 4-pages or more, it was larger than the aformentioned March ’88 Decor issue and its size would be akin to a large city phone book.
On the show side, the explosive growth came a bit later. The 2000 Decor Expo Atlanta had nearly 2,000 booths and more than 15,000 visitors catapulting it into the Tradeshow 100, a list of the largest tradeshows in the U.S. In the early ’00s, the concurrent ArtExpo show in the Jacob Javits Center and the Decor Expo shows on the Piers in New York brought in record numbers of exhibitors and buyers to New York. Later, both shows for a short while ran together at the Javits Center. Sadly, the Decor Expo show ended its multi-decade run in New York in 2006 marking another turning point in the sagging fortunes of the industry.
Things Were Simpler Back in the Day
Beginning in the formative 1980s, it was comparatively easy to launch a publishing company or break a self-published artist. if an art entrepreneur had these things going:
1) Art with commercial appeal
2) A decent budget
3) An effective marketing campaign
4) Qualified help to run the business
A great many of today’s top publishing companies were either formed during this period, or grew into the formidable companies they became. Virtually all of them used some combination of trade magazine advertising and tradeshow exhibiting as the foundation of their marketing efforts. These vehicles were the quickest and most reliable way to establish a name and get products to market. Highly targeted with an eager and growing audience, they gave great efficiency to getting one’s work to market. It is not without some personal sadness to see the effectiveness of this type of marketing on the wane as working on them for nearly 20 years was for me fun, profitable and professionally rewarding.
The Industry Finds Change and New Challenges in the New Millennium (We’ll pick up here in Part Two)