- by Barney Davey
If you have been waiting for a positive change, this is it. There won’t be any better changes any time soon that will give more reason for hope and to look on the bright side than right now.
Amidst what often feels like an unrelenting assault of depressing and sometimes scary news stories about job losses, businesses folding and housing foreclosures comes some very good news for those in the art and picture framing industry. Summit Business Media LLC has made a deal to sell trade magazines, Art Business News, Decor and Volume, along with the Decor Expo tradeshow to its current publisher, Kim Feager. The Artexpo consumer and tradeshow is being purchased by Eric Smith, a vice-president of Summit's Art Group for many years.
Investment firm track record with media companies not good
In what is a perfect example of the poor stewardship and lack of regard for the art and framing community its magazines and shows have represented since it acquired the properties from former owner Pfingsten Publishing LLC, it published a press release, Summit Business Media Sells Art Group, but couldn't be bothered to provide all the details. The press release states the properties were solely sold to former Summit Business Media Vice-President, Eric Smith.
Inaccurate press release indicative of investment firm lack of concern
What the press release failed to mention was that in an immediate side deal the magazines, Art Business News, Decor and Volume and the Decor Expo shows were acquired by Next Step Media, a company formed by Kim Feager. Feager has been the publisher of Decor and Art Business News for three years. Having started her career with the former Commerce Publishing Company, she is a 24-year veteran in the industry. To not be bothered with clarifying the situation is indicative of the Summit management's prevalent lackadaisical attitude towards its Art Group division.
70-year-old employee-owned Commerce Publishing company was sold in 1999 to Pfingsten Publishing LLC, the publishing arm of Pfingsten Partners LLC, a private investment company. That transaction began a dreadful 10-year odyssey for the art and picture framing publishing and tradeshow industry. For those of us who had never witnessed firsthand what happens in investment driven acquisitions, which included myself and nearly everyone else in the business on any level, it was an eye-opening experience.
Art & picture framing industry had it good and didn't know it
We had been spoiled and didn't know it. Nearly all the properties serving the industry had been started by and run by either entrepreneur publishers, family-owned businesses or art tradeshow veterans. They all brought passion and a desire to serve their constituents in the best traditions of trade magazine publishing and tradeshow productions.
Yes, of course, decisions were driven by a need to make a profit. However, those same decisions were also tempered by a long-range outlook that sought to make them in the best interest of the industry rather than the short-term interest of a few well-heeled and totally disconnected investors.
What happened in our little art & framing art patch was a model for what has happened in numerous other industries where money managers gain control of them. There was a systematic purging of top executives and key players who collectively had hundreds of years of industry knowledge. Along with the loss of their experience and invaluable corporate memory was the great loss of their passion for the business.
The next steps then are to increase short-term revenue without regard to the negative effects such decisions create long term. A prime example is how the Atlanta Art Buyers Caravan (soon to be known as Decor Expo Atlanta) was oversold years in a row. The show had grown from a strong regional show into a powerhouse international affair. It was in its ascendant rise in 1999 when it was acquired by Pfingsten Publishing LLC.
Fable of golden goose holds up – gathering forces knock the industry down
The new owners were eager to capitalize on the production from its golden goose property. Instead of keeping in mind the industry standard ratio of buyers-to-exhibitors, Pfingsten's management disregarded the ratio and drove its tradeshow staff, with Eric Smith leading the charge for them, to sell as many booths as possible. They were content to grab the profits and let the chips fall when and if the results of an oversold show came about. To those of us who had been around long enough to know, it was only a matter of time before such decisions would create a reversing backlash.
What no one could envision were sets of tsunami waves forming on the horizon that would soon roil over the industry in the most deleterious damaging manner. With the magazines and shows weakened by loss of much of its top management, most experienced editorial and sales talent and now guided by top management stooges willing to do the bidding of their investment firm handlers leaving the shows and magazines in the worst position possible to be swept away by gathering forces. These forces included the fast growing importance and use of the Internet and the online retailers it spawned such as art.com, the onslaught of cheap Chinese oil paintings, the rise of big box store retailing, the dramatic decline in the number of independent art galleries, poster and picture framing shops.
There also were other more subtle but nevertheless troubling developments for our industry including changes in consumer habits. For instance, design trends for using consumer created images, wall decor unrelated to traditional flat art and new homes with more windows and fewer spots for wall art.
The tragedy and horror of the September 11 attacks on the U.S. were painfully felt far away from the point of impact from the terrorists planes. The 2001 Decor Expo Atlanta show was slated to open on September 14. The show management had little choice but to cancel it. It was a tremendous financial blow to the entire industry as the Atlanta show had become the top producing show for most exhibitors, eclipsing Artexpo for all but a handful of high-end original and limited edition giclee publishers.
A comeback of sorts develops, but nothing like the good old days
Through grit and determination, the industry fought back to gain a somewhat steady footing, and the Atlanta show continued to produce huge numbers of booths sold. Unfortunately, the results for exhibitors began to wane in the face of too few buyers per exhibitor. Besides doing everything to drive higher revenue, investment firms are also keen to cut costs wherever possible. As a result, the marketing efforts to drive show traffic were scrutinized and what was available was often poorly used. The double whammy from those actions drove the show to near extinction in the face of fast changing industry conditions.
What has happened is in 10 short years is the once vaunted Atlanta Decor Expo show, which ranked for one year on the Tradeshow 100, meaning it was one of the 100 largest tradeshows in the U.S., had run out of gas. This year, it was slated to be held in conjunction with the Atlanta Gift Show, returning to it roots in the Merchandise Mart. A long, long way from its gilded goose glory days at the Georgia World Congress Center.
What a shame to see the change in fortunes for that show. I know I can speak for everyone in the industry who rode the escalators down the first show in the magnificent Georgia World Congress Center facility, there was a tremendous sense of pride in how our cottage industry had bloomed into something special and larger than anyone could imagine. Little did I or anyone else know how short lived that sense of pride would last.
Godspeed Kim Feager, the ultimate survivor, she and her staff need our support
Kim Feager and her battle hardened dedicated staff have wisely decided to hold off putting on a show in Atlanta this year. She and the industry need time to formulate a workable plan. And so a chapter of three decades of success closes. Kim is determined to bring the show back and make it the best in years in 2010. She carries with her my fondest wishes along with hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees who have used it to grow their businesses, their contacts and industry knowledge over the years.
Kim Feager is the ultimate survivor. I give her tremendous credit for her accomplishments. She has outlasted, outplayed and outwitted a steady succession of knucklehead managers and owners whose decisions drove large portions of the industry into head shaking, hand wringing disbelief that things could have been led or intentionally managed to results this bad.
There is no question Kim and her staff face many difficult obstacles in their efforts to bring Art Business News, Decor and Decor Expo back from the brink. Given her track record, I would not bet against her. If there is one person who is formidable enough to mount a head-on challenge and succeed, it is Kim.
She has a small talented faithful group around her who also have all suffered through the trials and tribulations of working for a succession of investment companies with a spreadsheet management mentality. The result for them has been poorer working conditions, lessened, if any, long-term opportunity and stinging reduction in salary, benefits and bonuses. It is a credit to her leadership she has managed to keep her trusty cadre on board during very trying times.
Is Artexpo New York 2010 doomed?
Although I have not seen any official announcement, the word is Eric Smith and his group, which owns Artexpo, are planning a show in New York for late March in 2010 with Pier 94 as the venue. The dates are close to Passover in 2010. It ends the day before Passover begins. The venue does have the fact it follows the Architectural Digest show the week before. It will share many of the same touches AD will use to add ambiance to they show. I am guessing 2010 is a make-it or break-it year for ArtExpo New York.
Carpe Diem and best wishes to all for a brighter future and better days ahead
For those in the industry, and those observing who still care, it's been a long long time since there has been any real sense of optimism. If you have been waiting for a positive change, this is it. There won't be any better changes any time soon that will give more reason for hope and to look on the bright side than right now. Now more than ever, the worn Latin phrase " Carpe Diem" is apropos.
So, good luck to all involved. The industry is poised for a brand new chapter. It would have been better had it happened sooner, but at least it came while there is still a glimmer in the tunnel. Your own best interest is inextricably tied to the fate of the shows and magazines. We need them to succeed. You need to them to succeed. Let's all pull together to help support the new owners, including Eric Smith, if he manages to avoid disastrous decisions.
Apologies to Kim Feager
Although I told her I would wait for her press release on the Next Step Media acquisition to comment, I decided I couldn't wait any longer. I would have preferred to run it verbatim here, and will when it arrives. However, with Summit's press release floating around, (I've had numerous copies forwarded to me), I felt it was better to get the word out now and let the good news be known.