The following are my ground level observations of this weekend's Spring Craft Fair 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee sponsored by Tenesee Craft (formerly TACA). Allow me to preface my comments with the reality that not all arts/crafts' fairs are the same and that my overwhelmingly positive outlook on this event is not intended to be a commercial. I spoke with nearly every clay artist exhibiting at the fair and these reflection include many of their observations as well:
- Crowds were huge. I walked through the event on Saturday afternoon and it was a beehive of activity. Some attributed the crowd to an absolutely beautiful Spring day. Others felt that the event's larger variety attracted more people. Others took the crowd to be an indicator that that the local economy is improving. There was music (it IS in Nashville after all), there were food trucks (with long lines), there was a lot for the crowds to take in. I was lucky enough to grab a parking space about half-a-mile away and walked with a crowd of people to Centennial park.
- People were buying. This doesn't mean that visitors were throwing wads of money into the air for artists to grab, but there were more shopping bags walking around than I have witnessed in many years. The old-timers told me that small items (under $25) were moving quickly. On the opposite end of that spectrum, Shadow May displayed high-end ($1-3,000) sculpture in a booth that looked more like a gallery than a craft fair booth...and he made high-end sales as well as snagging an invitation to show at Nashville's prestigious Frist Center. I am still shaking my head in wonderment of his successful, non-fair-like display.
- There were several new (mostly young) clay artists. I made a special effort to speak with these individuals and hear their stories of how a beginning clay class or a workshop started them down a path that so many of us would find familiar. For the most part, the new people were displaying utlilitarian work. Most were doing "OK" with sales and the crowds. They were the group that seemed to make the most mistakes as well..no signs, no artist's statement, no business cards, and sparsely filled shelves (some were nearly out of inventory with a full day of show remaining).
- More alternative firing techniques were displayed this year. There were a number of interesting variations with raku including the first foil/saggar pieces that I recall seeing at this event. Horse hair raku that frequently flies off the displays did not seem to be moving as well.
- More mixed media work is appearing. I observed a number of artists combining ceramics with acrylics, metals, wood, and glass. This isn't something totally new, but the places where these combinations showed up seems to say that more people are experimenting beyond their clay-foundation comfort zones...I am still thinking about a rather traditional bird house formed in barnwood with an elaborately carved-glazed ceramic front panel, it was one of several "why didn't I think of that?" moments.
- The mug barometer was more stable this year. In year's past, visitors could find mugs priced as low as $10 each to as high as $40 each. I call this my mug barometer because it seems to be a simple measure of the artists' perception of what visitors will pay for an item common to many exhibitors. On average, mugs were priced (and moving) in the $18-$22 range...and (appropriate to the barometric reading), those in the $16-$18 range were very simple; those in the $22-$26 range were more complex (design, glazing, carving, etc.). All to say a range of $20-$24 per mug seemed to be competitive.
Based upon the last few years of the Nashville show, I would have questioned if craft fairs were still a viable venue for clay artists. I would not go so far to say that the clay artists were the main attraction at this craft fair, they were not. Quality work, however, still attracts visitors..particularly when the booth is well designed, there are focal 'interest' points, and artisans who are actively engaged with the public.
I may be preaching to the choir here, but I wanted to share what I perceive to be encouraging words to friends who are passionate about clay.