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Getting Serious About Getting Gray

Last spring, I created an online flap when I posted a comment on my Facebook page about “abstract crapola” at the Baltimore ACC show. I’ll stand by my assessment, but my posting excited a whole string of unrelated responses about the shows. One issue briefly raised by Rachel Timmins was about the aging of ACC exhibitors. Rachel received strongly negative feedback from several quarters, and she immediately apologized. It seems politically incorrect to mention someone’s advancing age. Trouble is, I think Rachel’s right. I believe the aging and concomitant entrenchment of older exhibitors is intimately connected to the scarcity of young attendees at the ACC fairs. It's a serious problem, and nobody wants to mention it.

Once upon a time, the average age of ACC exhibitors was a bit older than 30. I remember the 1975 Rhinebeck fair, which I attended as an employee. Carol Sedestrom Ross, heavy hitter and future boss of the ACC craft fair offshoot, the ACE, was 37. First-year exhibitor Randall Darwall was 27. The people I worked for, Steve and Harriet Rogers, were in their early 30s. That was the typical profile of an ACC exhibitor of the time.

One of the reasons for the youth of the ACC exhibitors in 1975 was that the prior generation of craftspeople did not market their work in fairs. Although craft fairs were invented in the 19th century, they had been mostly isolated and rural. (The craft fair was invented in Berea, Kentucky, after all.) The first ACC fair took place at the ski area in Stow, Vermont, in 1966 – and that was a tiny affair. Meanwhile, the primary marketplace for modern craft was urban. A number of design stores were scattered across the country in major cities. The national leader was America House, the ACC affiliate in New York City. Many craftspeople opened their own retail outlets, from the numerous jewelry shops in Greenwich Village to Shop One in Rochester. If you were a working craftsman in the 50s through the mid-60s, you sold your work in stores, not at fairs. And when fairs began to flourish, the older generation of makers – the modernist pioneers like Dorothy Liebes, Laura Andreson, or John Prip – stayed away. The demographic of makers at fairs skewed young.

Since 1975, things have changed dramatically. Once crucial change is the development of standards. Exhibitors became professionals, with certain obligatory behaviors. Display became formalized: you invested in a booth with graphics and display fixtures. You brought equipment to process charge cards. You have a business card and a website. Your work has a certain polish, and a certain level of craftsmanship. These standards were hard-won, and represent a maturing of the field. And when everybody was making money hand-over-fist in the late 1980s, it all seemed fine.

Trouble is, young makers who cannot achieve these standards of professionalism were (and are) excluded. The exact same kind of kids who showed up at Stowe in 1966, with their card tables and cash boxes, can’t get into the top-tier fairs any more. Standards have the negative side effect of restricting the supply of fresh blood. In my opinion, the jury system is badly broken.

Today, even first-time exhibitors have many years of prior experience. I met Megan Clark at Baltimore this year: it was her first time and she was very excited. But Megan has been making jewelry for many years. She was able to pass the jury in 2013, after years of working and waiting. Her experience is typical. I venture that there were no first-year exhibitors at Baltimore who have been working less than a year. None. Zero. Contrast this situation to the Brooklyn Renegade fair I went to in 2007, where I met kids who had been making stuff for only a few months. A young man knitting cutsey animals; a biker making painted wooden toy swords: it was all very fresh.

Costs have inflated dramatically, too. Booth fees are prohibitively high for young makers. However, when the ACC instituted reduced fees for first-time exhibitors in 2008, they stirred up a lot of anger from established exhibitors.

Another huge change since 1975 is the enfranchisement of exhibitors. As more and more money was made at the fairs, every large fair became an irreplaceable part of a maker’s income stream. If you didn’t get into Baltimore or Philly or San Francisco, you faced a substantial drop in annual income. It became a primary interest of exhibitors to continue being accepted into the big fairs, and they began to agitate to make it so. The apogee of exhibitor power was the institution of tenure, a policy that I believe has since been dropped. Tenure allowed exhibitors automatic entrance into show for a period of three or so, bypassing the jury system. Older, more established makers thus assured their continued presence, while simultaneously squeezing out space for new exhibitors.

Exhibitors have tremendous power now. Typically, at least two ACC exhibitors serve on the ACC Board, despite the clear conflict of interest. An institution should not allow a person who can profit by establishing certain policies to make decisions on any financial policies. They cannot be objective. But there they are, exercising power and control. And you can bet that they represent their own interests.

Let me tell you something about exhibitors. They are business people. Their foremost concern is their bottom line. (Quality is a distant second.) Exhibitors complain freely to promoters, and it always boils down to the same thing: profits and costs. It’s about the money, and nothing else. When exhibitors complain about unfair competition – which they often do, when it comes to promoting new talent – they are thinking that the fairs are a zero-sum game in which someone else’s profit is their loss. Furthermore, their time horizon extends out no more than 12 months. 90% of exhibitors never see the big picture. Being so focused on short-term profit, most exhibitors rarely think of the long-term health of the system. They can’t be counted on to reform the fairs. If change conflicts with their profits, they will kick and scream until the reform is shelved.

As for ACC exhibitors, they have an attitude of ownership that can be quite destructive. Uniformly, ACC exhibitors believe they own the ACC, and it exists primarily for their own benefit. They are wrong to think so. They are not owners of the ACC, but customers. And in business, you can’t let customers make strategic decisions for you. The ACC has the responsibility to think of its own long-term health, even if the interests of one segment of the membership may suffer.

The net result of these trends is that established makers have become entrenched. They return to the same fairs year after year. Thus, the average age of exhibitors in the major fairs has increased dramatically. People talk about the graying of the audience - well, the makers are getting pretty gray too. I’d say the average age is now well over 50. Many of the best-known production people are now in their 60s, like me.

Advancing age by itself isn’t bad. But there’s still a huge problem here. The tastes of exhibitors have aged, just like the individuals themselves.

Artists tend to internalize the styles and concepts of their youth. They are formed by the times when they discovered their own identities. Artist who came of age in the 50s and early 60s embraced abstract expressionism. Those who came of age in the mid-60s took to Pop Art, like me. Those who matured slightly later adopted Minimalism. In the 80s, it was Pomo; in the 90s, Post-conceptualism. Each generation took the prominent movement of their youth as their guiding artistic principles.

Take Reiko Ishiyama. I have tremendous respect for Reiko because she always changes the look and feel of her jewelry. At the same time, she stay true to her basic ideas about art, which are rooted in early 60s abstraction. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool abstract artist, and she isn’t likely to change. She continually explores the territory of three-dimensional abstract sculpture in small. And she does it well.

But abstraction is no longer a cutting-edge issue in art, nor in the wider culture. People have moved on. Much as I love her work, Reiko is a dinosaur. Therein lies the problem. Abstraction is old. So are the tastes of most of the middle-aged craftspeople who constitute the bulk of the exhibitors of the big shows.

You can get a feel for the aging of taste by thinking about what’s NOT in the big shows. At Baltimore 2014, I saw only one exhibitor whose work showed an influence from anime and manga. Only one! (And if you don’t know what anime is, you’re old by definition.) If you know Millennials, you know that anime and manga are two of the most important touchstones in their visual culture.

I saw nobody in Baltimore who is influenced by grafitti, and grafitti is HUGE right now. Just think about how famous Banksy is. (Don’t know Banksy? Old!) I saw nobody who is influenced by current Dutch designers like Marcel Wanders, who engages in a delightful form of semiotic play. Millennials are born semioticians, and they respond to anything that messes with cultural sign languages. I saw little influence from current graphic design. If you go to an alt-craft show, you see graphic design everywhere, from t-shirts to note paper. I didn’t see a single t-shirt for sale at Baltimore. Not one. As far as I’m concerned, the lack of t-shirts is practically a crime.

No wonder kids aren’t showing up. Most of the exhibitors haven’t changed with the times.

Think of it this way. Would you buy fashions from the 80s, with those boxy silhouettes and absurdly padded shoulders? No. Would you get a big bouffy 80s hairdo? No. Would you buy a telephone designed in the 80s, before we even had cell phones? No way in hell. We expect the things we consume to reflect contemporary tastes and technologies. Very, very few people are content to live in the past.

If you work in the fashion industry, or industrial design, or automotive design, or any of dozens of other fields involved in the production of consumer goods, you have to stay in tune with the times. You have to know what young people are thinking, so you can draw them into your client base. Change is absolutely necessary. No style, no design language, is sacred.

And yet, mainstream craft seems to think it’s exempt. Many craft exhibitors blindly continue to offer work in styles that they originated decades ago. They reject any drastic change. They offer bright colors and bold patterns, not the restrained palette and simple, clever design now in favor. They offer abstraction, not semiotics. They offer classic cuts in clothing, not grunge or funk. They totally ignore trends in contemporary art, design, or pop culture. Most of the craft in the major shows is old, old, old. It’s no longer contemporary. Kids can tell right away, and they are turned off.

It’s not that hard to attract a younger demographic. Here in Philly, I go to the Art Star Fair every year, and it’s crowded with young people. Another fair is held in the building in which I rent my studio. It’s all young exhibitors, and all young attendees. And the annual street fair in Northern Liberties, just south of my studio, is jammed every year. There’s local beer, there are great lunch trucks, and there are multiple bands. The streets ate jammed with hipsters looking for a good time. All that is required is to give them something that they recognize as their own; something they think is hip.

News flash: Bright red & blue pots with triangles scattered on them aren’t hip. Lovely multicolored silk scarves aren’t hip. Glass in swoopy shapes isn’t hip. All this slickly professional craft looks painfully outdated to most people under 35. And I mean: PAINFULLY.

You know what’s hip? Zombie t-shirts. Sarcastic, cartoony note paper. Knit octopuses. Monsters. Fake deer heads in improbable materials. Funky silk-screened 2-D art. Five or six years ago, the hippest possible thing was a duct-tape wallet. I kid you not.

Do you see any of that material at a top-level craft show? Nope.

What this means is that the high-level craft show marketplace is slowly strangling itself. Having failed to attract a young demographic of makers, they fail to ensure that a new generation of buyers appear at the shows. The future is in grave doubt. What if you give a show, and all the old clients are dead, and no new clients show up? What happens to the field then?

It dies.

Neither the exhibitors nor the ACC have addressed the problem in an effective way. There are solutions, but I think the entrenched interests of middle-aged exhibitors have made most reforms impossible to institute. Imagine the stink if the ACC allowed t-shirts in the booths! Aging is a serious problem, and nobody wants to deal with it. And if the promoters don’t face it, they sign their own death warrant.

Soooo... What is the ACC doing to stave off the demise of the fairs? What kind of outreach are they doing to develop a younger cohort of exhibitors, and therefore a younger audience?

The first move in that direction was instigated by then-ACC Executive Director Carmine Branagan at the 2008 Baltimore fair. She started the “Searchlight” section, consisting of 13 invited exhibitors, who were able to purchase booth space at a reduced price. Some established exhibitors complained about the discount, feeling it gave an unfair advantage. As for Branagan, she was pressured into resigning later that year.

The Searchlight program has changed into today’s “Invitational Pathway,” which operates in all four of the ACC fairs. There were a grand total of 17 Invitational Pathway exhibitors at Baltimore in 2014. That’s a net increase of exactly four exhibitors in six years.

Here are the particulars. The Invitational Pathway is a three-year program. Apparently, exhibitors are not given discounts. However, the first year they can share a booth with a group. The second year, they can share a booth with one other exhibitor. The third year, they must have a solo booth. The Invitational Pathway also includes the appointment of a mentor to advise the new exhibitor.

(There are authoritative rumors that the ACC is currently looking into a discount program. There’s also a “School to Market” program for students, in which one or two free booths are offered to four to ten students per booth. This program operates in all four ACC fairs. The ACC will also offer a “Hip Pop” program starting in 2015, in which six exhibitors can share costs for a prefab booth with counters, seating, and lighting.)

The Invitational Pathway is specified “not to exceed 20% of the total artists for each show.” (Quotation from an email to the author by Melanie Little, Director of Shows of the ACC, October 14, 2014.) Given that there were 670 retail exhibitors at the Baltimore 2014 show, that means that up to 134 retail exhibitors could qualify. Therefore, the ACC is offering the Pathway to 13% of the permissible total of 134. It also means that the Invitational Pathway is offered to a total of 2.5% of all exhibitors. That’s right: 2.5%.

Well, 2.5% isn’t going to make a whole hell of a lot of difference. Given what the ACC could do, I’d say that 2.5% is insignificant. Why is the number so small? Because other exhibitors must be shut out. Somebody has to lose. If the ACC maxed out its invitational pathway, 117 other exhibitors would lose their meal ticket. Most of that 117 would presumably be repeat exhibitors, the kind of people with political clout. Does the ACC have the cohones to push them out?

It’s not as if there are no viable solutions to the graying of exhibitors. One solution would be to use all 134 slots for the Invitational Pathway. If that’s not feasible, then there should be a separate jury for the same demographic that the Invitational Pathway speaks to, dedicated to jurying for maybe 150 booths. The jury would be drawn from the same demographic as the target audience: under 30. Now that jurying can be done online, the cost for a separate-but-equal jury would be quite modest.

Another solution is to eliminate the rule that exhibitors show only material that was submitted for the jury’s approval. (See Article 8 of “Other Terms and Conditions” of the ACC Exhibitor’s contract.) This rule was instituted to enforce quality control, and it works – sort of. But the rule has the direct effect of discouraging the range of merchandise that the younger demographic loves: tee shirts, note cards and prints, simple knitted items. If you look at any alt-craft fair, you’ll see four or five different kinds of work in most of the booths. This approach to marketing must be encouraged. Would some bad work get into the shows? Yes. But bad work gets approved by the jury all the time, so there would be no difference in the end. All that would be lost is a measure of institutional control. The ACC must learn to let go.

Here’s my test for the ACC: have tee shirts for sale at their shows. Preferably, lots of tee shirts. (And have music, and beer, and fun food.) I mentioned this test to Chris Amundsen, and his response was that the ACC could not effect such a drastic change at this time. To which I can only respond: WTF? Why not?

In my opinion, the ACC’s effort to increase the number of fresh, young exhibitors is merely symbolic. Paltry. Such a tiny amount of young exhibitors is not going to attract a younger demographic of attendees. This is a very worrisome trend. Unless more drastic action is taken – and some of the old entrenched exhibitors are pushed out of the shows – both exhibitors and attendees will get older and older, until... what?

It’s an unsustainable trend. In the long run, the question is this: who’s going to get hurt? The aging exhibitors, or the entire system? One way or another, a choice will be made.

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