Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Art Fairs vs. Craft Fairs

I've got the tent.  I've got a list of equipment.  I'm slowly accumulating the pieces I need, and working on the body of work to sell.  I'm developing a "look" for the tent interior that's going to be really cool.  I'm even contemplating getting an iPad or a smart phone so I can start taking credit cards.  In short, I'm moving forward on my art fair/festival presence.

What I don't have is a good list of places to go.  I have a local farmer's market that will be my first experience doing an art fair--I decided to start small and see what it's like--but I haven't signed up for it yet until I can make sure I have my tent exactly the way I want it with enough of a body of work to make it worth it. But the quandary boils down to my unfamiliarity with the art fair "circuit" and whether my work would actually fit into something that would be appropriate at an art fair.

I recently read an article called "Art Fair Applications: Words Have Power" that can be found here (scroll down a bit on the page).  The writer quotes another article printed in Art Calendar Magazine in 2008 about the perception of the difference between "Art" and "Craft".  She says that craft fairs have a different  atmosphere than art fairs, and part of the reason is the perception of the difference between the to ideas.  She comes down a bit hard on craft fairs, but in all fairness her work doesn't fit into the craft stereotype, so it's no wonder she's less successful at craft events.

This started me thinking--at most art fairs that I have attended as a visitor, there are particular rules about what may and may not be entered.  More often than not, a piece has to be a sculpture, wall-hanging fine art, or photography.  Rarely are pieces like wearable art considered "art fair appropriate", so that eliminates a lot (if not all) of the jewelry makers and clothing vendors.

I understand the philosophy behind this--where do you draw the line in your definition of what is "art" and what is "craft"?  How does a coordinator define the line between the two?  It's simply easier to define entry parameters around what's traditionally considered appropriate so there are as few misunderstandings as possible.

So attendees to art fairs know (generally) what to expect in relation to what most would consider a craft fair--or at least those fairs that are categorized using more traditional definitions.

It seems that wearable art has, at least in my understanding, been relegated to more craft-oriented events that accept jewelry, millinery, retro-inspired aprons, knitting, and other fiber arts.   I think this hearkens back to how one defines art:  does it serve a purpose other than being art?  Is it too functional or utilitarian?  I haven't, in my limited art festival attendance, seen much art that can actually be anything other than just art.  You might find the rare furniture piece that is considered artistic, or some other artistic expression that is also "operative", but it's rare to find much at art fairs that can do much more than be beautiful and decorative and inspire others to think or appreciate life.  At least in my experience.

That's a laudable characteristic for art--good grief, it's what art is for isn't it?  Commenting on the human condition and expanding our understanding of ourselves is really what the purpose of art is all about in it's multi-various forms and permutations, I would think!  At least I hope!!

I would also hope that crafts, in their own way, do the exact same thing!  Plus, they serve another purpose--a functional one (to varying degrees)-- whether they're Christmas decorations or embellished towels.  I've noticed that art can even repurpose previously practical things into the world of impracticality, thus "transmuting" them into something that has a singular purpose that denies the purpose of it's previous existence...   Doors as canvases, or sawtoothed blades as painting surfaces, or assemblages of kitchen items, and art quilting just to name a very few.  It requires the viewer to distinguish between form and function, and evaluate it's merits on two different scales.  Perhaps art tips the scales from one to the other?

So why is it considered more pure to create an object that has no other purpose than to be a piece of art than it is to create a utilitarian object that can be both?  Is distilling all other functions of an art piece "out of it" somehow considered more pure?  A higher aspiration?  I sometimes wonder if this isn't the great quandary for all art--it's curse and it's blessing simultaneously...

To bring this down to earth, I would venture to say that art which has non-utilitarian roots is, in some respects, more "elitist" than items that are considered artistic in addition to their function.

Honestly, I'm not sure I can appreciate art pieces as much anymore, since I've spent all my life working on developing my skills in making beautiful garments, which are inherently functional by their very nature.   I've come to love the process as much as the product.

I think that might be why there is such an upsurge in the DIY movement, and an appreciation of the making of things, and thereby bestowing a beauty that comes from the process of the making that is appreciated as much as the beauty of the final product itself.

Yet, art is intrinsically DIY.  It really can't be anything else.

Which brings me back to my first quandary: What really is the difference?

And where do I fit in?  Do I pursue art festivals, and maybe push harder into creating soft sculptures and assemblages using fabric that happen to be based on garments?  Or do I go the craft fair path and start making things that are beautifully functional?  Is it even possible to do both?  I would imagine it would require a bit more "repackaging" to market myself in the Fine Art circuits, with a distinct effort needed in creating less practical pieces and more contemplative creations...

Hmmm....  Thoughts?  Does anyone else have these wild tangents in their head?  When you were signing up for things when you were starting out, did you already know what kinds of fairs and festivals would be appropriate for your work?

Until next time, Live Life with Relish!

Top image from backseatstreet via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.
Middle and bottom images from NatalieMaynor via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.


  1. When I first started selling my bags, my first instinct was to sell at a handmade market that only allowed stuff you make yourself. That worked out well. The other sellers were people like me. Customers who came knew what the market was about and was respectful and often encouraging with their words. Then I started venturing out to markets that had a mix of handmade and imported goods. Most handmade sellers do not like to compete with imported goods as they feel they will lose out. I realised that my sales are really good when I sell at commercial places, like shopping mall. Apart from the higher traffic from malls, I discovered that I stand out because there aren't many handmade sellers are such places.

  2. I think that may be a real key, Jane--selling your wares in places that are not the normal places! Who knew a mall might be a great source for handmade goods? Sounds like a niche you are taking advantage of! Good for you!!! I think I'll have to figure out how to take your advice... : )


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