Art Show - Types and Priorities

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Types of show

What kind of art show do you want? What is it for?

By definition, you intend for people to see art. At a convention, the viewers are the mainly the members of the convention and as such largely (but not entirely) outside your control, but you determine what art they see and how they see it.

Internal / Commercial / Prestige

What art should be in the show? At one extreme is the strictly internal show. The object is for attendees to see each other’s work. This is more than not accepting mail-in or requiring artists to buy memberships; these shows really don’t want to see any art from outsiders [1]. They are generally about sharing a particular enthusiasm and showing off, and often contain "fan art" (the polite way to say "in violation of copyright" - art that shows movie or TV characters, etc). Sales are seldom a major concern and neither the size nor content of the show is limited much by what will sell. This type of show can exist without many sales, but risks becoming small and of dubious artistic merit. Shows of this type may be more common than you think - they don’t generally advertise.

Commercial shows are the opposite – they concentrate on selling art. They seek art that will sell, usually with a variety of price points and artists. They may want a variety of subjects or focus mainly on one, depending on the expectations of the audience. The audience here is largely viewed as potential buyers, and these shows generally try to maximize the pool of both buyers and artists. This often means letting artists mail in and may even mean allowing the public in for free (controversial). The artists in these shows are usually hoping to make money, so poor sales will drive them away. Artists’ Alleys are most likely to be found at this type of show. This is the only type of show where directly making money for the convention is likely to be a consideration – or even possible.

Some shows are prestige shows. They concentrate on the quality of art of the art displayed (or sometimes its exclusivity - but "you can only get it here" still works better with good art). The intent is to impress the audience. They are more likely to be juried. They often fall between commercial and internal shows; they don’t expect all the artists to be members of their group but may not accept mail-in or may require mail-in artists to buy memberships. This type of show is often considered a draw for the convention as a whole. Most artists at these shows also want to make money, but may expect to do it indirectly through exposure if art directors and others likely to commission art will be present.

Internal shows don’t easily combine with other types. Commercial can combine well with prestige, though. For instance, art shows at the World Fantasy Convention are mostly prestige, while shows at the World Science Fiction Convention combine commercial and prestige.

  1. *  An extreme example of an internal show is Karval Kon, a tiny full-participation convention run by Rose Beetem in Limon, CO. Friday evening is spent creating the artwork to be displayed. The artwork displayed is all by the members, by all the members, and all created on the spot. The definition of “insiders” is usually broader.

Type of art

You need to decide what types of art you want. Some shows accept anything whether it’s connected to the convention’s theme or not, while others are tightly focused on a narrow range of styles and topics. Art shows at anime conventions tend to be fairly focused in both, while shows at many general SF conventions accept a broad range of each. Either approach can work for an art show. The convention may want either less or more diversity in the subject matter or style, or may have particular subjects, styles, artists, etc. it wants included or excluded (e.g., adult content is often excluded).

Both the audience and the convention staff may want particular types of artwork. If you’re lucky, they want the same types. If not, hope the convention staff is bright enough not to overrule the audience. They can temporarily set whatever policy they want, but the audience always wins in the long run; it’s only a question of how long it will take before the show collapses.

  • For commercial shows, the audience wins immediately – if the audience is unhappy, sales plummet and the artists leave. No artists = no show.
  • For internal shows, the artists are the audience, and if they’re not interested, they won’t participate. No artists = no show. This is also immediate.
  • For prestige shows, the audience that counts are art directors, other artists, and others who might potentially commission work from the artists. If the work displayed isn’t what they want, exposure no longer generates returns for artists. So a strictly prestige show needs to please the art directors et al, and it usually takes a bit longer for this audience’s displeasure to become apparent. But once it does, the artists abandon the show. No artists = no show.

You can ensure the desired types of art by inviting specific art and artists, by jurying, by just saying what you want, or by excluding art which doesn't conform (most often for adult content).

Exhibit, Artists' Alley

In addition to the usual art gallery sort of show, it's common to have art exhibits or Artists' Alleys.

An exhibit here means simply a show of art which is not for sale. It is often themed by subject, time, place (e.g., magazine covers), artist, or a combination. More attention is often paid to the aesthetics of the layout and there may be commentary. It can be in the same room as the art show, or somewhere else.

An artists' alley is essentially an extension of the dealers' room specializing in art sold by the artist. Sometimes it is in the dealers' room, sometimes in the art show, sometimes in another space. Tables usually cost less than dealers' tables, but more than tables in the art show. Even when it's in the art show's room, it's not really part of the show. In fact, it actively competes with the art show for buyer dollars (as does the dealers' room). Artists' alleys are seldom found at small conventions - instead, artists just buy dealers' tables.


You also need to determine your priorities in running a show. Different types have different priorities, but there will also be variations within each type. There are many possible goals. You need to decide which matter the most to you. All of these may be goals for you - the question is which are most important.

Primary goals - reasons to have the show

are largely determined by the type of show:

  • Make money directly from sales of art and panels
  • Make money indirectly by attracting a larger audience to the con
  • Prestige
  • Audience enjoyment

Secondary goals - how you want to run the show

can vary wildly:

  • Maximize sales
  • Minimize costs
  • Elegance
  • Accuracy and audit trail
  • Minimize effort by staff. It's foolish to do work that gains you nothing, so this should always a goal. But if it's your top goal, don't have an art show. That will save you 100% of the labor.
  • Customer service and convenience. There are many ways to do this. Some require extra labor and staff (or even money); others only require good systems and organization.
    • Minimize paperwork for buyers and artists
    • Buyer services
      • Minimize lines to pick up and pay for purchases.
      • Give each buyer their art, rather than force them to wander the show and find it.
      • Don't force buyers to stand in line holding art.
      • Give each buyer an itemized receipt.
      • Pack art for buyers.
      • Longer hours for viewing/buying art and picking up purchases.
      • Accept credit cards
    • Artist services
      • Minimize time spent at check-in and check-out.
      • Longer times when artists can hang and pick up art.
      • Fast return of mail-in art (i.e., next day).
      • Fast payment for sales (i.e., mail checks within a week)
      • Don't lose or damage art. Pay for it if you do.
      • Provide good market/sales information to artists