On Saturday, Sept. 12, the Penrod Arts Fair marked its 49th year of showcasing artists and art of every medium imaginable. Penrod and other art fairs like it may not change very much from year to year, but the market for art is continually changing and each artist has their own way of navigating the business in the modern era.
Penrod is one of the biggest art fairs in the state, and for every local first-timer, there’s a veteran who travels from show to show across the Midwest. Each artist has a unique story about how they got started and how they manage to earn a living doing what they love. Art is as much of a business as it is a passion.
Penrod is also notoriously pricey--advanced tickets are $15 and tickets at the gate are $20--but for the artists, it means that every person who walks through the gates comes for a reason. Patrons who are willing to pay an entrance fee are more likely to purchase something rather than simply window shop.
“As an artist, we love it when people come and admire our artwork; however, it doesn’t pay the bills. The people who come in, they want to see art, they want to see something quality, so I think you have a smarter art-goer,” said Sarah J. VanTol, owner of Sarah J. VanTol Contemporary Designs in Glass.
Some artists supplement their art fair sales with online orders using Etsy. Alexandra Hall, a self-taught acrylic painter, has been selling her work at fairs for two years, as well as selling prints on Etsy. In a sea of online artwork, her Etsy buyers are people who are already familiar with her work.
“My buyers on Etsy are people that were searching for me especially and were looking for my prints...it’s because people specifically look for me that [selling] works for me,” she said.
Others have only just begun attending art fairs. Donna Provo Leuck, who makes robots out of recycled materials, has been selling her work on Etsy since 2009 and began coming exclusively to Penrod two years ago. Like Hall, most of her sales come from people who specifically look for her work, rather than people simply skimming around the site.
“I have a following… A lot of my people are people who have bought from me before or told a friend. I have a lot of renewed people,” she said. Since she first joined Etsy, the number of artists working in her style of art has grown from three to over 150, and she predicts more growth in the future.
Matt Estrada, creator of chürp, started selling his designer birdhouses on Etsy three and a half years ago, but has since moved on to an independent website. He’s toured around the Midwest and South for three years, and almost all of his sales are made at the dozens of seasonal art fairs he attends.
“Within the first two months of being on Etsy, I had already shipped from coast to coast...and then within two years, I was able to quit my day job,” he said.
Others use in-person sales exclusively. The extent of an artist’s online presence depends on both the medium and craftsmanship of their work. Etsy and sites like it are open to everyone, so products sold tend to be plentiful but poor-quality.
“We’re not interested in trying to stand out in that crowd,” said Nathan Jones of Persimmon Metals. Jones and his wife Linda make silver jewelry and metal vessels, and have attended Penrod for the past four years. For them, selling directly to patrons who already know what they want is more fulfilling and profitable than selling online.
“We prefer a much more exclusive venue like art fairs where they’re juried in the first place, because Etsy is juried by dollars. Anyone can have an Etsy site regardless of the quality of their work,” Jones said.
Lynne Tan, a Michigan-based ceramicist who attended Penrod for the first time this year, explained that Etsy and similar sites are a hassle and said few of her friends use such websites. “I don’t do Etsy myself because I don’t think it’s worth the trouble you have to put into it,” she said. “You have to reserve some artwork, take photographs of it… I would see it as a complement, not competition.”
Art is a business as well as a passion, but few artists have been making and selling art for their entire adult lives. For some, selling art as a living has been a gradual transition; but for others, it’s been a sudden change in career.
VanTol has been passionate about glassmaking since she was young, but shied away from owning a small business because her parents ran a stained glass studio and she saw how hard it was. Instead, she went to college and got a degree in a field she disliked. “It was just part of my life. Glass was part of my life, so I decided to try to figure out how to make it work,” she said.
The Joneses met in college but took time away from selling to raise a family, and have now been back on the art fair touring circuit for the past five years or so. “We’re still considered newbies,” Linda Jones said.
Estrada was a FedEx driver for 30 years until he transitioned to birdhouse making as a full-time hobby in 2012. Shortly thereafter, he was working 90 hours a week on both birdhouses and driving.
“I got to the point where I had to make a choice, and I took a huge leap of faith and I did it. I went all in,” he said.
Getting a foothold in art fairs is harder than selling online, but much more profitable. Networking with other artists, having solid business sense, and having good interpersonal skills are required traits for successful artists. Being at the right fair at the right time can make or break a high sale margin.
“Learn the background part…how to run a business, how to do the art shows, the behind-the-scenes things...Take business classes,” Linda Jones said. She explained that art classes teach art, but not how to live off of it.
Art has survived into the modern era, sometimes with the help of technology; but the tradition of art fairs and markets have kept it alive for even longer. Penrod has seen 49 years of artists and art come and go--here’s to 49 years more.