Throughout the 1990s, while weekend antiques and craft fairs, and even Ren Faires, were drawing tens of thousands of attendees each weekend, SF cons were still deliberating the good of “one day memberships” and advertising in local newspapers. SF cons added video games, showed movies, invited author celebrities. Didn’t help.
The rising cost of publishing books combined with greatly reduced numbers of magazine publications meant publishers had to cut back on their support of cons and attendance at them. Gone were the publishers handing out free books, the hospitality suites overflowing with booze and chocolate, the late night party rooms filled with smoke and the press of bodies . . . the sight of everyone who was someone, going up and down the stairwells because the elevators were too full. By the early 90s conventions were already feeling the squeeze. Without major publishers and art directors and editors in attendance, who provided an incentive for emerging and established artists to attend, they stopped coming. Art directors were there to review artists’ portfolios, and let out assignments for upcoming jobs. With jobs on a downturn by the early 90s, and AD’s losing their clout (once marketing committees began making the decisions as to what imagery would “move product”) and reviews via diskette (soon to be CD) becoming the norm, the only reason left for artists to attend was to win a ribbon, hobnob with other artists, or show their art to collectors. If collectors stopped coming, what then?
The money that might have been saved up all year to spend on books in the dealer room, was spent all year long – once Amazon.com and Abe.com took over the universe. As for the money saved up for art….and spent on art in an annual Worldcon artshow….that was spent anytime you saved up the money to spend it (or paid off in installments) once artists started advertising prints in magazines, and started up their own websites, and started mailing in their art to every convention that would have them. Indeed, I have to confess that I was part of that evolution, by starting up Worlds of Wonder in 1991. You didn’t have to wait for a local or regional convention to see and buy art. But you still wanted to have fun, and meet artists. Where did they go?
The “Big Top” Conventions
The rise of gaming spawned Dragon*Con, in Atlanta, GA, which began 1987 as the venture of a local science fiction and gaming group. It immediately was deemed a threat to SF Worldcon, even though the first Dragon*Con reportedly drew only a quarter of the (then) average attendance for Worldcons: 1400 vs. 4000-6000 (the average for SF Worldcons 1980-1990) The threat? Dragon*Con quickly began hijacking fans who previously would have attended niche local or media character based cons, and even WorldCons – because to WorldCon’s dismay, for almost every year, Dragon*Con was held on the same (traditional) Labor Day weekend. More importantly, it also promised, and delivered, something for everyone. . . at a time when the bases for traditional SF cons – literature, books, magazines – were already beginning to decline. And where are we today? the vote is in, and resoundingly clear: SF Worldcons, now struggling to retain those historical numbers of 4000-6000 while Dragon*Con is drawing a crowd of 40,000 – 50,000. (!) And artists like Don Maitz and Janny Wurts are there every year . . . where formerly they would attend Worldcons, they now mail in the art to SF cons.
Adding to their different approach, was the way Dragon*Con was run. Instead of hundreds of dollars for memberships, and cheap tables for vendors, it was the opposite: cheap for fans to attend, and relatively expensive for vendors. The emphasis on business, with union-run public venues and booth fixtures for rent made Dragon*Con feel more like a trade show than traditional fan-run SF convention, leading fans to think it was a commercial venture, even though it was (and is) a private not-for-profit. It just didn’t depend on volunteers. Equally important, Dragon*Con (due to its venue(s) and resulting space restrictions) appeared to deliver that “critical mass” of warm bodies needed for fans to think they are having fun. Worldcons, meanwhile, year after year were held in massive convention centers that no amount of attendees would ever seem to fill, with high ceilings and (ultimately) rotten lighting for artwork.
Curiously, sparse attendance elsewhere had the equivalent, opposite effect – fans who kept insisting, despite the decline in attendance, and greying of the attendees “we like it this way – small and for insiders only”. The opinion shared by many in the field that what made SF fandom unique was the core of dedicated fans and pros who shared certain values, among them the buying and reading of books. This may have been true for many of the first generation of art collectors, but isn’t true any longer.
At the same time, there is such a thing as “too big”. And the fact of the matter is that many people who are interested solely in ART don’t make good targets for the “something for everyone” approach. So what happened?
Even before there was IlluxCon, or Spectrum Live (about which more below) there were efforts to devote entire conventions to the appreciation and sale of art. Teresa Patterson (author, art agent, much involved in ASFA) ran Galaxy Fair in Texas in the early to mid-1990s. I never attended this con, but from what I hear it was moderately successful. By the mid 90s it was gone, although not forgotten….just that Sotheby’s and Christies auction houses entered the scene, as well as a couple of galleries specializing in SF/F art. There probably will come a time when I’ll spend a post or two on them and why they were ultimately not successful – but suffice it to say that by the end of the 1990s there was practically no place for an artist to show their art and still expect to make reasonable sale, except for very large comic or media styled conventions.
There, they faced radically new ways of selling their art, higher costs, and challenges in satisfying a much larger and diverse consumer market. While some originals sold, there was a much bigger appetite for smaller, and cheaper, works – photoprints, lithographic reproductions, and merchandise showing the art (mugs, calendars, etc).
At the same time, bookdealers and art agents were still making secondary sales at Worldcons, taking space in the dealer room (not in the artshow, because it wasn’t allowed) while digital art prints and art by hobbyists started to dominate the art shows and the number of professional artists continued to drop. And sales between the “collector’s club” continued
unabated…and aided by websites like Comicartfans and The Illustrationj Exchange which encouraged collectors to show their personal collections online to other collectors – and thereby establish bragging rights and develop a sort of virtural camaraderie through forums, that they once had at conventions.
The numbers (there aren’t – for the most part – statistics available for the artshows, so I have have had to be selective, for the purposes of comparison): LA Con II (1986) had 269 artists in the artshow, 2711 pieces, total sales of $112,000. LA Con IV (2006) had 160 artists, 2140 pieces. At Renovation, the 69th Worldcon (2011) there were about 4500-5000 attendees, and 106 artists in the artshow, and $94,000 in total sales. While the total sales at artshows over time appear to be holding steady between $80-110,000, this is deceiving – because as you can see, the number of artists selling there have dropped considerably. And while you may be thinking: so much the better for the “average take” for artists displaying their art, that’s not the case. I and perhaps less than a handful of other artists typically make up 10-20% of all the art sold….leaving the average artist no better off than 25 years ago….making $600 for the weekend, and with inflation/the cost of hotels, food and travel now, much less.
A Thorny Problem for Artists – Solved
Where can a commercial artist show and sell their work if they can’t get representation from tradtional commercial or “fine art” galleries? How can they access collectors if they don’t know where to find them? Where can they find homes for their art, if prospective buyers are suspicious of (or uncomfortable with) buying online?
Enter IlluxCon run by Pat and Jeannie Wilshire, now in their 6th year, and – this weekend – the 2nd year for Spectrum Live2, produced by Arnie Fenner. These are two great conventions where you can still find, see and buy good Art. . . of the kind “we” like….whether it features fantasy or science fictional themes. Talking about these two cons would take a blog just by themselves….suffice it to say….this is where you should be going if you want ART.
As for the local, regional and Worldcons? They are still good places…but mainly for finding the rising stars, the emerging artists, the beginners and the fun stuff that hobbyists continually come up with to entertain fans. There’s still good art there if you search for it. But….If you want to keep up with where the field is heading, and see and meet the “pros” in person…you really should try to add IlluxCon or Spectrum Live to your convention schedule this year!