The Artful Collector: Highlights from LonCon3 – The Biggest SF Worldcon ever! (part 3)

Part 3 of Jane’s con report on Loncon3 – the good, the bad and the art.

Loncon3 Fan Village "THE place to meet and greet"
Loncon3 Fan Village “THE place to meet and greet” Google for oodles of photos of the village: this Photo posted by starburstmagazine.com

Two postings ago, I posed the question: Is it possible for an SF Worldcon to be too big? And said “I’ll get back to you on that . . . ”  Well, here we are.  And the answer(s) may or may not surprise you.

First, a Disclaimer: I have never run, nor been a volunteer at any SF/F convention. I do not aspire to SMOFdom. Nor do I routinely keep up with forums that discuss the running of the cons, or how worldcon sites are chosen. I have never been to a Worldcon Committee meeting.  The closest I’ve gotten to the inner workings of a SF Worldcon is as a Guest of Honor (Chicon6) and was flattered to be greeted by “my” handler for the weekend and (sometime later) handed an envelope filled with cash, for “incidentals and meals”.  But then I saw Amazing Stories’ link to a blog “Ruthless Culture” when I got home from LonCon3 and all the comments there . . . from folks eager to share their opinions on what and where a Worldcon should be….and I was instantly inspired to make the sharing of my (and others’) thoughts – on this largest of all SF Worldcons – the subject of my last, and final posting.

Sooooo…..I wrote to about a dozen people, after the con – mainly artists, or fellow collectors (because that’s who I hobnob with).  I wrote to people I’ve known for 20 years, and people I met for the first time, to get some idea of their experiences.  I wanted to find out….what THEY thought about the Biggest Worldcon Ever. . . the pros and the cons….given the venue and the number of people. Because, for me, those are the two most critical variables that together create the “climate” – an “environment,” if you will – that you will be immersed in for days.   The people you go to see or to meet (always wonderful!),

Good friends all! From L to R: Danny Flynn, Chris Moore, Jane Frank, Steve Crisp, Galen Dara at LonCon3 (photo by Patrick Lee)
Good friends all! From L to R: Danny Flynn, Chris Moore, Jane Frank, Steve Crisp, Galen Dara at LonCon3 (photo by Patrick Lee)

The food you eat (generally crappy), the program items (always too many to choose from) – these are variables that are consistent across Worldcons.  But the venue, and the number of people, THOSE things can make a critical difference.  Both positive and negative, depending on your expectations and motives for being there.

Location: A Double Edged Sword

London is a wonderful city.  The Docklands is a good 30-45 minutes from London proper.  So it was not surprising that many people I ran into had gone “over the wall” – taking a day or an evening off from the convention to see the sights.  I myself had plans to go to the Tower of London to see the WWI commemorative display, “Poppies on the Moat” and if it weren’t for a pinched nerve that was giving me trouble….I would have gone.  But time spent away from a convention is not good for a convention, and it’s a problem when there are competing distractions.  This is a problem when cons are held in cities like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, or Orlando – probably not so much when they are in Spokane or San Antonio.

Location is also a problem for another reason: size of the venue.  Any place large enough to hold 10,000 people is going to be gargantuan.  And the Excel Centre is certainly that.  So you would think, with a large space at the convention’s disposal, and an average of around 14 program items to choose from every hour, there wouldn’t be a problem finding a seat.  But not so. According to one knowledgeable source, “The most in-your-face consequence of the convention having a large membership was that program rooms were oversubscribed, and even getting there early did not guarantee that you would get in to hear the program. That’s more of a mismatch between facilities and size rather than a necessary consequence of extreme size, but it was a real problem. Everyone we talked to had the same issue.”   In other words, there were too many small rooms, given the level of interest in some program items.  Long lines, and people turned away….

The beauty of foreign locations also comes with some challenges.  The £ to $ exchange rate made food and drink and lodging and transportation very expensive.  For those on budgets, hot dogs in the Fan Village at $10.00 each made snacking difficult.  Even beer, at the equivalent of $8. a pint, seemed a bit high. I ran into one couple who had paid $200. for the taxi ride from Heathrow to their hotel in the Docklands.  Call me crazy, but I think that’s a high amount to spend to get from an airport to your hotel.  And there’s also the matter of getting things home….like paintings or books.  There were no resources at the convention for packing and shipping…in the end, collectors were asking artists to ship artwork back for them.

Again, call me crazy, but I don’t want to go to Helsinki, Beijing, or some other very distant place every 4th year – or even a different place EVERY year . . . for Worldcon.  I’m selfish and want it in DC in 2017.  Why wouldn’t I?  In fact, In my best of all possible worlds the SF Worldcon would be in ONE PLACE – wherever that is – every bloomin’ year for at least a decade. So that things that don’t work, get fixed, or that can be improved upon, can be…So NO MONEY needs to be spent on parties and bidding and time wasted on sniping and jockeying for position for the privilege of hosting the con.  Just be done with it…have the same talented team, people who know the ropes, places whose geography can be remembered from year to year.  It’s tiring to have to start over and learn where the restaurants are, or have their staff care.  You can bet they’d care if they knew we were returning next year……

Bigger is better, right?

The short answer is “yes”.  The more accurate answer, for me, is, “it depends”.

LonCon3 Artist Showcase 2014 featuring the biographies and works of artists participating in the Art Show
LonCon3 Artist Showcase 2014 featuring the biographies and works of artists participating in the Art Show

No show is fun when the aisles are so wide that they seem empty . . . even when the attendance is high. This is the feeling you get when displays and art shows – not to mention the people – seem dwarfed by the spaces.  I understand why this is done.  But.  There are pros and cons to this. On one hand: having a huge art show AND setting attendance records AND making it easy for people to pre-order the Artist Showcase 2014, edited by Colin Harris and Sara Felix, made it possible for them to produce a terrific, 96-page full-color printed compendium featuring biographies and artworks from the artists participating in the show.  At the same time, putting on an unvetted art show that includes 100 artists is bound to be of inconsistent quality. Plus, having so many panels on display, It was practically impossible to remember where artists were located, or see the entire show without several visits – which I am not sure many people did.  There were too many other diversions.   Isn’t it time for Worldcons to jury in the art, like World Fantasy, and provide a map for the displays?  I have been begging for those for years!  In any event, from what I could tell “bigger” didn’t mean there were more items going to auction, or – based solely on anecdote and observation – more sales being made.  Artists did “ok” but not fantastically well.  Are those days over?

LonCon3 — I hate to say it — was borderline too big for me. Not because it had 10,000+ people. I’ve been to San Diego Comicon as both attendee and dealer, already 120,000 people strong during the years I went, and it was big . . . but not too big to have fun. Because it was SUPPOSED to be big. I was a dealer at the Brimfield’s “Atlantique City” antique show, twice a year for 4 years running….with a 100,000 gate. The line to get in started forming at 6 AM and wound around the block.  Even the dealer’s line was a half an hour long (there were upwards of 1500 dealers!) And yet the show wasn’t too big.  I attended GenCon when in the early years, when it was 15,000-20000, and DragonCon, too, the same.  Neither show striking me as “too big” for what it was . . . .

But the Worldcon was.  It was on the cusp of losing whatever “ineffable” thing that makes SF Worldcons….Worldcons.  Borderline …..being too much to see, people to meet, things to do…of the kind that I go to Worldcons to see, meet and do.  Thank ghu for the FAN Village!  What would we have done without it?

The price of Socialization

The size of the venue made it diffcult for fans to congregate easily; fortunately there was the artshow and the fan village near the bar – as Edie Stern put it “it was the place to be, and so we easily found our friends, whether from the US, UK, Europe or Australia.”  And she was not the only one to add “. . . and the beer was very fine.”  🙂  The very same sentiments were echoed by all the artists.  Danny Flynn wrote “It was especially warming to meet up with some of my fellow Artists. Our paths only seen to cross briefly at conventions, but this time around we seemed to be able to spend a bit more time socialising together, and  at a bar that had quality English beer for sale, which is unusual”   The challenges of being a working artist, working alone, was a thread in many artists’ comments.   As Steve Crisp put it “I had a wonderful time socially and work wise and felt sad when it was all over as you do feel that you are in this strange cocoon for four days mixing with people that are also in ‘your world’ – its that you do not realise that until you go to a con like this one – after all the life of an illustrator is quite a solitary one.”

Manzieri_Panel.jpg (from the left, Panel: "Book Covers: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" with John Picacio, Greg Manchess, Irene Gallo, Joe Abercrombie and Maurizio Manzieri)
Only at Worldcons can you get this kind of group together to discuss “”Book Covers: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” with (from the L) : John Picacio, Greg Manchess, Irene Gallo, Joe Abercrombie and Maurizio Manzieri (who sent me the photo)

For some old hands, it was “I’ve never been to a Worldcon that I haven’t enjoyed – and Loncon3 was no exception.”  For others, who had either never been to a worldcon ‘overseas’ or for whom this was their first Worldcon, the size of this one practically guaranteed there would be some stress.  As much as Crisp loved being there, “At the same time I think because of the size of the Excell centre and the numbers of people that attended everything was more spread out so there were not so many chance meetings which ended up having a meal or a party to go to as in the Brighton cons.”  Or, as Jim Burns aptly put it, who was one of the ones who had never been to a Worldcon he didn’t enjoy “It was very big it has to be said, and the downside of that is some of the people you hoped to catch up with simply never hoved into view – or you found out at the end of the thing that so and so had been there and you didn’t even know it! So one does have to spread oneself fairly thin and that means all sorts of trade-offs.”

In Conclusion

Joe Siclari and Edie Stern, two ‘old hands’ reminded me that “Large conventions are harder to run than small conventions, especially given that they are run by a volunteer army. But if there’s passion for the event, it shows, whether it’s a large or small convention. Scale like Loncon enables events like the orchestral evening showcasing SF music.” (a highlight of the con noted by several)  Scale like LonCon3 also demonstrates that a Worldcon of this magnitude CAN be pulled off.  It may be hard on the feet, and lack the “eccentricities” of the occasion that we’ve grown to love (one respondent complained that “This was my first international Worldcon (and) I found it more subdued than previous Worldcons I attended; for example, I thought there were many fewer participants in costume which surprised me a bit) BUT from all the responses I got I can tell you: there was lots to love.

I have been to many sf/f cons over the past 40 years, beginning in the mid 70s with small Star Trek conventions in NYC at the Commodore Hotel and Lunacons held at the Holiday Inn at LaGuardia airport (we lived in New York/Long Island at the time) And then we started going to Worldcons . . . and I still marvel at the energy, dedication and industry of those who run them.    Now….the burning question….should I plan on Spokane, or not?  🙂   (it will take me longer to get there, than to the Docklands!)

 

 

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