For many years now, potters have been lamenting the demise of the craft fair as a viable way to make a living. At one point, there were thousands of fairs all over the US, in every small park or church basement that needed a little fund raiser or traffic-building event. And many potters espoused the vagabond lifestyle of traipsing around the country, pots in boxes bouncing around in the back of a truck or van or wagon, in search of a customer base. It can be argued that it never was the greatest way to make a living, and that most of those fairs were often break-even propositions at best, but for many it was a good way to get their clay feet wet. Lately, those potters who still count on these kinds of sales tend to have their mainstay shows, and the “extras” have long since fallen off. The pop-up shows couldn’t sustain themselves, and the larger, more established events are increasingly more difficult to get into. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean fewer retail sales opportunities for a lot of makers. Some went the gallery route, some went online, some concentrated on wholesale, and some are still doing all of the above (and I have to believe those are very tired people).
For those who are not interested in pursuing gallery sales, online storefronts, or wholesale marketing, what is left? That’s right: hang a sign outside your studio door and wait for the customers and sales to come rolling in. Sometimes this actually works, but anyone who has made it work knows that it takes more than that sign on the door. So, in true pottery fashion, potters did what they always do; banded together, joined forces—started their own darn pottery fairs. But they didn’t want to leave the studio (one of the big drawbacks to running around the world selling pots is the time it takes away from making pots), so they found other potters close by, invited the customers to come to them, and so was born the age of the studio tour. In a way, it is the culmination of what most potters profess to believe: We make something of value, and it is worth your effort to pay attention to it, worth your money to possess it, and worth your time to come and get it. And it’s working! We begin with a bit of perspective from an organizer of one of the longest running studio tours, Robert Briscoe, and then explore our survey results and best advice from the participants in twelve tours of various sizes and structures.—Sherman Hall, Ed.
The Value of a Studio Tour
by Robert Briscoe
I’m a big believer in self-determination for artists by building their own audience and marketing events. Developing diverse income streams is a key to weathering the vagaries of a pottery career. Having one dependable event can be the bedrock needed to build a life.
I would like to spread this idea and encourage other self-reliant, self-generated marketing devices so that potters and artists can build and take advantage of a thriving pottery culture in the future. I believe that, with enough truly authentic events put on by groups of artists in various locations around the country, there will evolve in our lifetimes a deeply rooted ceramic culture. A young person about to choose a career path should be able to confidently look out over this ceramic culture and have viable choices that include being a great teacher or a studio potter or both.
One of the things I would like to see happen is for the 30 or 40 tours that I’ve heard about to begin communicating with each other about what’s working and how to cross-fertilize our tours.
As a potter who travels around the country doing art fairs, I have been approached numerous times by other artists interested in starting tours in their regions. While some never get off the ground, there have been a number of tours that have begun and are thriving.
We started the Potters of the Upper St. Croix River Valley Studio Tour 19 years ago as an integral part of earning a living for our families through our pottery. The question, “Why should we do this?” was raised. All of us, at that time, had successful individual studio sales already. It was suggested that there were maybe 5000 people who liked, used, or collected handmade pottery in our region. This event was designed to expand that audience from 5000 to 50,000 or more in a decade. I think we’ve done that, and we continue to grow.
In 2009, we expanded our tour to three days, and in 2010 we increased the number of potters to 44. We estimate upwards of 4000 attendees, with at least 400 coming more than 400 miles (we put up a map with pins and asked people to mark where they came from). Just at my studio we had 107 pins from more than 400 miles away. That somewhat stunned me. We had attendees from Winnipeg, Canada, and from California, Oregon, the Carolinas, Florida, Maine, and a dozen other states. We even had a fellow fly in from London, England, just for the tour!
The participants in other tours I have talked with around the country are also experiencing good results, so the idea seems to be solid.
Our biggest challenge is continuing to expand our marketing efforts to reach new audiences. This is a situation where the success of the tour can hinder our efforts. As the tour becomes a more reliable fixture in our economic lives, some of the artists are finding that they do not need to “be out there” as much, be that teaching workshops, doing art fairs, participating in exhibitions, writing articles, or expanding their presence in galleries. Fortunately, word of mouth and our Internet presence seems to be continuing to expand our audience. Last year, several thousand people contacted us through our website to request information about the tour.
Ceramics Monthly looked into why studio tours work (when they work), and why they may sometimes not work. We polled the organizers and participants of twelve studio tours to ascertain their best practices, their successes, and their downfalls. The good news is: it’s mostly good news!
Eight of the 12 tours we polled are artist run, while four are affiliated with a guild or other nonprofit organization.
The costs of marketing and advertising are more or less shared equally, with a few exceptions. The two tours operated by nonprofit organizations build the expenses into their annual budget and then charge participation fees to the potters. The other ten tours share all costs equally. Overall, when guest potters are included in a tour, the host potters share equally in the costs as they are incurred and the guest potters are charged a flat fee for their share at the end of the tour.
One tour is partially supported by a grant, and is working quite well with the granting organization. At the same time, another tour organizer warns to be wary of grant money, because it can come with restrictions, and compliance may take too much time and effort. If you want to pursue grants, make sure it’s a good fit!
Nine tours selected potters by invitation only, two were only open to members of the guild with which the tour was associated, and one had a strictly fee-based entry system (pay the money and you’re in).
Several participants stressed the importance of partnering only with potters whose work you would be proud to present.
The timing of tours varies widely, with six in the spring, four in the fall, two in the summer, and one in the winter. Tour scheduling seems to be largely dependent upon location. For instance, have your tour in the fall if you live in an area where the trees turn colors. Take advantage of any existing tourist season your area enjoys, but don’t overlap with other major events; fighting for attention is difficult enough as it is.
When a tour is new, the organizing potters tend to do most everything themselves. As tours become established, sometimes the more specialized work gets contracted out. Six tours contract out nothing; three hire marketing and development help; two hire designers for print materials; two hire web masters, one hires clerical help, and one hires an accountant.
One of the great benefits of selling from your studio is the independence and control over the sale. Perhaps for that reason, potters tend not to impose rules across all studios involved in a tour. Five tours have no cross-studio policies whatsoever; six have consistent signage, but it would be difficult to call this a policy (most describe it as a good marketing idea); one tour has a guild “umbrella” insurance policy that covers all locations.
A good deal of the success of studio tours resides in the power that comes from greater numbers. All twelve tours share mailing lists, but only three tours specifically mentioned restricting the use of that list to tour purposes and not keeping it as a master list or sharing beyond the tour. Interestingly, there does not seem to be a correlation between list management practices and attendance or revenue (which are highly variable between tours). These things appear to be governed more by location and longevity of the tour.
The nine tours who kept track of attendance reported a low of 550 to a high of 4500 attendees. The average across all tours is 2661. While we did not ask how this compared to individual studio sales, several participants indicated that traffic (specifically new customers) was a major incentive for being part of a tour.
Though all of the tours we polled have a web presence of some sort (see list on page 43), print mailers occupy the top spot on the promotion ladder, followed closely by press releases to radio and print news outlets.
The most comprehensive marketing plan involved sending out a CD with images on artists and work, a general press release on the tour, a list of tour artists’ websites, and a variety of story ideas to around 50 news magazines and major newspapers. Press releases are sent out six months, three months, one month, two weeks, and one week prior to each tour.
Ten tours produce a printed postcard or brochure that gets mailed and distributed by hand.
Seven tours distribute press releases to radio and newspapers, with two placing actual print advertisements in those newspapers.
Three tours make a promotional poster.
It was a bit of a surprise to find that only two tours specifically mentioned sending an email blast to existing or potential customers.
Two tours held public lectures and slide shows in the run up to their tour to promote it.
One tour produced a cookbook with recipes from local chefs and images of works by their guest potters. The organizers of that same tour exhibited together at a holiday show, mainly to build their list and promote their spring tour.
Two tours offer visitors a “passport” to be stamped at every studio visited. Passports with a certain number of stamps are included in a raffle for pots.
Dollars and Cents
The average cost per artist across all tours is US$285, and the average revenue per artists is US$4225. But, as you probably know too well, your results may vary. The lowest cost reported is US$260 per artist (in this case, the average artist revenue is US$2400), while the top end for average artist cost is US$925 (with an associated average artist revenue of US$6900).
The absolute low and high for average revenue per artist are US$2200 and US$8250. Interestingly, the cost of the lowest-earning tour is 30% of gross sales, while the cost of the highest-earning tour is only 10% of gross sales. It should be noted that the size of the lower-earning tour has decreased to half the amount of studio locations over time. Perhaps, in this case, small is good, but too small can be bad.
Without exception, the most expensive element of each tour is the production and mailing of a postcard or flyer.
A pottery tour takes the place of anywhere between 1 and 5 sales events a potter would otherwise attend during the year. The average across all tours surveyed is 1.5 events. Two potters reported being able to drop all wholesale work as a result of participating in a studio tour, while one dropped all other events completely.
Speaking From Experience
Nuts and Bolts
We show over 3500 pieces of pottery just in my yard. Each guest potter prices their own work using stickers that are pre-printed with their names. This assures that the cashiers will credit the right artist for the work. We set up a central sales tent and have two lines for sales with credit card machines. At each sales line, one of the cashiers completes a form listing the sales price for each pot under the appropriate artist’s name. The total is calculated and sales tax added, and customers pay the grand total for all work they are purchasing. This form follows that set of pots until they are finally packed to avoid mistakes and then it (form) is put on a spike to be tallied later. At the end of the day, our resident nerds tally up the sales and give each artist their total for the day. When the show is over, the shared expenses are subtracted from the sales and the balance calculated. Every artist gets some “traveling cash” to pay for the trip home. The balance of their receipts, plus the sales taxes they must pay, are paid via check within the week.—Robert Briscoe, St. Croix
At our studio we have food for the public, restrooms, and of course parking, which can be quite extensive. We also are willing to pack and ship the pottery for those from out of town, at the customer’s expense.—Constance Mayeron, St. Croix
I rearrange my indoor work space to display works by my guest potters. I rent a tent for the yard in which I display my own pots. We (my family) bake 3000 to 4000 cookies and store them in a freezer. We prepare lunch food for our guest potters and our helpers. I set up sales areas and orient volunteers. We ask visiting potters to bring a helper if they can. These helpers are joined by some of our local volunteers/friends who handle the sales, and all of them receive a token payment which can only be redeemed for pots, the cost of which is shared by the potters at our studio. Having the helper/volunteers is critical to having the potters accessible for the customers.—Will Swanson, St. Croix
The first step is a good cleaning. I expand the size of my regular studio showroom by setting up my art fair show tent outside. This has been important since we’ve added guests, and I needed the additional exhibition space. Party food and drinks are provided as well as a shared check out and wrapping area with my studio guest. The studio work space is open with pottery demonstrations throughout the weekend. This emphasized the local aspect that the work is made here too. This is what makes this event different from a gallery show or craft fair.—James Sankowski, Albany-Saratoga
Power in Numbers
Over 90% of my customers are coming from over 100 miles away and most would not come for just one studio sale.-Dave Yungner, Crossing Borders
We receive much greater publicity as a group than we would as individuals. Our studios and homes offer much insight into our work and our lives, and there is an educational aspect that one does not experience when buying from a gallery. Guests can see our studios, tools, kilns, our stacks of books, and meet our dogs and chickens. They can peek in our gardens and taste our food and have a rich experience that gives our pots a context, which adds to the whole experience of using handmade pottery.—Tiffany Hilton, Asparagus Valley
The sales results have been on par with what I can usually make at a regional show. What can’t be overlooked is the benefit I get all year long from repeat sales. There is also the joy of not having to pack up work in a rain storm and travel back home late Sunday night.—James Sankowski, Albany-Saratoga
We get people coming to the studio other than those already familiar with our work. The tour increases our exposure.—Nick Joerling, Toe River
We’ve found that it’s best to keep the tour small enough so that it is possible for a customer to visit all sites on the tour.—Suze Lindsay and Kent McLaughlin, Toe River
On a more conceptual level we are Berkshire Potters and I try to think a lot more about being a part of a group or a movement and it’s interesting to enter that mind set. Our different voices and styles working together make us (intentionally or not) a “culture.” That’s exciting.—Robbie Heidinger, Hilltown 6
We had individual sales before we got together as a group and we all made way more money as a tour than a single sale event. Costs were shared by all (brochure and mailing costs) and it was way easier to get free local coverage in the paper and even on TV for an event like this than for any one single studio sale.—Ellen Shankin, 16 Hands
When we placed the sign for the pottery sale on the main road we had many locals stop by. They had no idea we existed, since we are a half mile off the main road. They were excited about having a local source of pottery for gifts and their use.—Lynda Ells, Maryland Potters
Provide Incentives and Rewards
We offer visitors a passport to be stamped at every studio visited (there are ten studios on our tour). Passports with seven or more stamps are included in a raffle for pots from each studio.—Stephen Earp, Asparagus Valley
During the December tour we have a karaoke stage where customers can sing for a 10% discount.—Suze Lindsay and Kent McLaughlin, Toe River
I think the most important thing is getting good artists. Also, group dinners, after tour events, cocktail hour for collectors, anything extra like that makes the tour a lot more fun and, as research shows, humans perform best when they are playing (and in life-threatening situations, but that is asking too much of our organizers!)—Eric Knoche, Omaha North
This year I offered a “Buy One, Take One” deal, where if someone buys one of my “firsts” they can choose a free pot from my clearance shelves. Since I really wanted to clear out space on those shelves, I was happy to give those pieces away for nothing (in fact I had considered donating them to a charity), but I found that people were really excited about picking a free piece after buying my regularly priced pots. I think I sold more “firsts” than I would have otherwise, my customers were thrilled with their bargains, and I now have plenty of space for new pots in the new year!—Rachel Campbell, Maryland Potters
Find Good Partners
Our tour has four stops. Two stops are working studios, one is a wine tasting bar whose proprietor agrees to house two of our guest potters, and one is a historic grain mill and museum whose owner houses five of our guest potters. This stop provides interest because it also hosts a farmers market through the warm months. The owner has invited us to demonstrate there the weekend before the show to advertise our event. She is very supportive and publishes the event on her website. The wine tasting bar also adds to the road-trip feel of the event.—John Dennison, Omaha North
The group needs a well-defined mission statement and understanding of jobs. All participants need to know what is involved and expected of them, both with costs and work time. This may prevent misunderstandings down the road.—James Sankowski, Albany-Saratoga
Find someone who is good at organization, let them do it, and be really appreciative.—Susan McGilvrey, Omaha North
Working as a group, we were able to afford local promotion of our studios, which none of us could have accomplished as an individual studio.—Victoria Crowell, Albany-Saratoga
Keep the core group small, and try to govern by consensus instead of votes.—Richard Hensley and Donna Polseno, 16 Hands
I could not have afforded the brochure or the publicity on my own. The quality of work of the other potters and the quality of the brochure attracted many new customers.—Nancy Niefield, Albany-Saratoga
Patience and Planning
Plan very far ahead. Try as many different advertising ideas as you can think of. Be prepared to spend a lot in the first two years on things like signs, dead-end promotional ideas, etc. The price does go down.—Stephen Earp, Asparagus Valley
Do your homework on your area in terms of competition and event conflicts (such as a Husker football game)! Choose a beautiful time of year for your area, and bill it as a self-guided tour into the countryside. Have a variety of approaches to clay, with some new faces every year.—Julie Kinkade, Omaha North
Be patient about assessing the results. The audience may take time to build, but people really love to see potters’ work spaces. Also be open to changing things a little each year to keep the early supporters coming back. Make an event that is about abundance, hospitality, and pleasure, and people will connect that with pots.—Mary Barringer, Asparagus Valley
Look at others as an example of where to begin; don’t re-invent the wheel! Start small, set goals for 3–5 years out that you can accomplish. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from outside the art community. I cannot say enough about the individuals (who are not artists but love art) that lend their time and support to us.—Chris Campbell, Art of the Pot
Potters of the Upper St. Croix River Valley Studio Tour
Asparagus Valley Pottery Trail
Crossing Borders Studio Tour
Toe River Arts Council
The Art of the Pot
Omaha North Hills Pottery Tour
16 Hands Studio Tour
Albany-Saratoga Pottery Trail
Fairmount Arts Crawl
Western Wisconsin Potters Tour