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Thursday, June 16

showdown in Allentown

Every job has its own peculiar idiosyncrasies. There are rules that the public never thinks about but that rule our world. Like, at my theater job, we are never allowed to say a show is sold out until the boss says it is even if you can't find a seat in the whole place. You are not allowed to hang around the lobby for a sneak peek during a concert sound check. You can't wear sneakers even though nobody can see your feet.

And so it is in art show world. Organizers work hard to keep the cheaters from getting a spot in their show. Believe it or not, there are unscrupulous folk who buy crap from China, pull off the labels and set up shop as "the artist". They are masters at submitting jury photos of their "work" that fools the pros.

Then there are the production crews that have little mini factories set up to mass produce stuff like weathervanes and garden art and send out teams of people to pose as the artist at shows.

So, anyway, the better shows have come up with sets of rules that help to keep the shows real. After all, the main purpose of legitimate art and craft shows is to provide the customer a chance to see quality handcrafted work and to meet the person who created it. Otherwise, you might as well just go to your local consignment shop and pick something off a shelf.

OK, I'm getting to the point here, really.

We set up for the weekend on Friday night. Just the canopy and shelves because we knew we'd be there at 6am Saturday to grab one of the parking spots right behind our booth. It was our first outdoor show of the season and even though we were sure we had everything, we were missing the tie downs for the weights we attach to each leg of the rig. Since we live just blocks away, Russell was going to run home to get them, but our neighbor, a sweet faced man with a shaved head and newly sunburned cheeks offered an extra set he just happened to have. Really nice guy. He told us that he and another guy are partners in their pottery business but he was here alone because the other guy's wife, a paraplegic, was running a high temp and he had to stay behind in Albany to tend to her and their kids.

Potters have one of the toughest setups in the business. Everything is breakable, each piece needs to be wrapped and unwrapped. There are tons of small crates because the stuff is too heavy to pack up in big totes. It is tedious, hard work. We offered to help if he needed it.

Next morning we were all there early, setting up in the early morning dampness, catching up with friends, hunting down coffee. The usual. People started to make their way down the streets and it seemed like it would be an uneventful, fun day.

Then the committee came around. As part of the rules I referenced waaay back when I started this epic, they come to each booth, check your ID, make sure the person who applied is the person in the booth and they punch a hole in your exhibitor permit to indicate you have passed inspection. They were very nice to me, we joked, I got punched, they left.

A few minutes later, I hear our neighbor talking on his cell phone, telling his partner that his only recourse was to pack it all up and there was nothing else he could do. Uh oh. Was he being tossed? The committee woman agreed to talk to the guy and she paced the street in front of his booth, listening, responding, shaking her head. There was nothing she could do. Rules were there for a reason.

It seems that the show only allows one name per app, even if you create as a team, and it was the absent partner's name that had been submitted. No excuses, no extenuating circumstances. Pack it up.

Since the roads were closed, our neighbor wrapped up the pieces slowly, taking his time, commiserating with his fellow exhibitors, sitting in his truck, wrapping some more. It was a sad and odd dance. I felt really bad for him because I knew what the situation was, and even though I usually applaud the tough rules of this show it felt like a bad decision.

Over the course of the afternoon, others weighed in and, surprisingly, few were sympathetic. That is probably because we are all, for the most part, protective of this rapidly vanishing art show world and have grudging respect for the show "gestapo" that keeps it clean.

I was chided for being naive, that the partner was probably at a show in Chicago or Pittsburgh. And that even if he wasn't, you had to bring the hammer down on this guy because the next guy could be a fraud. I pulled out my app and, sure enough, the first rule, in bold caps, was one person per app, applicant must be present.

Since I am always ready to whine about the quality of some of the work allowed in these fairs, I should be able to see the wisdom and determination behind these rules. Without the 'artist must be present" clause, little factories in Arkansas can pump out pallets of cheap "craft" and send college kids out to sell it for 10 bucks an hour. It takes a lot to put together a show of good work. The potter wasn't the only one ousted that day. 15 "jewelers" were also kicked to the curb for offenses ranging from selling imports to making work from kits.

Even with all the rules, there are folks every year who make snide comments about the "crap". Really? I'd like to lock those bozos in a room for an hour and see if they can create anything but noise. You think the artists are lame? Let's see what you can do. Step away from the laptop and try to get up at 5am on show day to set up a 200 pound tent and display and then try to sell work you have put blood and tears into while some frat boy with a thesaurus posts his "critique" in various comment sections, using a fake name of course. One criticism I read revolved around the fact that here were cutting boards and wooden spoons at the fair. Apparently, woodworking, carving these items from a solid block of wood, turning, etc is not in this guy's limited mentaL data bank.

But they don't count. What counts is that we know the reality, how tough it is to get into good shows. We know how many rules we need to follow.

And now I know what happens when you don't.

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