Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Once again, I exhibited at the annual Santa Fe Ethnographic Art Show this last August, along with about 100 other dealers in tribal art, furniture, jewelry, paintings, as well as other miscellaneous items from Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The show had always been held at the Sweeny Center, right off the main plaza, but for the last 3 years, during construction of a new civic center building, we moved to a temporary location several blocks from the center of town. In 2009 we finally returned to our original location, but in a newly designed civic center complex.

There was a bit of déjà vu this year, with the Whitehawk show back in the civic center and the Barry Cohen show just around the corner at their original location in the El Dorado Hotel.

I do like the new building. It is spacious, clean, and modern, with all of the exhibition spaces located on the main floor. There is a huge underground parking garage. Load in was relatively easy, with just one problem: there was a choke point at the one freight elevator for those parked in the underground garage. Otherwise, larger vehicles could pull right up to a large loading dock behind the building or load in from the street through a side door. Although it was not a problem this year, there have been plenty of times we had to slug through rain during load in and out, so it’s nice to have the option of parking in the garage.

The show organizers and their crew worked hard, as usual, to get things moved in and set up. Regardless of any criticisms I may have, I always appreciate the skill and stress they go through to put together these shows, especially as they make every effort to placate scores of grumpy dealers. A thankless job indeed!

Another favorite with this venue: catering by Cowgirls, a local restaurant that serves good, solid comfort food.

Some of the old exhibitors, who had previously dropped out of the Whitehawk show (several had jumped over to the rival Barry Cohen show), came back once the new location was available. Despite my personal feelings that most of these exhibitors lacked a certain amount of loyalty or patience with the transition, I was glad to have them back, as it significantly brought up the overall quality of the material in the show. Another benefit from having these returnees back is that most of these exhibitors actually deal in “ethnographic” art.

This has been one of my on-going complaints: in previous Whitehawk shows, many of the regular exhibitors would not be considered ethnographic dealers, as the term is commonly understood. I think most people would agree that colonial furniture, paintings, contemporary silver jewelry, and Bakelite would not be classified as ethnographic art. Another obvious problem is the quality and authenticity of many pieces offered by some of the exhibitors. There were (and still are) always at least a few booths that should have been cleared out and sent packing.

I’ll admit that in the past this mish-mash of material gave the show an exciting ‘anything goes’ sense of anarchy, with the possiblity of finding something you wouldn’t think to buy, crammed in amongst the trash. A bit like finding a treasure on eBay or in a good flea market. But, if the show is promoting itself as a quality ethnographic show, then this ongoing problem needs to be addressed. At least this year, because of the return of additional professional ethnographic dealers, the overall ratio of authentic material was thankfully higher.

Certainly, the exhibitors are paying for a quality ethnographic show! For years, the costs were notably less than those charged at the better-known Caskey Lees shows. Those lower costs helped blunt the negative issues with the show, but now we are paying basically the same rates as we would pay for a good booth at the San Francisco or Los Angeles Tribal/Asian Art shows. Considering that those shows (especially the one in San Francisco) actually draws in large crowds of real tribal art collectors, it seems misplaced to charge the same fee for a show that really does not bring in those same higher end buyers.

Other relatively minor problems; the square footage that was expected for booth spaces on the main floor was cut back during construction, which seemed to translate to less room in the aisles. There were times it was a bit tight moving through the show (especially during load in and out). The carpet pattern was also a bit much with the bold American Indian motifs, but I guess that would be expected in Santa Fe.

My last personal complaint that I want to mention (as an exhibitor) is the lighting. For reasons I cannot understand, the lighting trusses are placed right in the middle of the booth, thus preventing any natural way to properly light objects placed towards the front of the booth. I have mentioned this previously to the organizers who answer that everyone else seems to prefer this arrangement. Yet, virtually every single person I discussed this with, agreed that the truss should be placed towards the front of the booths. So any dealers who reads this (and agree with me) please express your preferences. Thank you!

Sales, as might be expected during our recent economic “pause”, were sluggish, at least for the majority of dealers who I talked to. The average response was “sales barely covered expenses” and that was about it, even with dealers that regularly sell well in Santa Fe. There were some exceptions, with one dealer of Catholic religious objects claiming to have had one of the best shows ever. I did see a lot of crosses, and statues of Mary and Jesus getting packed up. I guess when times are uncertain; it helps to surround yourself with religious artifacts!

It seemed to me that attendance was very high on Saturday, but less than usual on opening night and Sunday. Many of the regulars that I normally see were there, but most of the visitors that came into my booth were new to me. Normally, that would be a good thing and in the past I often sold to new buyers at this venue, even ones that were not major collectors of tribal art. I was busy most of the time; answering questions and quoting prices, but I experienced more “be-backs” than normal this year, with virtually none of them actually coming back this time. Oh well…

I heard a lot of complaints from dealers, with several claiming they were done with this show and would not return next year. That may happen with some, but in my experience most dealers, even the ones that rant and rave the most about poor sales, still feel obligated to give it another go. It was, and probably still is, my position that I would wait out the transitional period during construction and hang on at least until we got back to the plaza area. And I assumed that I would give it more than one try, regardless of how sales panned out the first time around. Under the current economic cloud, it is impossible to judge the value of this show for the future, based on a bad show this year.

However, I’ll admit that I am also not sure about my involvement next year. First, I am uncomfortable with the higher costs of this show, which amplifies the misery of poor sales. Second, I am just not sure if ethnographic art, excluding American Indian, Spanish Colonial, or Southwest art, has any real life left in Santa Fe. One prominent local tribal art dealer mentioned that his regular yearly sales were off considerably over previous years. And I noted that another tribal art gallery was closing this summer, a trend I have seen for a few years now.

Besides the Whitehawk show, I assume Barry Cohen will be back with his show at the El Dorado. In addition there will be a new show next year, organized by Kim Martindale and John Morse, veterans of the tribal and Indian art show circuit. Their show is advertised to include Asian, Devotional, Fine Art, Furniture, Indian, Tribal, and just about anything else anyone can think of to bring along. Will show saturation bring in new clients, attracted to this new art Mecca, or dilute the small pool that currently exists? Hmmmm…

25 or so years ago, the original organizers, along with a flood of “carpet baggers” with a mind to open a gallery, came up with the wild idea that other ethnographic art could sell in Santa Fe. At that time, there were no other regular tribal art show venues, so the idea took off, with serious collectors flying in from all parts of the country and the world. Eventually, other shows, based in larger regional centers, took the steam out of the need to come to the Santa Fe show to buy tribal art. We were still able to get some mileage out the continued success of the Indian shows and occasionally found buyers still willing to travel to Santa Fe or from wealthier art tourists that stumbled unwittingly into the Sweeny from the plaza. But, I am worried that the interest in other tribal arts (in Santa Fe) may be winding down.

That said, I’ll probably “be-back”…

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