My Time With RAW: Natural Born Artists
July 27, 2014
In 2012, I was contacted by someone on Etsy. The message said that an organization by the name of RAW: Natural Born Artists was interested in featuring my work in one of their upcoming showcases. There was a video breakdown of what the organization represents and how they operate. I was pretty skeptical but after some deliberation and research, I decided to go along with it and agree to be included in a showcase.
Up until this point, I'd never shown my work in a public space before. My photos were only being posted online to my flickr page and my tumblr. I really didn't know what kind of work went into presenting your art in a physical space, and I certainly hadn't put much thought into the possibility of such a thing. This was going to be all new territory for me.
That inexperience showed in my first outing with RAW, which was in August of that year. My work as a whole didn't have a very cohesive theme, aside from all the images being taken in New York City. Being on a tight budget and not really being as resourceful as I should have been caused me to make some inefficient choices, too. Once you add in certain difficulties that come along with the venue, it was a hard show to do, but at the time, a thrilling experience and a nice way to get my feet wet. I'll get into those difficulties later.
I would go on to do two shows in 2012, two last year, and my most recent which was just last week on July 24th, 2014. I've decided that this would be my final show, and that I'll be looking to find new outlets for getting my work seen.
My experience with RAW has always been mixed. On one hand, I have never encountered a single negative person in any of my shows. That says a lot. In every show, the artists involved have been pleasant, energetic, and talented. On the other, I have never really gained any opportunities as a result of my efforts. Of course, everyone may have a different experience, but speaking personally, I have never found myself faced with a new opportunity as a result of any of my showcases. That may have to do with my next point about RAW, at least in Brooklyn: space allocation.
Before each show, there is a venue walk-through that allows you to see the venue in person, and select a space. The 4 shows I did in Brooklyn were held in 3 different locations. The first two shows were at a place called Littlefield. It was a decently sized venue, with friendly staff, a nice bar, and the space in general was pretty large. The issue is in choosing your space. The area for display wasn't uniform, so deciding how your work would be displayed became a bit of a challenge. Artists were left to their own devices to choose the amount of space, and it was important to give yourself enough room, without encroaching on another artist and their area. This proved to be difficult, and when showtime arrived, I found myself in a corner of the venue near the stage, and completely blocked in by a neighboring artist. Her work, which was also photography, completely dwarfed mine and nearly overlapped in some places, which often led guests to ask if her work was mine and vice versa. It didn't matter that the work was different. The lack of a barrier or other visual cue that one body of work ends and another begins was problematic. At the end of the night, I was happy to have it over, and pleased that some friends and coworkers came to show their support.
The second show was a follow-up, semi-final showcase for the first, and it was at the same venue as my first showcase. I hadn't expanded my work very much in that time period, but I did choose a location at Littlefield that did not have me in the corner. This show went a bit more smoothly than the first, and the complaints I had about this show were really more about my own inexperience than anything else. I still didn't properly prepare with lighting, and I didn't really have any branding. I had business cards, but they just said who I was. It really wasn't a brand yet. There was a live vote on the semifinalists in each category, as well as review by three industry experts. That last part is what I thought was the most intriguing. Who knows where something like that could lead, right? At the end of the show, I did not come away as Brooklyn's photographer of the year, but I had really impressed the judges. That gave me quite a motivational boost.
The way RAW works is, you agree to showcase your art, whatever it may be, and you will put it on display at their venue. Any work you sell is 100% commission free, which means you get to pocket everything. The tradeoff is that each artist has a quota of 20 tickets to sell, to cover overhead costs. It's a safe business move for RAW; an artist who does not sell the minimum 20 tickets would have to pay the remaining balance before showtime. Of the 5 showcases I participated in, I had to meet the quota of 20 tickets for 3 of them. I surpassed that quota once, with 26 tickets sold. The second time, I had to buy one ticket myself, and the third instance was a poor showing with about 10 tickets sold. With the overhead cost being $300 total, not selling enough tickets could be expensive for an artist just getting started. It is worth noting, however, that this cost is still many times cheaper than some galleries that will charge you $50 just to sit with them, and then more than $1000 for them to hang your work...but there are many differences and nuances to that agreement as well. I suppose the question you should ask yourself is "can I interest 20 people to support what I love?" and as a secondary question "can I afford the consequences if 20 people don't support what I love?" If you can answer either of those questions with a confident "yes", then sign yourself up.
My third showcase was outside of New York. I was going on a trip to San Diego, and decided to incorporate a showcase into the trip. There was no pressure to sell tickets, and I was able to have some pieces shipped to a good friend for safe keeping until I arrived. The way things were run here was very different. Things were pretty well organized, and each artist was given a standardized space, which I think is important in a group show. The venue was also larger, and the problems regarding artist boundaries didn't exist. Being a visiting artist was interesting, especially since I was showcasing mostly New York City scenes. Everyone I encountered was friendly and very engaging.
After that, I was invited to do another show in Brooklyn, as a Director's Highlight during 2013's semi-final. Highlights were offered an opportunity to showcase, with the promise of another showcase without the whole ticket stipulation I mentioned earlier. The venue seemed really nice, and I decided to participate. This was probably my poorest showing. The showcase was in November and took place on our first really cold day of the winter. Guest turnout was pretty low in comparison to other shows, and the way work was arranged just felt very cluttered. The biggest letdown, however, was that the Director's Highlights were invited to the showcase on the basis that industry professionals would once again be reviewing the work. Having improved the quality of my work over the course of a year, I was really excited for this. It turns out that none of them were present day of show. After all of that, I had considered not using my free showcase, but this summer, I changed my mind.
The main reason I had changed my mind was that I had just finished doing a solo show for the first time, and I had material from that show that I could use. The new venue, Brooklyn Night Bazaar, was enormous. It was the kind of space that would be perfect for art on display, and the atmosphere in general was more welcoming. Not only that, but I tried my very best to account for all the mistakes I had made before. I had much better lighting, a selection of pieces for sale at different price points, brand representation, and a prime location in the venue.
When it was all said and done, I had been talking to people almost non-stop, and I made quite a few sales of my smaller pieces. Not only that, but I left with a confidence that was absent before. I mean, I have always thought that my work was better than average, and that some of my work was really great. Some friends agreed with me, but I always felt like my work wasn't well received by other photographers, and that it wasn't well received by the general public. I still often wonder about how my fellow photographers feel, but I heard so much positivity that night from passersby. It really made my night, and I'm happy to be closing this chapter of my photography...hopefully to move on to something even bigger, better, and hopefully more lucrative as well.
As for how I feel about RAW, it's still mixed. I think it's a great way to show your work to an audience, and I think that the audience you receive is better targeted than a random post on the internet. However, I don't feel like enough networking takes place, but again, that can just be my experience. I do think that I can give a valid assessment after two years and 5 showcases, though. I haven't come across any opportunities as a result of my RAW participation. It is totally possible that it works much better for other kinds of artistic expression, such as fashion, makeup, and even installation art. As a photographer, though, the interaction has been lukewarm once the show is over. As a place to sell artwork, despite all of my positive feedback, I have never been successful at selling work. The most recent was my best, with about 8 small pieces sold, but considering the investment of hundreds and hundreds to make this showcase possible, it's not the turnaround I was expecting.
Have you participated in a RAW Showcase? Have you visited one in the past? What are your thoughts?