Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Pilgrimage to Spectrum Live - Constructive Reflections

Hello my fellow internet wanderers!
I hope you’ve all had a good weekend and are looking forward to the days ahead.

Through some twists of fate I ended up in Kansas City for the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live convention.

In short, Spectrum Live is mostly an event created to celebrate the works of artistic in the publishing, video game, film industries that have ties to science fiction and fantasy themes. Typically, there are artist exhibit tables with prints and originals for sale, lecture panels, book signings, and networking opportunities such as portfolio reviews with industry professionals. Though it does sound more industry targeted, art enthusiasts are more than welcome to attend. 

"Created in 2012, SFAL is the annual show where the artists and students are the stars.

SFAL promotes diversity in the arts and provides educational opportunities. The event puts students, attendees, art directors and studios together to help build connections and jobs. SFAL’s mission is to grow the appreciation of fantastic art across all media. It also highlights the increasing impact technology has on the arts and provides platforms for these creators and innovators"
(Blurb from Spectrum's official page

View from the 2nd floor
This was my first year attending this event and my main objectives were to support my friends, make new ones, get a feel for the industry, and learn more about the Spectrum Live scene to see if it would be a worthwhile opportunity for me to continuously attend or even exhibit in the near future.

Overall, I had a good weekend, but I was moderately underwhelmed for a number of reasons, which I’ll explain below. I’m glad that I attended, but in hind-sight I don’t believe I would have made the same choice to go.

Reason #1 Crowd Turnout + Event Layout/Activities  

Although I’m not a fan of crowds and having fewer people perusing the rows of tables makes it much easier to chat up other artists, (even some of the more famous creatives like Donato Giancola and Paul Bonner) this makes the time for the exhibitors, especially those tabling solo quite a bit lonesome throughout the 3-day program. Likewise, as an attendee, though its fantastic to see so much beautiful artwork concentrated in one space, its easy to run out of things to see even on day 1.
I also began to wonder why the number in attendance was so small (at most, it seems like about 1,500 - 2,000 attendees in total for the 3 days). The cost was only $5 per day to the public/non exhibitors, and that included access to all the exhibitors, panels, parties and the Spectrum awards ceremony.  After a quick trip to the internet and some conversations with people wondering the same thing, I made some observations.

Observation A: An unfortunate scheduling conflict was that the Silicon Valley Comic Con and the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) were also happening at this time and might have influenced some fellow artists into choosing to dedicate their time, money, and transit efforts there. 
Another event to note is Planet Comic Con Kansas City which is scheduled for the following week (April 28-30).

Observation B: The layout and the space size for this convention was not ideal.

-Right off the bat it was noticeable that on the main (bottom) floor, the more well-recognized artists were located at the “prime real estate” spots of the floor - right next to the entrance, and/or a little further in, meanwhile the less known exhibitors were put further away. Likewise, on the top floor (which was akin to 360 balcony walkway that overlooked the bottom floor), the convention official guests and publications were all on one side, and the less known creatives were on the other. So, what happened was that most of the foot traffic would be concentrated around the famous artists at the front, and then trickle away towards the end of the rows. The more naturally curious attendees probably looked at everything, but those with a potentially lower overall interest/enthusiasm had less incentive to explore the whole room. A simple solution to this would have been to disperse the exhibitors that are known to attracting more crowds around the entire space. Perhaps one at each corner and some in the middle.

-Although the exhibit space was a comfortable size, I think a slightly larger space that could accommodate more spaces for demos, workshops, and lectures would not be a bad idea. For instance, the one space for the artist demonstration was just a corner on the second floor, and without a microphone or projection screen it got to be pretty hard to see or hear anything unless you were in one of the front rows at an angle which didn’t have the featured artist blocking the canvas with their body.

Even without the increased space size, the event could have greatly benefited from more demonstrations and talks in general. Over the 3 days there were only 10 panels/artist talks, 6 (1 hour each) painting demos, and 3 after hours events (not including the awards ceremony). To tackle both the visibility and lack of variety issue, I would have loved to see some primarily digital media practicing artists joining in the scene with their process available for following on screen through a simple projection set up. These artists could have been sourced from the event floor, which would have given welcome exposure to some of the exhibitors.

Reason #2: Cost vs. Profit
Although Spectrum Live was full of kind creatives to connect with, it was far from a high sales event.
The community is incredibly welcoming, and if you feel like you are creating work in a vacuum in your home, this is an amazing opportunity to find like-minded people who go through the same struggles, worries and know what it means to be an artist.

However, as there was little walk-in traffic, one is mostly left selling their work to other artists. This limits your audience to a group that are often likewise concerned about their margins. I talked to several artists this year who expressed frustration at just how little money they made. Several said they didn’t even cover the costs of their taxi to and from the airport. And these weren’t even students, recent graduates, or artists very new to the industry. These were knowledgeable, published illustrators who have in some cases been nominated for awards in the Spectrum Annual.  

It is important to remember that for many attendees, it is not always the goal to break even, but rather to advertise and make connections.  It was, nonetheless, disheartening because there were not many people around for even for that.

For someone like myself - an artist who freelances but supports themselves through a different job, lives fairly far away from the event, and has no one in the city to stay with, it can be a pretty costly venture. Given that there appear to be bad odds of making at least a good chunk of expenses back through sales, there are some issues.

Let's look at some of the costs to put thing in perspective:

Table cost: As an exhibitor, there are 2 options - the full “booth” table on the main level is $350 USD, and an upstairs table is $250 USD. The main floor “booth” table comes with 4 badges and the upstairs table with 2. The good thing is, these tables can be shared and the costs split. Please note that the table can comfortably hold 2 exhibitors, but 3 would be a bit tight.

Travel cost: Approximately $500.00 USD from Vancouver, Canada even if booking far in advance. Kansas City is not a large hub, so flights in general are fairly expensive.

Transportation: From the airport, it is possible to take a shuttle bus for $36 one way (for up to 3 people in a group), which can be cheaper than a cab or ride-share service.

Lodgings: For a hotel nearby the convention center with the special event rate applied, the cost was about $185 USD per night. Given that the festivities start on Friday afternoon and end on Sunday night, traveling in a non red-eye frenzy will make it a 4 night stay with a $750 total price tag. (Again, if not being split with someone else.)

Food: I tend to hit the middle-ground for spending money on food and beverages while traveling and I spent about $150 for my trip.
*It should be noted however, that many of the after hours events where creatives schmooze are at bars, where it is expected to buy a drink or two, which can quickly add to the cost.

So, in TOTAL the cost for me to exhibit (as a solo exhibitor and traveler) would have been around $1800 USD; printing, shipping and additional transportation costs not included. Or about $1500 USD to just attend, again if the travel costs are not shared.

Now, to me that's not a cheap. That’s quite an undertaking, which could alternatively pay for a very relaxing all-inclusive vacation in the Caribbean, or a new Cintiq, etc.

That’s not to say this type of trip isn’t worth it. Making the right connection with an art director who hires you for a great gig can potentially earn back those spendings and make a positive and lasting impact on your career. But what are the odds of that? This question brings me to my next point.

Reason #3: Quantifiable Networking Potential
With the relatively high cost of exhibiting compared to attending, this opportunity needs to have quantifiable good odds. Sadly, that wasn't the case this year. This year, there were only about 4 art directors from 2 companies of varying influence and if they weren’t at their designated portfolio review spot, they weren’t seen walking the floor, interact with artists there.

Four people from book publishing and table-top RPG is only a small sub-section of the industry, and for a fair number of talented artists, doesn’t really represent the client base they would be selling to. There were no art directors from film, video games, children’s books, animation, editorial or advertising.

Additionally, this year, instead of having signup sheets for review, the directors had a lounge area, and people had to line up to talk to them - which I think was fine for attendees, but for those who had a table (with no table assistant), it was very hard to talk to one of them without a lengthy wait away from their table. Some people I talked to had to wait for up to 2 hours for their few minutes of portfolio review.
This is both bad for the sales of the exhibiting artist, and bad for the attendees who have paid to come and talk with the exhibitors - who may have vanished to wait in the art director line.

With the much higher price tag of exhibiting vs. attending ($250-$350 a table vs $5 per day) it would have been nice to see the exhibitors get a little more consideration and incentive for investing so much time and money. Even by simply allocating a part of a day, like a Saturday morning or afternoon with a sign-up system for only exhibitors, would have relieved some tension and shown appreciation for their effort. After all, they are a huge part of the event itself. And again, having more art directors or resourceful and influential persons from the various aspects of creative entertainment industry available for constructive feedback would likewise be very much appreciated and encourage artists to attend this event year after year.

Conclusion: Risk vs Reward

To those who are still reading - thanks for making it this far, and I hope this hasn’t come across too disheartening. I truly had a lovely time meeting some wonderful people, listening to great stories, and buying some gorgeous art prints I’ve been dying to get my hands on. (Middle-Earth themed apartment, here I come!) I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a space with so many smiles and welcoming individuals.

On the other hand, I can’t help but assess things in the chess-board risk and reward reality we live in.

If you’re a fantasy and sci-fi loving artist who lives in the hosting city, I would absolutely encourage you to learn more about the Spectrum Fantastic Art Annual, Spectrum Live event and definitely attend. And if it makes sense for your budget and career status - get an exhibitor's table.

If you’re someone living further away, are more budget conscious or are newer to the illustration and concept art scene - I would suggest to do your research of the programming the year you’re planning to attend, and do a little comparative research to other events like IlluxCon, CTN Expo, Illustration Master Class, Schoolism events, One Fantastic Week, and various (large) comic conventions. They also present the opportunity to speak with and learn from peers and industry leaders. Many of these events also have attending art directors.

If you’ve got the time and budget, then absolutely go to Spectrum Live and try all the above mentioned events too, if you’re brave enough. :). Events in general are an awesome addition to an artist’s arsenal of tools to achieve success! 

Anyhow, I'm off to paint
For more content, follow me on Instagram. 

Me, inside another room of the convention building, eternally cold because of air conditioning.

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