Selling art isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

An unfortunate art-selling experience at Toronto’s Fringe Festival

Anisa Rawhani, ArtSci ‘15, didn’t exactly enjoy her experience selling her art at Toronto’s Fringe Festival.
Anisa Rawhani, ArtSci ‘15, didn’t exactly enjoy her experience selling her art at Toronto’s Fringe Festival.
Supplied by Anisa Rawhani

I’m pouring in sweat in the July sun and BDSM clowns are driving away my potential customers. I want to go home, but I have hundreds of dollars of merchandise to sell.

Welcome to the life of a wannabe artist.

Two summers ago, my friend Sama and I decided to sell our art at the Toronto Fringe Festival. For nine days, alongside 12 other artists, we stood in our tent in the Fringe Artist Alley right next to Honest Ed’s. From morning to night we tried to sell our work, through extreme heat, strong winds and the occasional torrential downpour that threatened to wash everything away.

In our joint exhibition, Sama sold canvas painted with melted crayon while I sold prints of digital paintings. We ended up calling the exhibition “Digital Meltdown”, which we thought was real clever. It probably would have been better to just call it “Meltdown”, considering that’s what I felt like I was on the brink of some days.

The way our tent was set up, sun would pour right in, with the shadowed corners our only salvation. Obviously, this was bad news for our skin, but even worse news for the art.

While my prints were fine, the sun’s rays threatened to liquify the wax on Sama’s canvases. We stowed her work in the shadows of the tent, and used the opportunity to make some new pieces with the extra canvas and crayons on hand.

But while the weather provided its share of challenges, it was the least of our worries.

I’d never fully realized just how much effort and luck goes into being an independent artist, especially at places like the festival where you’re required to promote yourself.

In the beginning, when people would walk by our tent, I had no idea what to do. Should I approach them, or hang back and act cool?

Smile. Wait, not that wide. But show some teeth. Not too much teeth though. You look terrifying. Oh no, you’re scaring them away. Abort. ABORT.

On the one hand, it was a great chance to meet some amazing people. Once you stop focusing on the sale and instead focus your attention on the person in front of you, you can have some really interesting conversations.

But by that same token, being in a place where you’re dependent on sales to provide for yourself places you in a vulnerable position — a position some people attempted to take advantage of.

On a couple of occasions, men would come to the tent and it would take me a while to realize that there wasn’t a genuine interest in my work, but rather something else. Needless to say, it was pretty frustrating.

But while we had our share of disappointing experiences, being immersed in a creative environment came with its perks. Along with the visual artists in the alley there were “alley plays”, which were micro-plays staged in tents and sheds throughout the area. 

Some of these mini productions were enjoyable. One called “Ask Lovecraft” allowed people to spend some time with an H.P. Lovecraft impersonator who answered questions and offered advice to the audience. Another tent, “Flip the Table”, also involved audience participation. People selected a setting and scenario and then got to flip a table. Do you ever fantasize about flipping your boss’ desk and walking out? Every wish you could flip a table during a family dinner? I know I have.

While some of these micro-plays were enjoyable, others weren’t my cup of tea.

During most of the days we were at the festival, an eclectic group of clowns held ongoing performances in the Fringe Artist Alley. Some of them were decked out in BDSM gear, while others cross-dressed or wore other outfits that subverted expectations of what clowns should look like.

On the first night, we were assigned the tent right next to the closed shed used by the clown troop. Their performance involved people paying money to get some “alone time” with a clown of their choice. 

I don’t know what happened in that shed. All I know is that on the first night a little female clown and a male participant went into the shed, and for the next five minutes all we heard was screaming and sexual noises. Needless to say, the customers perusing our tent were disturbed and quickly left.

As the days went on, things got better. Sama and I became pros at setting up and tearing down our exhibition. Talking to people wasn’t nearly as intimidating, and even though I lost money through the whole process, the ups and downs brought Sama and I closer together. My love of the clowns wasn’t helped when they entered my tent and chatted up our customers in an attempt to get them to go over to their shed.

In the end, we went over to “Flip the Table” and put in an order. We wanted them to cover a table with crayons for us to flip. They set it up, we entered the area and an audience formed to watch our meltdown. We shouted about how sick we were of crayons and the heat, and then together we flipped that table. It was cathartic to say the least.

I learned a lot of lessons from those nine days. For one, I quickly learned to stop introducing Sama as my “partner”, because I’m a very believable lesbian.

While my experience wasn’t what I expected, I’m grateful for it. In the back of my mind I’d wondered for years if I should have pursued the arts. This helped me realize that it isn’t for me.

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