NOTE: I wrote this article based on my experience with the RAW Artists Austin and Denver organizations, having done 3 RAW shows in Austin and 1 in Denver. RAW directors, teams, venues, and artist arrangements vary by city. Your experience may be different than mine. The following thoughts and observations are my own and do not have to be yours. I am not telling anyone what to think or do, only what I have experienced.
First, the very short backstory: In 2012, I had attended one RAW show to support a friend, then pretty much forgot about it. Later, when I got to the point in creating my own art that was I finally interested in showing, another friend mentioned to me that she had attended a RAW show as well and that I should submit my work. I made some photos of my paintings, submitted them and two days later I was a RAW Artist. It was quite remarkably easy.
That last part is telling because you can see that I did very little research on RAW; what it is, what’s required of me, etc. Someone called me up and said, “I like your art. You’re good. These are dope.” <–(actual quote!) What more did my artist ego need to know?
As it turns out, not much more, but more on that in a bit. Meghan, the (former) coordinator for RAW Artists Austin did a great job of telling me just about everything I needed to know on the first phone call. Everything was spelled out up front and it all seemed very reasonable to me. It was only a week or so later when Insecurity made one of his daily visits to Ego and said, “Hey, what if this RAW thing isn’t what you think it is?” that I started to panic. Gulp.
A quick Google search for “my experience as a RAW artist” was not encouraging. I found several forums and blogs where the complaining artist(s) levels a whole bunch of claims at RAW as an organization, but I disagree with all of them. I will let you search and read for yourself all the claims that RAW is a scam – don’t forget to read the dozens of commenters who agree with the original poster – but I want to use my own space here to assure you that RAW is NOT a scam.
PAY TO PLAY
Perhaps the chief complaint about RAW is that it is a “pay to play” gig. That is, you have to sell 20 tickets to the show, or pay $300 to show your work. If you sell some but not all of the tickets, you pay whatever remains after sales. So yes, it has the potential to be a pay to play gig. Even still, this is the 21st century. Independent artists are in the business of hustle. It’s ALL about social media, blogging, connecting with your audience and finding a niche for your name and your work. If you can’t put in the effort to sell 20 tickets to your friends, family, Twitter followers, etc., to support you and your art, that’s your hangup. It doesn’t make RAW a scam.
Another accusation of the RAW shows is that they are too unfocused and aesthetically messy. Too many wildly different types of art of vastly different quality and skill level all in one place makes for a low-brow art show that poorly serves both the artists and the art scene. I think this too, is a poor critique. RAW never claims to be a high-brow wine and cheese art event that panders to big egos and pseudo-celebrity personalities. RAW is as advertised: it is an opportunity for local, unknown and emerging artists to show work in a well staged event attended by a lot of people. The wide range of art and artist skill is perhaps not career rocketing, but the smart artist will learn much from having his or her work shown in such diversity. It can teach you if your work is up to par with other artists in your city, or if your work has already surpassed the level of this type of show. On the other hand, displaying your work in a situation like RAW, where you might be the hottest thing of the night, you can actually gain a lot of attention. Furthermore, it’s a great way to meet a lot of other great artists. It’s true, RAW is not a prestigious, fastidiously curated gallery show, but it doesn’t claim to be. Comparing it to a gallery show is a misunderstanding of what RAW is, not a misrepresentation.
WHAT TANGLED WEB TRAFFIC WE WEAVE
Still another complaint about RAW is that it promises web traffic and site features but perhaps doesn’t deliver. Each RAW artist gets a free individual artist page on the RAW Artist website to use for their bio, artist statement and examples of their work including embedded video. Some artists get featured on the local homepage, some don’t. It was never clear to me that a homepage feature was promised, but it’s also something I never expected. At the same time, just two days after first RAW show I participated in, a local business owner who had not attended the show found my RAW artist page from a simple search for “local Austin artists.” My work is now hanging up for sale in his place of business. I had not even gotten a contact like that from my own website, which doesn’t have nearly the name recognition, SEO or site traffic of rawartists.org. That one contact alone and the potential for more are worth the RAW experience. They give you a lot to work with to promote your art. It’s up to the artists to maximize the use of what they give you. Also on the strength of that one RAW show in 2013, I was chosen as Director’s Highlight for the entire 2013 season of RAW. Maybe it’s not a hugely prestigious title, but it means something to me. I still get a decent amount of referral traffic to my website from my RAW Artists page, so it’s worth it to me.
I don’t need to say anything more about the scam claims or the artist(s) who make them. It’s likely that they have an entirely different work ethic and set of career goals. Nothing wrong with that. But to call it a scam and warn away other artists based on sour grapes is silly. Maybe these artists’ experiences were due to a lackluster event coordinator; my experience with the RAW Austin and Denver coordinators has been nothing but good. They have always told me everything I needed to know up front, were available by phone, email and social media for further questions and they know what they are doing to make this a great event for the artists. If you are an artist who isn’t afraid to mix with other artists, can put forth a little hustle to promote yourself and would like another avenue to get your name and work noticed, then RAW is for you. Do it. You’ll have a good time if you put into it what you want to get out of it. It’s that simple.
It’s been over a year since I’ve done a RAW Artists show. What I learned in doing three shows and attending quite a few others is that the RAW audience is potentially not the best audience for my work. I watched many artists sell a lot of work while I sold nothing. My work was too large, too expensive, and perhaps too far over on the fine art end of the scale. Artists whose work is more in the folk art, street art and pop art categories seem to do better in the two markets I did shows in. Smaller work that can easily be carried, put in a purse or worn also seems to sell better Keep in mind the art interest in your area and how your work fits in – or doesn’t – when setting your expectations. I’d like to do another RAW show for the fun environment and community building aspect, but for selling art, I’m not sure it’s the right venue for my work.
I still highly recommend it, and I hope all of this information is helpful to anyone considering participating in a RAW Artists show.