The Refund Policy Showdown
Refund policies. The very words are enough to instigate eye-rolling, heavy sighing and, occasionally, verbal boxing matches. In one corner stands the artist. He's over-applied to shows, and has laid out a huge amount of "due-on-application" money. Once he gets his acceptances back, he's going to lose hundreds of dollars in non-refundable booth fees for some of the shows he won't be able to do. But, without over-applying, he won't have enough shows. He wants his money back when he has to turn down acceptances in some of the fairs.
In the other corner stands the promoter. He's invested time and money finding the show location, printing his applications and mailing them, assembling the jury, and sending out acceptances. Once an artist fills a booth space, the promoter doesn't want that spot to be empty. And, he wants his time and labor costs covered.
Can there ever be a winner in this sparring match? Or can we at least come to some sort of acceptable compromise?
We posed this issue on the online forum for the National Association of Independent Artists (NAIA), an artist-run organization that focuses on issues regarding art and craft shows, asking artists and promoters to comment. Artists voiced various opinions, but everyone agreed that some sort of refund was appropriate and right. Only two show promoters responded, and both were committed to being "artist-friendly." No one came forth to justify -- or explain -- the practice of non-refundable booth fees.
In fact, a number of show promoters have made a concerted effort to honor their half of the monetary equation. For example, Carla Fox, a Portland, Ore., metalsmith, is the director of the 32-year-old show of the Lake Oswego Arts and Crafts Guild, and a management partner in two other shows; she says, "Never have any of these three shows asked for booth fees up front. It would be a bookkeeping nightmare to hold and sort, and return fees. There are always good and valid reasons for artists to not do a show after they've been accepted. If we can fill the spot, we always try to give the artist a reasonable refund of his booth fee."
Brandy Upright, promoter of the ArtiGras show in Palm Beach, Fla., says her show changed to booth fees "upon acceptance" this year in order to be more artist-friendly. In her case, though, it did not work out well. Acceptance letters were mailed Nov. 1, with a Dec. 1 deadline for booth fees. "More than 60 of the 350 artists accepted did not respond by the due date," Upright reports, "and 15 of them never responded at all." Left with nearly 20 percent of her booth spaces unfilled, Upright and her staff made phone calls to all non-responding artists. The artists had "excuses and explanations, but many still did not send in fees," she says. "Next we called our wait-listed artists. More confusion and delays when their fees didn't arrive." The next wave of the wait-list was called, and the process repeated until the show was filled. "We hope we helped out some artists doing things this way," Upright says, "but it meant more than triple the work for us in the end."
When shows demand early fees and no refunds, artists still have several options. As Fox points out, "Given all the choices of shows, why any artist would put up with artist-unfriendly policies at some of the shows puzzles me. Drop the show."
Seasoned exhibitors suggest making a polite call or sending a letter to the show promoter, explaining your situation and requesting a refund despite the show's stated policy. (Promoters have been known to bend the rules for emergencies and unexpected difficulties.) But don't expect a refund in this situation if you are dropping the show to attend a different one.
More radical exhibitors say that when they cancel and are refused a refund, they cancel their cancellation, accept the booth space, and then pull a no-show, essentially punishing the promoter for keeping the fee. Emotionally satisfying? Sure. Good long-term business practice? Probably not.
Enamels artist Ricky Frank of Marietta, Ga., says that the best refund policy he knows "is the one used by Artrider Productions. They have a schedule," he explains. "If you cancel by a certain date, you get back a certain percentage of your fee. There are four different dates with different percentages. I had to cancel two of their shows last year and lost several hundred dollars, but I felt it was very fair because I was in control of how much I spent for the luxury of delaying my cancellation."
RESULTS OF BOOTH FEE REFUND POLICY STUDY:
The results of the NAIA's 2000 Booth Fee Refund Policy Study are published on the NAIA Web site. The study was based on the top 50 ranked shows listed in the 1999 edition of ArtFair SourceBook, by Greg Lawler, and 25 shows chosen at random.
The summary states, that of the top 50 ranked shows:
20 shows had booth fees due upon acceptance (40%)
15 had some type of refund policy (30%)
6 had both policies -- i.e., booth fee was not due until acceptance, and there was also a time after that in which the artist may cancel and receive a refund (12%)
14 had a commitment-to-show policy (8%)
Other artists take a stronger stance. Like furniture maker M.R. Daniels of Benton, Pa., these exhibitors say they will "no longer apply to shows that do not offer a refund policy."
Given the vast pool of qualified exhibitors who keep competing for spots at a finite number of quality shows, it seems obvious that promoters will always be able to fill their shows. They might have to scramble a bit and juggle their waiting lists, but artists also have to do some pretty fancy dancing to schedule enough shows to make a living.
It's not unreasonable for artists to want promoters to share the risks and return at least some of the artists' hard-earned money when they can't make a show.
Conversely, artists need to run their businesses like businesses, keep up with all the paperwork in a timely fashion, and perhaps be willing to sacrifice a small part of the fees for creating extra work for the promotion group.
Many artists who participated in the NAIA forum wrote in to voice their dismay about and disapproval of artists who don't send their fees in on time, or at all.
Let's face it -- the business workings of the retail fair circuit are peculiar and unique. It's a business based on ephemeral real estate, with artists in effect subletting a piece of a street or park that the promoter has under short-term lease. It's also a marriage of two disparate and cranky partners who pick at each other's flaws, but who desperately need each other to make the marriage work. When this whole fair scene started, all the idealistic craftsmen were talking about coming together in love. If we can't do that, let's at least find a way to come together over the checkbook.
Article by Carrie Groves
Reprinted with permission from The Crafts Report, April 2001
Carrie is a former jewelry artist, based in Springfield, Mo.