Furniture Show How-To

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This article is from Issue 12 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Practical advice on planning, organizing and staging a furniture exhibit. 

By Jim Derby

Staging a furniture show can be a satisfying endeavor. Done properly, it benefits not only the craftsmen who exhibit, but also those involved in organizing the event. Answers to the following questions should be carefully considered by those who wish to organize a show. Over the last seven years we at Kerr Arts & Cultural Center (KACC) in Kerrville, Texas, have worked out some answers that fit our needs in organizing the Texas Furniture Makers Show.  

Why do you want to put on a show?  What are your goals for participants and visitors? We wanted to bring Texas furniture makers together. We knew that furniture shows were put on in the West and back East, but none were being held in Texas. We wanted furniture makers to be able display their work to buyers looking for quality, handcrafted, custom furniture and for the makers to be educated in their craft by seeing what other furniture makers are doing. Our exhibitors enjoy feedback from professionals in critiques, and learn how to improve their techniques in classes and from talking with one another.

Who plans the show? We put together a committee of five or six volunteers, including at least two furniture makers who have exhibited in a previous show. Our first meeting in the planning cycle takes place about six weeks after the close of the last show. We evaluate the feedback we received to see how we can improve. Based on this feedback, we added a course on design fundamentals two years ago, and last year we added a course on finishes. We hold these classes the same day as the awards ceremony so many of the furniture makers can make a day of it.

Who should participate in the show? Will it be local, regional or national? KACC is a regional gallery with 4,800 square feet of space in our two main galleries, so we limit our show to Texas residents. Now that we are in our seventh year, we have a list of more than 500 furniture makers to whom we mail written invitations to enter each year. We also advertise for entrants in the Texas Woodcraft flyer, and we pass out flyers at area woodworking events. 

The average piece of furniture needs 65-70 square feet of space for proper viewing, so we limit the show to 75 juried pieces. The jury process attracts highly qualified participants and allows us to select the proper mix of styles to attract the public we want. Jury criteria are workmanship, design and diversity.  

In order to give the show diversity and interest, KACC breaks the entries down into separate categories, each with its own prize or prizes. Our categories are art, studio, traditional and reproduction. Over the years we have added a metal or stone category. The furniture maker decides which category to enter. More categories, of course, means being able to give more first-place prizes.

How do furniture makers submit their work? We require two photo views (digital or film) of the piece to be shown, or a representative piece with a short description of the planned entry. 

When should the show be held and how long should it run? Our show runs for five weeks, in early winter. We like this time of year as it is over Thanksgiving and just before Christmas, when many people are visiting from Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. We found four weeks to be too short. It takes time for people to react to publicity and make time to attend. 

Will your show be judged? A highly qualified panel of judges is the best way to determine which entries should be awarded prizes. We have a panel of three judges, each with unique qualities. We invite a well-known furniture professional, a competent hands-on craftsman and an interior designer experienced in furniture design. This combination produces excellent, balanced decisions.   

We pay the judges a modest honorarium of $200 and hotel and airline expenses. As a nonprofit gallery, we are not in a position to pay large sums. We are fortunate that most judges agree for the fun of it, and because they believe in what we are doing. Last year, the morning after the awards ceremony, the judges held an informal walk-around critique for the benefit of the furniture makers.

Furniture makers like prizes. They are an incentive to show. We try to give as many as possible. Cash prizes and gift certificates are favorites. We give $1,000 for Best of Show, $750 for second place, $500 for third place and cash prizes for the best in each category. 

How can you pay for the show?  Hosting a show can be expensive. Admission to KACC is free, so we need to raise money for the show in other ways. We have gotten a number of corporations and individuals to underwrite expenses, especially the cash and gift certificate prizes. Furniture makers also pay a $25 nonrefundable jury fee. Once accepted, the furniture maker may enter one piece for $100, a second piece for an additional $100 and a third piece for a total of $250. The gallery makes a commission on sales of pieces in the show, based on a sliding scale from 30 to 10 percent as the price of the piece increases.

How do you ensure a show of high quality? There are several key decisions that determine the quality of the show. You need to jury, but you also need to stage your show to best advantage. We require that all furniture be displayed on pedestals which are made from plywood and painted the same color white as our walls. This gives the show uniformity and focuses the viewer’s attention on each piece. Placing the furniture on different levels and in attractive groupings adds visual interest. We ask the furniture makers to write descriptions to be displayed on plaques next to each piece. 

A team of volunteers helps place the furniture on the day it arrives. We try to place the heavy pieces as they come in and not move them later. Lighter pieces are moved around by the staging committee after we see all the entries.

Last year, we also took photographs of each piece as it came in and compiled them on a CD, which was popular with furniture makers.

How will you promote the show?  You must reach two target markets: the makers of high-quality furniture who will exhibit, and the attendees and buyers who will come to the show. We print a glossy folded flyer (10,000 this year) that we mail to our list of previous attendees. We advertise heavily in newspapers and magazines, and have linked up with our local convention and visitors bureau. We have actually become an important tourist draw. We evaluate the effectiveness of our marketing efforts by asking visitors how they heard about the show. This helps us to spend our money wisely.  

Other promotional efforts we have developed are a CD with pictures of furniture show entries and a printed catalog with photographs and information about the furniture makers. We give these to the exhibitors and mail them to publications featuring furniture. You might want to have each furniture show entrant sign a release on the entry form that allows you to use photographs of the work for publicity purposes. We promote the show several months of the year on our Web site, www.kacckerville.com.

— Jim Derby is retired and for the past five years has served as president of the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center.

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