The Rise of the Really Creative Class
How Edmonton’s favourite craft fair has made it easier for local merchants to make a living
by Cory Haller
On a Saturday afternoon in early May, the normally quiet Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre is filled to capacity. People are packed in between long lines of tables that are stacked with art and knick-knacks, perusing the goods for sale: bow ties and erotic drawings, teapot terrariums, handmade soap and colourful concrete sculptures. Over the course of the weekend, more than 2,800 shoppers will visit the 14th Royal Bison Art and Craft Fair, purchasing art, clothing and jewelry from the 74 carefully selected vendors. That’s a far cry from the semi-annual fair’s humble origins in 2007, when the Bison’s 20 vendors received only 500 visitors.
Photograph Jessica Fern Facette
Still, as organizer Vikki Wiercinski has learned, success comes with its own challenges.
Take the fact that she received more than 500 vendor applications for the December 2012 show. “This is a new problem, actually, because the Bison has never had more qualified Bison-style vendors – not just ones like, ‘I make angels out of crochet,’ or whatever, but people who actually get it – than we had space for,” Wiercinski says. “Now we have that problem. It’s getting to be harder and harder for people to get into the fair because Edmonton is really changing in terms of creativity and DIY. It’s growing.”
The 29-year-old artist and graphic designer runs what is considered to be a growing staple in the Edmonton arts community – and a hit with Edmontonians themselves, as the fair’s recognition in Vue Weekly’s “Best of Edmonton 2012” rankings illustrates. The fair, which runs in early May and again in late November or early December, has grown from a small biannual pop-up that Wiercinski describes as a “celebration of artistic weirdness” to what it is today: an incubator for artists and upstart retailers.
And if the Royal Bison is a fixture on the Edmonton cultural landscape today, that’s as much by accident as design. When the fair’s founder, Raymond E. Biesinger, announced that he was moving from Edmonton to Montreal to pursue a career in illustration in 2010, the Royal Bison was to be closed for good – much to the dismay of the vendors who had been building their reputations there since the fair’s beginning three years earlier. One of those vendors happened to be Wiercinski, who had been selling her housewares and stationery at the pop-up fair since 2009. Not wanting to see it shut down, she emailed a request to Biesinger that the craft fair be left in the hands of others who would keep it going. She got her wish – and then some.
Wiercinski was thrust into the role of co-organizer along with two other artists, jeweller Jeanie Andronyk and illustrator Josh Holinaty, both of whom eventually bowed out to pursue other goals. But Wiercinski convinced her 32-year-old husband, Jim Johansson, to join her as co-organizer, and together they’ve moved the fair forward. And while organizing the fair is a three-month ordeal (one that they have to endure twice a year) the rewards that the Bison can bring to its vendors are worth the effort.
It’s not all selflessness and altruism, either, given that they’re both vendors themselves.
“I organized this fair because I wanted a table at the Bison,” she says.
So, how do they do it? The money from the door pays their wage, while the pair’s profit comes from selling their wares at their respective tables at the fair. “Now that we are a couple it is actually sustainable to do this. When Jeanie and Josh and I were running the fair we only made about $800 each. There is a lot of administration work that goes into this: table arrangement, marketing, organizing sponsors and handling finances. It isn’t just looking into an Excel sheet and picking vendors. There are a lot of hours that go into this, so we are almost underpaid.” With the fair now covering at least some of their living expenses, they can focus more on their tables. “Jim can make anywhere to $1,000 while I’ll generally make about $3,000 at my table over the weekend,” she says.
The couple’s vendor earnings are representative of the kind of money that sellers at the Royal Bison make, on average, over its three-day period. When table costs run at $60 for a four-foot table and $90 for a six-foot one, it’s easy to see how the crafters, artists and designers at the show can rake in a profit, especially when sales can range anywhere from $200 to $10,000 over the stretch of the fair. “The low costs of the tables encourage people to come and try and sell their goods,” says Wiercinski. “It takes the risk out of trying something new.” In her eyes, it’s this fostering of local talent that keeps the Royal Bison growing. “There are a lot of people who think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ And you really have to break down this wall where people will realize that they are a producer, not a consumer. Some do the Bison and learn that they can’t, and never do it again, but a lot of people keep coming back.”
It’s not just the vendors that are returning. Customers of the Bison have a habit of coming back too, and the audience for the fair keeps growing. Where it started as a craft fair for the arts-minded, the fair now boasts regular attendance from the coveted 19-to-35-year-old demographic. Even more promising is the fact that the fair has started to find a following among the city’s men, who are coming to check out everything from boutique bow ties to leather accessories. “The Bison aims to be as unisex as possible. That’s important.” says Johansson. Wiercinski agrees. “Craft fairs can get really girly and full of lace and ribbon real fast. That’s not the Bison at all. There is a certain level of DIY-ness in the show now, and that’s really catching on. We just help keep it going and build it up best we can.”
Don’t be fooled by the cultivated eccentricity at the Bison, either. According to longtime vendor Rachel Bingham of BangBang Bijoux, a jewellery and accessories line hand-crafted from vintage and discarded materials, the fair is a place where creative people go when they get serious about their craft. “People who are naturally creative and want to make it part of their everyday life, be it a career or whatever, will come to the Bison. It’s not just anyone coming out of the woodwork.” Bingham shares another trade secret about the Bison as well: it’s the perfect venue for testing out your product on the public. “You have people tell you what they like, which sometimes stings, but then you also get a sense of what resonates with people.” Matt Heide of Concrete Cat Design House agrees. “With the Bison, you get to see a lot of people in a really short period of time, and that gives you really rich data. There is no cheaper way to test against that many sets of eyeballs.”
That said, bigger isn’t necessarily better for the Bison. And so, while the number of vendors who want to get in on the fair continues to expand, Johansson and Wiercinski are exercising a strict form of quality control. They believe that growing the fair doesn’t necessarily mean expanding in size but rather delivering higher-quality goods with each fair. More to the point, while the crowded show floor and the growing number of potential vendors might suggest that Wiercinski and Johansson should move to a bigger location, they think that would undermine one of the Bison’s biggest strengths. “If we moved spaces to accommodate more vendors we’d inevitably have to raise table prices and admission, and that’s just not what the Bison is about,” Johansson says. “We expect the Bison to be high-quality vendors that are getting their first shot. You can’t do that when you’re charging $400 a table.”
The pair has found a way to address the main challenge associated with the Bison’s growing popularity – the weekend surge of customers. “People were packed into the OSPAC building like sardines last December,” Wiercinski says. And so, they’ve since expanded the hours of the show and stretched it from two days to three in order to prevent overcrowding. “The plan is that the new hours will spread out some of the traffic that comes to the show over the weekend.”
Having to deal with the issue of overcrowding is a welcome problem for Wiercinski and Johansson, though. After all, it means they’re doing their job correctly. “Our job is to get as many smiling, happy people through the door as possible.” says Wiercinski. “If we have to add a day to the Bison to do that, it only means more success for everyone involved.” And what of the future? Wiercinski isn’t one to take a gift for granted, even if it’s an entire craft fair, and she’s more than willing to share. “The Bison is its own thing. I didn’t start it. It’s an incubator for local talent,” she says. “And as long as it’s doing that, we’re not going to stop.”
Click here to read about five companies that turned a visit to the craft fair into a full-fledged business