Waterloo Region isn’t short on local, independent artisans. Summer street festivals have turned both business cores into entrepreneurial hubs for those looking to sell their goods, gain exposure and make some money without breaking the bank.
“Setting up a storefront or even a studio space outside of my home is cost-prohibitive for me, so these events are a great and cheap way to sell some things,” said Erin Moffat.
Moffat, a self-proclaimed bird nerd, theatre freak and craft beer enthusiast is a former research chemist turned glass artist. Her business Colour & Light has been in full swing since 2008, and specializes in stained glass and custom glasswork.
She explained that the outdoor vendor markets are a way for artist to get the biggest bang for their buck.
“[The business] also get lots of exposure that [then] leads to future custom/commission sales. Outside of these events, I do some online sales (on Etsy) and also attend other ‘craft show’ type events, but the costs associated with them are higher than for the outdoor Downtown markets,” said Moffat.
While beneficial, there is risk involved in relying on people to attend an event and interact with an artist.
“The sales the city have been putting on are a great idea, though they seem kind of hit and miss on attendance, which makes a show a little scary to invest time in as a vendor,” said designer Jon ‘Bearface’ Johnson. “I was pretty lucky at the last Night Market I did, and the time was worthwhile for the income, but if I did two or three of these shows in a row with very little income, it would make it hard to take the gamble on the next show.”
In Paper Dreams owner Jen van Overbeeke echoes Johnson’s hesitation and explains that while it’s a great way to get your name out there, it’s not a way to make a living.
“I’ve been working at selling my art for just over a year now … but it wasn’t until I vended at my first market, I believe it was a Downtown Kitchener Night Market, that I realized this was something that I could do. I’m by no means making a livable wage off of my art. At this time, my art is just paying for itself, which is a good start, but not sustainable,” said van Overbeeke.
Ward 10 Councillor and Kitchener mayoral candidate Dan Glenn-Graham believes that by keeping stall costs low, the entire ecosystem can profit.
“These events create a direct benefit by supporting local artists and businesses and circulating the money locally,” said Glenn-Graham.
While festival season gives rise to a local vendor culture, Glenn-Graham points out a major flaw — these events are only available during the summer months.
“[Vendors face] the challenge of how to manage through winter and non festival periods and how to manage street culture. The city and BIA are working closely with the police and social agencies to create a hub model to ensure the correct use of resources,” said Glenn-Graham.
Downtown Kitchener Marketing & Events guru Hilary Abel has seen an increase in supporting the local economy through events where vendors are on the street.
“I think we’ve seen a big shift in how people focus on shopping local now. These events are now a key pillar in our summer programming, and we want to see them grow over the next two, five, 10 years. We also work closely with the Downtown Kitchener BIA to make sure there is a constant focus on shopping local in Downtown in general, whether than means eating locally, shopping at independent retailers, or art markets”
She also hopes that by keeping the cost of participating in markets low, artists can focus on creating quality merchandise, to create that “pop-up shop” experience.
The summer art market sessions are a good first step in creating a community where vendors and shoppers interact but there are improvements to be made.
“If we continue to put a focus on residents coming into the core to shop regularly, as well as at these events, I think we’re heading in the right direction of making these really sustainable opportunities, from the city’s perspective, and more importantly the artists’ perspective.” said Abel. “The great feedback we hear is that people love that we are providing the infrastructure and a lot of the marketing for these events, which is great … it is really about getting attendance up, and making sure more and more people know about the events and keeping them very top of mind.”
For the artists — challenges can range from a lack of information, to organizational issues, to focusing on bringing a crowd out.
“The best thing for independent artists is to simply get people seeing their work, so the more opportunities to vend and display, the better,” said Moffat. “Certainly keep doing things like the Art Markets, and try to keep the participation costs low.”
It’s important to note that while financial viability is ultimately what keeps these artisans in action, it’s the interactions that keep them inspired.
“It’s a pretty great feeling to create something, and then have people come out who really like and appreciate what you’re doing and buy things from you,” said Johnson. “… To have a really good show, where lots of people are really into your work, and chat with you about it, and yes, buy things, is pretty awesome.”
The next Downtown Kitchener Art Market takes place on August 15 from 7:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. on King Street.