Monday, March 11, 2013

Autopsy of a Gallery

Poster created by Jeremy Cardarelli
My favourite part of organizing Toons On Tap is seeing what the audience creates.  It's a joy.  Since we began the events, Jeremy and I have wanted to put together a gallery showing of audience work.   'Gallery' has sat on our to-do list for several months.  Everyone was feeling motivated just after New Years, which led us to sitting down with The Comic Book Lounge to discuss doing events at their venue.

And we did it.  Last Saturday.  Finally, crossed off the to-do list.

One week later, I'm thinking back on the experience and wondering what I learned from it.  Unless you count school (I don't), I've never organized nor been in a gallery showing.  Neither had Jeremy.  It was our maiden journey, and through planning Toons On Walls, I learned a few lessons:

No One Likes Light Beer.  Except Toronto Batman.

One of the huge advantages of holding our events at bars is not supplying our own alcohol.  Our usual venue, The Rhino Bar & Grill, is the rare combination of all ages friendly and well stocked with a massive selection of beer.  I'd like to think we're the only life drawing group in town where you can pound back shots and bring your kid with you.

The Comic Book Lounge, since it is primarily a retail space, is not fully licensed nor equipped for alcohol sales.  However, they often purchase Special Occasions Permits to host licensed art events.  After discussing the options with them, we agreed to purchase the permit and sell the alcohol ourselves.   My reasoning - I used to be a bartender.  I've got this.  (NB: I was a bartender for maaaybe five months.)

Selling our own alcohol allowed us to pay the incidental expenses of organizing the gallery without charging a cover charge, or worse, an artist submission fee.   To my surprise, the artists we approached to submit were hesitant to include their life drawing, even if it was objectively fantastic.  I can only imagine how few people would submit had we charged them to.

We decided to sell two flavours of Wild Vines wine and four flavours of Sleeman beer.  Admittedly, I didn't expect Wild Vines to sell well, but Jeremy insisted on it.   Oh, how right he was.  You can drink a glass of Wild Vines as easily as a juice box, and it was the secret vice of our videographer pal Dan Henderson.  The wine sold out first.

As for the Sleemans, we discovered the labels around the mouth of the bottles were very, very practical.  While sticking upright in the coolers, our bartender Tamara Johnston could find the different flavours quickly without needing to rummage around.  At a bigger event, this would be a huge timesaver.  Also, of the four varieties we sold (cream, original draught, honey brown, and light), the cream was by far the best seller.  At the end of the night, the only remaining beers were all Sleeman Light.  The only people drinking light were us, the organizers, out of pity for the unloved beer, and the surprisingly lightweight Toronto Batman.

Lastly, we priced every drink at an even $4, roughly a $2 mark up on the cost of the liquor itself.  Our expenses were covered and the gallery goers got cheap drinks.  As a bonus, I observed that Tamara would be tipped the change.  She was making  $1 off every drink, which added up.  But honestly, the real motives behind our pricing was to get the crowd buzzed.  You drink an $8 beer a lot slower than a $4 one.


The Comic Book Lounge shares its space with Guerilla Printing.  Recently, Guerilla Printing set up a counter placed right at the back of the Lounge's gallery space.  It was an ideal set up for a bar, and was still set up as a bar from the event the evening before.  We put Tamara back there, and didn't think much more of it.

Throughout the evening, however, I noticed people were reading Guerilla Printing's list of services and were very interested.  Of course!  In a room full of artists, everyone needed new business cards or had an upcoming convention or were unsatisfied with the prints they had just submitted to us and were in the market for a new print shop.  Sadly, this was a wasted opportunity.  Had someone been there to represent them, I know Guerilla Printing would have gotten more business.

My friend Tamara Johnston rocking it as our bartender.  Photo courtesy of Magdalena Budziak.
This has got me brainstorming ways that Toons On Tap can experiment with experiential marketing.  We need an equivalent to a front counter that doubles as a bar.

Craig Ferguson Is Brilliant

Every name that Jeremy and I brainstormed for the gallery was horrible.

Confession: I was pushing for "Well Hung".

The evening after our beach vacation themed session, JeffreyDave, Jeremy, Craig, and I headed over to The Cadillac Lounge for drinks.  Stuck on a decent name, we asked our pals for advice.  Almost instantly, Craig came up with "Toons On Walls".

It was perfect.  The name elegantly summed up the theme of the gallery, and it felt like a natural extension of our brand.  (Can I call Toons a brand?)  Promotion and copywriting was easy.  Don't hide it in your sketchbooks - put it on the wall!

Thank you, Craig.  Your suggestion puts our to shame.

Bring White Paper

In preparation for setting up the gallery, I had piles of checklists, envelopes, Evernote files, sticky notes, and receipts.  With an estimated 5-6 hours to hang the show, 90% of the preparation had to be done in advance.  Had we left even just the trimming of the art to the day of, forget it, we'd be toasting to blank walls.

Setting up
I was sure to bring scissors and a ruler, just in case.  (We needed it.)  I stocked up on Sticky-Tac.  (We used it everywhere.)  I even brought my Smart Serve ID in the event I had to jump behind the bar.  (I did.)  However, the one item I did not anticipate to bring was plain white paper.   Never having hung a gallery, I did not think to closely examine the frames while talking with the venue.  Had I done that, I would have discovered that the frames contained white styrofoam sandwiched between the art and the backing.  Although completely functional, it was painfully ugly.  One parking ticket later, we had plain, white cartridge paper - the one item we did not expect we'd desperately need.

Right before tear down
There's always that one item.  Every.  Single.  Time.

Be Human

My minimum goal for submissions in the gallery was 20 pieces, created in a variety of mediums, done by artists who are not Jeremy, Jeffrey or I.  In the event we couldn't reach the goal, we'd have Jeffrey include more pieces and have the gallery be half audience drawings, half Jeffrey's photos.  Before reaching 20 submissions, we were personally hounding people to submit their art.  I hated it.

Looking back, we should have used a proper submission form.  We should have been stricter on deadlines.  Hell, we should have pushed the deadline up by a week.  In an attempt to be forgiving and encourage more submissions, our whole submission process ended up sloppy.  Whenever I wanted to be ruthlessly efficient, Jeremy insisted otherwise.  Follow up.  Send a reminder.  Make an extra trip.  Extend the deadline.  All of it time-sucking customer service stuff that I don't enjoy.

Yet, the one-on-one attention that Jeremy excels at is so important to what we do.  He really believes in humanizing his work, even at the expense of his spare time.  And I admit, he's right.  As much as I proofread his emails for grammatical errors, he proofreads mine for lack of human politeness.  Jeremy is the heart of Toons On Tap, and I'm proud we're partners in this.

We'll Never Do This Again.  Let's Make it an Annual Event!

A rare moment of Jeffrey being helpful.  Photo courtesy of Magdalena Budziak.
Event planning is not natural for me.  In high school, I let everyone else decide what to do.  I'd get analysis paralysis choosing an ice cream flavour.  Once, I didn't show up to my own birthday party.

Nowadays, not only am I enjoying organizing, I find I enjoy it even in the moments I actively loathe it.  I am never doing a gallery again, I think to myself.  Next year's gallery will be even better!


  1. I'm far from brilliant, but every now and then I have some good ideas. I think the show was fantastic, you guys should be proud.

    BTW all those flyers you gave me to distribute at comic con last weekend. Yeah I don't have any left. Hopefully that means we'll have some new blood tomorrow.

  2. Thank you for handing out all the flyers at Comic Con, Craig! When I see you next, I'd love to chat to see how the convention went. I'm glad you enjoyed the show!

  3. Con went well, didn't make money but had fun. One young fellow who was asking about artsy stuff as a career even made it out to last night's ToT, which made me happy; I hope that he had as much fun as I did last night.