It is always a thrill to be invited to show your art. Even more of a thrill: being invited to show your art in a faraway country. For years now, I’ve watched the Big Dogs of the mosaic community put their work on display in countries all over the world (but predominantly Italy and France), thinking “It would be so very cool to be able to do that one day.” So when an invitation arrived from Martine Blanchard to exhibit my work in the quaint little town of Auray, France, I jumped at the chance.
Having shipped to the US and Australia before, I knew it would be expensive. And I knew there would be a degree of stress involved, both in hoping it arrived unscathed and hoping it would not get held up by customs. It turns out I underestimated the expense and the stress by several orders of magnitude.
I offer the following colour commentary about my experience in case it is helpful to anyone considering participating in a show where shipping and customs are involved. As I quickly learned, it is not for the faint of heart.
Early on, I think I’m off to a good start. I get tips from someone who has done this multiple times, I take my piece to a guy who makes me a box that’s small but strong (which will cut down on shipping costs), and I make inquiries trying to figure out what paperwork I need. I even make arrangements to be able to send my work via Canada Post, which is so much cheaper than a courier like FedEx or UPS.
After dropping my box off at the post office just before Easter, I begin the process of obsessively checking the tracking number to see where it is on its journey. The following Friday evening, more than a week after it has been sent, I check in, only to find that my mosaic has been blocked in the customs process since Wednesday. There’s some sort of document missing. Shit. This being after business hours and at the start of the weekend, there is nothing I can do but google and google some more, trying to figure out what document is missing and how I can fix it. I am very bad at just sitting and waiting.
Thanks to some very obscure message boards buried in the depths of the interwebs, I figure out what I need and the email address to send the documents to, because Chronopost, the French equivalent of Canada Post, helpfully doesn’t post this information on its website. Also, their only contact options for customer service are phone or Twitter / Facebook. Desperate, I tweet them.
Monday morning I actually get a reply to my weekend email saying that my document has been received and my shipment should be on its way soon. Tuesday they tweet back, confirming this. By Thursday it still hasn’t moved. I tweet them again. No reply. Friday morning—two plus weeks after sending my package—I wake up early, unable to sleep because of the worry, and decide I will need to bite the bullet and call them.
Calling Chronopost is no easy feat. First, there’s the language barrier. Thankfully, speaking French (however much I may butcher the language) is a requirement of my day job, so I can at least hold my own in a conversation. Then you have to be lucky enough that the call doesn’t drop. That happens about every second time I call them. And then you have to (patiently?) explain and re-explain your situation to every single person you talk to. By the third call I’ve got my spiel down pat.
By the time I start work at 8am, I know what is wrong. I have committed the cardinal sin of shipping artwork: I said it was art. It was a completely innocent mistake. I didn’t know that honesty was not the best policy. And because I said it was art, Chronopost tells me they are not authorized to move it through customs, nor are they authorized to deliver it. The only option, it seems, is to hire a customs broker to get it through customs and then complete the delivery. Through all of this, Martine is also valiantly trying to liaise with Chronopost on her end, but eventually she—quite understandably—has to give up and turn her attention to the million other things that need to be done for the show.
The first quote from a broker is ridiculously high (300+€, and that doesn’t even include delivery!). But I am so tempted to just accept it because I’m due to fly out in four days to attend the opening, and what’s the point of going if my piece isn’t even going to be there? Also, the alternative is to just let my mosaic languish there until the clock runs out and Chronopost ships it back to Canada, though this option feels somewhat risky, as if there would be a very good chance that it would get lost in the system, never to be seen again. Because of the time difference and the resulting lags in communication, this quote never gets acted on.
Then, on Sunday, two days before I’m supposed to fly out, I have to unexpectedly reschedule my flight to proactively avoid the Air France strike. Monday finds me scrambling to get ready to fly out a day early and freaking out that there is still no progress on liberating my mosaic.
Tuesday morning, 8am. I land in France and hit the ground running. I randomly go up to the first customs officer I see after collecting my luggage and explain my situation. He kindly escorts me to a customs office, where two lovely women proceed to phone different brokers they know in an attempt to find one who can move this quickly and at perhaps a cheaper price than that first exorbitantly high quote. They connect me with a broker who tells them she can help me, and I call her. (Keep in mind that this is all happening in French, on zero sleep, after an international flight…on top of weeks of stress-induced insomnia) In just two hours, she has what she needs from me, we connect with Chronopost, they acknowledge our email, and things seemed to be moving. Oh, and she quotes it at half the price of the first quote.
(Side note: If you ever need a customs broker in France, I highly recommend Amana Cargo and Sonia Difallah. She was efficient and effective, responsive in her communications, and patient in answering all my anxiety-ridden questions.)
Exhausted, I take a nap, with visions of success awaiting me upon my awakening. Alas. The afternoon rolls around and the broker is still waiting for two documents from Chronopost. More calls and emails to Chronopost follow (no tweets though—by that time I have given up on that method of contact).
The next day I am scheduled to pick up my rental car (oh yah, did I mention that I needed to rent a car because of the rail strike?) and drive to Chartres, then on to Auray the next day. Sensing that I will need more time at the airport to sort all of this out, I rejig all my hotels. More panicked calls and emails to Chronopost (from me and from my broker, who is also having phone trouble with them, which gives me some degree of comfort knowing it isn’t just me being inept / unlucky), but by the end of this second day in Paris, I am no further ahead.
Day three dawns and I am pretty much resolved that I will not be getting my piece in time for the show. I send one more email to Chronopost, pleading with them to fast-track my documents. Just before lunch…an email from the broker! She has the last document she needs from Chronopost and she starts the customs process. She says it usually takes one or two hours to clear customs if all is in order, but “they’re on their lunch break now, so it’s not going anywhere for a while. ” More waiting, trying not to get my hopes up. Finally, at 4:30pm, I am resigned that it won’t happen. I email the broker, asking how late customs usually works (basically, asking for confirmation that, yes, now it is time to officially give up). And at that exact moment she emails me and our emails cross in cyberspace. My mosaic has cleared customs!!! She sends one of her guys to grab it from Chronopost and deliver it to my hotel. At 5:30pm, I hand over a giant wad of euros and take possession of my mosaic. I have never been so happy to see a cardboard box in my life.
Day four is the day of the show opening. Up at the crack of dawn, my mosaic and I set out for Auray, a six-hour drive away. The Périphérique fries my nerves, but I do enjoy the 130km/h speed limit once I reach the highway. I arrive in Auray and hang my mosaic on the wall just four hours before the show opens.
For four days, I have taken no pleasure in anything. It hasn’t even felt like I’m in France, as I’ve been entirely suspended in that limbo that is an airport hotel. The moment I walk into the exhibition space, though… I get chills. The venue is amazing. Breathtaking, really. The show is beautifully curated and thoughtfully hung. More than half the artists are there in person and I get to meet some of those big names I’ve admired for so long.
I feel proud, overwhelmed, frustrated, and exhausted all at the same time.
Now that I’ve been home for a bit, and have some distance between myself and that shipping shitshow, I can consider the fundamental question of: Was it worth it? The answer is not a simple yes or no. I am immensely honoured that my art has been chosen to hang in a space like that, alongside artists whose work I greatly admire. In terms of boosting my confidence and my ego? Yep, mission accomplished. In terms of making connections? Again, yes. In terms of being able to put that I’m an internationally exhibited artist on my CV? Check.
But in terms of expense and stress? I’m not so sure. I don’t love that these shows seem to be firmly a pay-to-play situation. The cost is not insignificant. I would estimate that participating in this show will have cost me nearly $1,000 by the time it’s all over, and that doesn’t include the trip I took to attend the opening (a trip without which I am certain that my mosaic would never have made it out of the airport). I can afford to pay thanks to my day job, but that’s beside the point. I know this is just “the way things are done” but that doesn’t mean I have to like or accept it.
As I shared frustrated updates about my misadventure on social media, I was shocked by the number of similar horror stories I heard. Art being held in customs for months, artists paying vast sums of money just to get their art out of customs, art being damaged or lost entirely. If this is such a common thing, why do we even do it at all? My own experience was enough to give me pause, but add to that all the similar (and worse!) stories I’ve heard, and it just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Surely there must be a better alternative.
So, will I participate in an international (not counting the US) show again? I won’t say never, but I will be very very selective and it won’t happen often. I’d say I can probably count on one hand (with plenty of room to spare) how many times I will do this in my entire career. I think I am better served trying to build my profile and my audience here at home (or at least closer to home), as these are the people who are probably more likely to buy my work. These are the people I can build relationships with, relationships that are so very important in selling people on the idea of investing in me, my art, and my vision.
But—and that’s a very big but!—if/when opportunity comes knocking and I actually work up the nerve to try this again, I will at least know the following and will roll the dice accordingly:
- It will cost a LOT of money. Probably more than I think it will. These shows do not make financial sense, and my participation will be purely self-indulgent.
- There will be stress. Probably more than I think there will be. (Not that knowing this will prevent me from having real honest-to-god heart palpitations again next time…)
- I will be at the mercy of customs agents. I might get lucky, or I might not.
- The worst-case scenario of never seeing my mosaic again is always a very real possibility.
- Having someone on the ground who can troubleshoot and advocate on my behalf (especially if it’s a country where I don’t speak the language) will be essential.
- Hand delivering work will always be the best option, if possible.
- Never ever tell them it’s art.